How to use retrieval practice in medical education

In this video, we'll explore why traditional teaching methods in medicine don't work very well and what you as a medical mentor or teacher should be doing instead.

Franz Wiesbauer, MD MPH
Franz Wiesbauer, MD MPH
9th Jun 2021 • 4m read
Loading....

Think back to the last time you couldn't remember something that you know you learned in the past. Maybe you had a patient presenting with a set of symptoms, and you're sure you read about a diagnosis that covers them all, you just don't remember what it was. The problem wasn't that you hadn't learned the information, but rather that you couldn't retrieve it from your brain when you needed it. In this video, we'll explore why traditional teaching methods in medicine don't work very well and what you as a medical mentor or teacher should be doing instead.

Join our course Teaching Masterclass: Creating an Online Course now!

Develop and record an online medical course that your students will love.

Want to be an online medical guru? We’ll teach you how to create a unique online course and record it like a rockstar! These chapters walk you through Medmastery’s process for creating award-winning medical courses so that you can transform your tiny idea into an online masterclass that students will rave about!

Start the first chapter of our Teaching Masterclass: Creating an Online Course course for free

Start chapter 1 now

Video transcript

Think back to the last time you couldn't remember something that you know you learned in the past. Maybe it was the name of your new neighbor, or that geometry equation your teenager needs your help solving. Or perhaps you had a patient presenting with a set of symptoms, and you're sure you've read about a diagnosis that covers them all, you just don't remember what it was.

In all of these cases, the problem wasn't that you hadn't learned the information, but rather that you couldn't extract it, or retrieve it from your brain when you needed it. That's because there are actually three stages of learning. The first stage, encoding, occurs when you initially learn the information. It's like uploading the information to your brain.

The second stage, storage, is the process of maintaining the information over time, like saving the file on your computer. The third and final stage, retrieval, is the process of extracting or accessing the information when you need it. Think of this like downloading the information from your brain in order to use it.

Traditional teaching methods focus a lot on encoding, through lectures, readings, watching videos, etc. Then we test the students learning by assessing their ability to retrieve the encoded information. But unless we have them practice retrieving the information first, this is quite unfair. It's similar to teaching a person to play a song on a guitar, and then expecting them to automatically know how to play it on a violin.

Even though these two stringed instruments are similar, there are still many differences, and this would be an unfair expectation. So instead of just focusing on getting the information into the heads of our learners, we need to put equal, or maybe more emphasis on getting the information back out of their heads. Because without retrieval, we can't have true learning.

In this chapter, we'll discuss a technique known as retrieval practice. As its name suggests, it involves practicing retrieving information, both soon after you've learned it, as well as much later. Although it often involves quizzes or assignments, it's important to note that retrieval practice is a learning strategy, and not an assessment strategy.

Practicing retrieval has been shown to increase both short and long term learning according to many studies. It also enhances learning of both informational knowledge or facts, as well as conceptual knowledge and skills. Retrieval practice also increases student's ability to take something that they've learned, and apply it to a different context, a process known as transfer of learning.

This is obviously incredibly relevant to learners in the medical field. In fact, research shows that retrieval practice is actually more potent for learning than other common techniques, like lecturing, rereading, or taking notes. Take this example of a study of medical students taking a neurology course.

The students were split into three groups, all three groups listened to the same lecture. Group one then practiced identifying neurological conditions using a standardized patient. Group two took a written test on key topics, and group three studied a review sheet on those same key topics. Six months later, all of the students took a written test.

The students in groups one and two who had participated in retrieval practice did significantly better on the written test than those who did not participate in retrieval practice. When assessed using a standardized patient, both retrieval practice groups again did better, but group one who had practiced using a standardized patient, did even better than the group who had practiced retrieval using a written test.

This highlights the importance of the concept of practicing how you're going to play, that is, practicing retrieving information in a way that is similar to how you plan to use it. Think about a baseball player practicing hitting a baseball. In a game situation, they could be faced with different types of pitches, thrown at different speeds.

So if they only ever practiced hitting 90 mile an hour fast balls, if they're faced with a 60 mile per hour curveball, they're less likely to be successful. Since clinicians need to retrieve medical knowledge in a variety of contexts, and for a variety of reasons, it's also best to practice retrieving that information in many different ways before you need it. In the next lesson, we'll discuss some practice. To call ways to incorporate retrieval practice into your courses.