Learning on the Web (and Elsewhere as Well)

Most surfing done on the web is superficial. Consequently, little learning takes place.1 Readers of the Healthymemory Blog will already know that effective learning requires the spending of attention. Most of the time people scan text on websites instead of reading it closely. This is the appropriate technique if someone is just trying to find something of interest or relevance. However, if someone just scans the web, little learning will take place. Moreover, bad habits can be developed if someone is constantly enticed by “hot” topics or keeps moving from one url to another without slowing down to think about and process something of interest.

Nielsen (see the first footnote) reports the results of a paper by Karpicke and Blunt that was published in Science. They measured the amount of information people could remember a week after reading a scientific text. So these people were not reading online, rather they were reading a conventional text book. The experiment involved two groups of students. One group simply read the text. The other group completed an elaborate test after reading the text. The students who had completed the elaborate test after reading remembered 145% more content after a week than students who simply read the text and did not do anything else. It is interesting to note that the people who took the test actually thought that they had learned 15% less than people who had read the text but did not take the test. The reason the test-takers thought they had learned less was that the test-taking exposed the gaps in their knowledge, though undermining their confidence, whereas the group that had not taken the test remained ignorant of their ignorance.

The test-taking condition employed here was a retrieval practice test. This involves

  1.  Reading the Text
  2. Recalling as much of the information as they could on a free-recall test.
  3. Reading the text again.
  4. Completing another free-recall test.

There was another group that simply read the text four times. Although these people remembered more than the people who read the text only once, the recall of the group doing the retrieval practice test was 64% better than the group that just read the text four times. So replacing 2 rereads with 2 tests substantially boosted people’s week-later performance. It is reasonable to think that the retrieval practice group in step 3 was aware of any information they had missed during their recall efforts in step 2. The reread only group remained ignorant of these gaps in their knowledge.

Of course, much more effort is involved in the retrieval practice test. One is constantly confronted with the problem of how much attention should be paid to an item of information. Does it need to be stored in memory so that in can be easily recalled, that is, accessible in personal memory. Or does one only need to take note of it and make a note, bookmark, or tag it. This is what the Healthymemory Blog terms accessible transactive memory. This is information that you cannot recall, but can easily find. Oftentimes, we know that the information is someplace, but cannot remember where. In this case, we say it is in available transactive memory, in that we know it is there, but cannot readily access it, In these cases we need to look for it or search for it.

It should be noted that it can be advantageous to take a test on a topic before you read or study the material. Previous Healthymemory Blog Posts on the work by Roediger demonstrate provide evidence for the benefits of this practice (“To Get It Right, Get It Wrong First”, and “The Benefits of Testing”).

1Nielsen, J. (2011). Test-Taking Enhances Learning. Http://www,useit.com/alertbox/learning-recall.html 

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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