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Examining the Effects of Retrieval Practice and Spacing on Engineering Students’ Retention of Precalculus Knowledge: 1609290

Principal Investigator: Patricia Ralston
CoPrincipal Investigator(s): Jeffrey Hieb, Keith Lyle
Organization: University of Louisville Research Foundation Inc

The need and benefits of increasing and diversifying the number of undergraduates obtaining STEM degrees is well-known. Unfortunately, inadequate retention of mathematics knowledge prevents many students from obtaining engineering degrees. Research in cognitive psychology suggests poor retention results from educational practices that minimize: 1) the number of times students retrieve information they have acquired (i.e., retrieval practice), and 2) the amount of elapsed time between retrievals (i.e., spacing). Increases in the frequency and spacing of retrieval practice, as individual factors, are known to be effective interventions for increasing retention. This project will investigate the independent and additive effects of the two interventions to reveal whether one is more efficacious than the other, and whether the combination of interventions is better than either one alone. The research will be conducted in an actual college classroom, extending the previous research conducted in a laboratory setting, and will directly inform educational approaches that aim at helping students retain requisite mathematics knowledge and succeed in engineering.

More specifically, this project aims to assess the impact of increasing the amount and spacing of retrieval practice, as separate factors and in combination, on short- and long-term retention of precalculus knowledge. The number and temporal spacing of quiz questions will be varied in order to track and target specific learning objectives in a precalculus course for engineers. Measures of short-term retention will be collected to gain insight into students’ performance on objective-specific questions on the final exam in the precalculus course, and measures of long-term retention will be collected from an exam administered to the subset of subjects who advance into a subsequent calculus course. Results will inform how engineering and other STEM educators should implement techniques from cognitive psychology to increase retention of core knowledge. More effective educational practices could reduce the number of students transferring out of STEM fields.