Retrieval-Based Learning in Neuroanatomy Classes

ABSTRACT Medical schools are continuously challenged to develop teaching modalities that improve understanding and retention of anatomical knowledge. Traditionally, learning has been regarded as the encoding of new knowledge, whereas retrieval has been considered a means for assessing learning. A solid body of research demonstrates that retrieval practice is a way to promote learning that is robust, durable, and transferable to new contexts. It involves having learners set aside the material they are learning and practice actively reconstructing it on their own. A general challenge is to develop ways to implement retrieval-based learning in educational settings. We developed a pedagogical approach that implements retrieval-based learning in practical neuroanatomy classes, which differs from usual neuroanatomy teaching in that it actively engages students through active learning. It requires students to retrieve anatomical knowledge in oral and written form, as well as to identify structures in cadaveric material. Practical anatomy classes have traditionally relied on students’ passive exposure to cadaveric material, with the lecturer pointing to and naming anatomical structures. Since August 2014, we have been applying retrieval practice in neuroanatomy classes. A total of 720 students were included in the study. Student performance one week after the practical lesson was higher in the traditional method group than in the retrieval-based learning group (p < 0.0001, effect size = 0.60). Four weeks after the intervention, however, the performance of students who learned using a retrieval-based approach was higher than that of students passively exposed to the learning material (p < 0.0001, effect size = 0.75). Taken together, our results suggest that retrieval-based learning has a greater effect on long-term retention. Retrieval-based learning is easy to apply and cost-effective. It can be implemented in nearly any educational setting. We hope that our report may inspire educators to adopt retrieval practice approaches and seek ways to apply methods from learning research in actual classrooms.