Using Retrieval Practice to Enhance Achievement in STEM Courses

Project No.
PI Name
Shana Carpenter
Iowa State University

Abstract 1

Using Retrieval Practice to Enhance Achievement in STEM Courses

Presentation Type
Shana K. Carpenter (Iowa State University) Clark R. Coffman (Iowa State University) Shuhebur Rahman (Iowa State University) Terry J. S. Lund (Iowa State University) Monica H. Lamm (Iowa State University) Patrick I. Armstrong (Iowa State University) Robert D. Reason (Iowa State University) Szumei Leow (Iowa State University)


Studentsメ early academic performance can be a powerful predictor of their success and persistence in STEM fields. Educational techniques that enhance learning of course concepts are therefore of particular importance in increasing the number of qualified individuals who pursue STEM careers. A powerful technique for enhancing student learning is retrieval practiceラthe act of recalling information as it is being learned. This technique has been shown to produce substantial learning gains in hundreds of laboratory studies, but has not yet been adapted for widespread use in classrooms. Data from our research team demonstrates that retrieval practice does not always enhance learning in the complex and diverse classroom environment, and in some cases it can actually impair the learning of lower-performing students who lack the background knowledge to successfully engage in retrieval (Carpenter et al., in press).


The goals of this project are to identify the individual student characteristics that moderate the benefits of retrieval, and to design retrieval-based activities that contain the key ingredients that are necessary for individual students of all achievement levels to utilize retrieval successfully in a way that is maximally effective for their long-term learning.


Students in a large undergraduate biology course completed a number of class activities that required them to retrieve information they were currently learning, or to simply read the information without attempting to retrieve it. Long-term retention of the information was assessed later as a function of whether students learned the information via retrieval vs. reading, how many times they engaged in these activities, and as a function of studentsメ achievement levels in the course at the time the information was learned.


Outcomes generally confirmed the principle of the expertise reversal effect�students who were already performing well in the course benefited more from retrieval than from reading, whereas students who were not performing as well showed the opposite pattern. Confirming our hypothesis that this pattern may be due to differences in prior knowledge of the material that underlie one�s ability to recall information successfully, we found that when students engaged in repeated retrieval of course information (recalling facts and concepts three times as opposed to once), students of all achievement levels benefited from retrieval. Furthermore, students who used retrieval to prepare for exams (as observed through the tracking of students� use of optional online quizzes) scored higher than the class average on those exams, and retained the information better after a three-month delay compared to students who did not utilize retrieval.

Broader Impacts

Findings from this project can provide students and educators with the tools they need to thrive in STEM fields. Students benefit by learning effective study practices that directly impact their academic success, while educators and researchers who learn of these findings (through webinars, workshops, conferences, and participation in faculty learning communities) can reach a broad range of students at both the high school and university levels. Students who are involved in this project (both undergraduate and graduate) have also gained valuable experience in discipline-specific research that can enhance STEM education.

Unexpected Challenges

Utilizing retrieval practice on a regular basis requires the creation of a large number of practice questions that are tailored to the material that students are learning--a specialized 'test bank' that is unavailable by other means. To help create this large test bank, we recruited undergraduate students (with backgrounds in both biology and psychology) who earned research practicum credit by attending classes taught by the course instructors, and working closely with the PI and course instructors to help develop a large number of unique and diverse questions over the course content.


Carpenter, S. K., Lund, T. J. S., Coffman, C. R., Armstrong, P. I., Lamm, M. H., & Reason, R. D. (in press). A classroom study on the relationship between student achievement and retrieval-enhanced learning. Educational Psychology Review.