Retrieval Practice and Processing Load

We all know by now (I hope) that for real learning, retrieval practice trumps just about all other learning and study strategies. But how does this affect processing load? The Learning Scientists recently published a blog about a piece of research on this topic.

Megan Sumeracki writes:

If you read our blog even occasionally, you know retrieval practice has many benefits. Retrieval improves learning and memory, reduces test anxiety, and can protect against learning losses associated with stress. Today’s blog post is about another benefit of retrieval practice, reducing processing load.
Péter Pajkossy and colleagues published a paper with two experiments examining retrieval and processing load. They asked whether retrieval practice improves efficiency by allowing the individual to reduce the attentional resources needed. High demand on our limited processing resources can lead to reduced performance, and so it would be good news if retrieval practice reduces the demand on the limited processing resources that we have. To measure processing load during the experiments, the researchers used pupillometry. In general, when the pupils are constricted, it is a sign of a lower processing load compared to when pupils are more dilated.

Abstract of the article

Retrieval practice is an effective long-term learning strategy. Items practiced through repeated retrieval are resistant to interference, stress, and secondary load, which attributes also characterize automatization in skill learning. In two experiments, we investigated whether retrieval practice is associated with decrease in processing load, which is a further attribute of automatization. Participants first learned paired associates, and then they practiced the items either by repeatedly studying or engaging in retrieval practice. Then their memory was assessed after either five minutes (Experiment 1) or one week (Experiment 2). Processing load was measured by assessing task-evoked pupil dilation during both retrieval practice and later recall. The pattern of results was similar in both experiments. During retrieval practice, processing load decreased during consecutive practice cycles. Moreover, during the final recall test, the retrieval of previously retrieval practiced items required less processing resources, as compared to the retrieval of previously restudied items. Our results suggest that repeated retrieval reduces processing load as well as attentional control involvement during practice and later recall.

Unfortunately, the article is behind the paywall, but you can get a preprint here.

Source: The Learning Scientists