Prior knowledge not required for retrieval-based learning
Prior knowledge not required for retrieval-based learning

Prior knowledge not required for retrieval-based learning

After posting a review of Gupta et al. (2021) and their summary conclusion that retrieval was “a potent learning tool across most if not all levels of prior content mastery,” co-author Dr Steven Pan signposted a second paper with a “similar conclusion.” Buchin & Mulligan (2022) “Retrieval-Based Learning and Prior Knowledge.” It is a timely addition, having invested a lot of time thinking and writing about the importance of prior knowledge and currently teaching a Year 8 class with four new pupils – without the prior knowledge acquired by their peers in Year 7.

Buchin & Mulligan (2022) wanted to understand how retrieval practice is affected by prior knowledge. So, why is prior knowledge so important?

Prior knowledge can moderate the effectiveness of certain teaching strategies. Buchin & Mulligan (2022) comment on how low and high prior knowledge learners experience different classroom activities, signposting the limiting effects of working memory and cognitive load (Sweller, 2010, 2016).

Buchin & Mulligan (2022)

The main goal was to experimentally manipulate prior knowl￾edge to assess its potential moderating effect on the benefits of re￾trieval practice. Secondary to compare the testing effect (and its potential interaction with prior knowledge) between retention and transfer questions.

A more complete model is provide in the paper.

A training phase – Participants were randomly assigned to be trained in multiple topics within one of two academic domains (historical geology and sensation and perception) over 3 days.

A training phase – Participants then studied new scientific text passages related to their trained or untrained domain and completed two rounds of focused restudy or retrieval with elaborative feedback. Then, they either restudied these topics or practiced retrieval.

Testing Phase: Two days later, participants took a final test on the previously learned information from both domains (historical geology and sensation and perception). The final test contained three category of question:

  1. Retention questions that were identical to what appeared during the learning phase)
  2. Near Transfer (questions that were similar to what was studied during the learning phase)
  3. Far Transfer (questions over information that was initially studied but never restudied or retrieved)

The Results

Despite being rated as more effortful than restudy, retrieval practice led to greater overall performance than focused restudy (i.e., about +10% or one letter grade higher) and these benefits were similar for learners with low and high prior knowledge. A letter grade is relatively consistent in these types of studies and cohort.

This suggests that prior knowledge is not a critical boundary condition of retrieval-based learning.

Point of note: Retrieval practice was most beneficial for the Retention questions, somewhat beneficial for the ‘Near Transfer’ questions, and less so again for the ‘Far Transfer’ questions.


Teachers can use retrieval based strategies without worrying about disparate benefits between HPK* and LPK* learners.

Buchin & Mulligan (2022: 11)

*High and Low prior knowledge.

Build a quizzing routine as soon as possible, even before you start teaching, use quizzes to encode knowledge, remember of relearn knowledge.

Lastly, it is reassuring to see the sub-heading and phrase “Retrieval-Based Learning.”

Also, two papers to source that have found larger benefits for learners with lower reading comprehension (Pyburn et al., 2014; Stiegler-Balfour & Benassi, 2015).

Buchin, Z. L., & Mulligan, N. W. (2022). Retrieval-based learning and prior knowledge. Journal of Educational Psychology. Advance online publication.

One comment

  1. Pingback: Attention and retrieval (part 1) – Edventures

Leave a Reply