Retrieval Attempts Enhance Learning, but Retrieval Success (Versus Failure) Does Not Matter

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Retrieving information from memory enhances learning. We propose a 2-stage framework to explain the benefits of retrieval. Stage 1 takes place as one attempts to retrieve an answer, which activates knowledge related to the retrieval cue. Stage 2 begins when the answer becomes available, at which point appropriate connections are strengthened and inappropriate connections may be weakened. This framework raises a basic question: Does it matter whether Stage 2 is initiated via successful retrieval or via an external presentation of the answer? To test this question, we asked participants to attempt retrieval and then randomly assigned items (which were equivalent otherwise) to be retrieved successfully or to be copied (i.e., not retrieved). Experiments 1, 2, 4, and 5 tested assumptions necessary for interpreting Experiments 3a, 3b, and 6. Experiments 3a, 3b, and 6 did not support the hypothesis that retrieval success produces more learning than does retrieval failure followed by feedback. It appears that retrieval attempts promote learning but retrieval success per se does not.

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