Failure of further learning: the limits of repeated study and retrieval practice

When students encounter new information, either in a textbook or on Powerpoint slides, how much of it do they learn? How much are they able to recall over time? Do repeated study help students retain more, or learn more?

Thanks to research from cognitive psychologists such as Bjork and McDaniels, we know that studying in shorter blocks of time distributed over days and weeks works better than cramming in one long study session, that alternating or interleaving study topics is better than focusing on just one subject at a time, and above all, testing (retrieval practice) dramatically improves long-term recall. These techniques are effective at countering forgetting.

What about further learning? Students rarely, if ever, absorb 100% of new content or concepts. Depending on how well the material is presented, students will recall only a fraction of the new concepts or facts presented to them, when tested immediately after. We teachers expect that student knowledge will deepen with repeated study of the same material. Now a new study by Fritz et al. describes an effect that the authors call “failure of further learning” (FOFL). FOFL refers to the observation that little further learning occurs beyond the first recall attempt, even after repeated study of a text. Students tested after repeated restudy of the same material continue to give the same correct answers, and the same wrong answers and omissions. One explanation for FOFL is that once students form a mental model of their understanding of the new material, that becomes stubbornly fixed and difficult to alter or expand.

Can elaborative (active) study techniques overcome FOFL?

In their first experiment, Fritz et al. explored whether elaborative study techniques may help students improve upon their first recall attempt. The control group of students read two texts of approximately 1000 words each (one from Dewdney’s (1993) 200% of Nothing and another from Asimov’s (1975) Eyes on the Universe), then recalled (wrote what they could remember) and reread during the same session (week 1). In weeks 2, 3 and 4, the control group recalled and then reread the same text after recall. The elaborative study group substituted re-reading with various elaborative study methods. In week 1, they underlined and annotated the text after recall. In week 2, they diagrammed or outlined after recall. In week 3, they wrote short essay questions. After both the diagramming/outlining and the question writing, they were given the text to correct or supplement their activities.

  • Week1 – read text, recall and reread (c) vs underline/annotate (x)
  • Week3 – recall and reread (c) vs diagram/outline from memory + correct from text (x)
  • Week3 – recall and reread (c) vs write Qs from memory + correct from text (x)
  • Week4 – final recall test

Annotation, diagramming or outlining, and writing test questions are study techniques that many of us recommend to our students. Did such techniques make a difference? In a word, no.

Both groups showed significant improvement in recall of both main ideas and details from week 1 to week 4; however, the magnitude of the improvement was discouragingly small. For main ideas, the scores improved from 39% to 52% in the control group, and from 47% to 53% in the experimental group. Moreover, the elaborative study techniques made no significant difference in recall of either main ideas or details.

In other experiments, Fritz et al. show that FOFL occurs even when ideas are presented as itemized lists on Powerpoint slides (why am I not surprised). They then test the hypothesis that FOFL results from students acquiring a mental “situation model” that represents their understanding of the text. They show that FOFL does not occur when the material is presented in a way that is initially confusing or difficult to understand. The initial recall results are much lower than controls where the material is more clearly presented, and restudy sessions improve the recall results to where they become comparable to the controls. The controls do exhibit FOFL. Their last experiment shows that FOFL does not apply to short-term verbatim memorization of words and phrases, where students are tested for recall immediately after restudy. In that case, each restudy session yields significant gains.

“It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows” – Epictetus

The authors propose that FOFL occurs because once students have constructed a “situation model,” they approach restudy sessions with the attitude that they already know what this is about, and do not actively process the information. They quote Epictetus (50–138 AD): “it is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows”. What disturbs me as a teacher is that FOFL is so stubbornly resistant to the types of active study that we think are most effective.

The big question then, is how can we overcome FOFL? Students do progress from novices to experts – over time (years), with many repetitions, practice, good coaching and learning from mistakes. Finding a way to overcome or mitigate FOFL would appear essential to make learning speedier and more efficient.

An idea for future research – can group study overcome FOFL?

I do have an idea based on an observation in the Fritz et al. paper. They stated that the lack of learning gains was unlikely to be due to any inherent difficulty in some of the concepts. Just about all the main points in that first experiment were correctly recalled by some of the students. Different students recalled different points. Can students overcome FOFL by working in groups? I would like to see a study where students first practice recall individually, then get together in groups of 3-5 students to compare notes and discuss. Repeat in subsequent weeks. Will such group work make a significant difference?


Fritz, CO, PE Morris, B Reid, R Aghdassi, CE Naven 2013. Failure of further learning: activities, structure, and meaning. Br. J. Psychol. DOI: 10.1111/bjop.12060


About jchoigt

I'm an Associate Professor in the School of Biology at Georgia Tech, and Faculty Coordinator of the Professional MS Bioinformatics degree program.
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2 Responses to Failure of further learning: the limits of repeated study and retrieval practice

  1. Jim Colbert says:

    Sorry not to have gotten a chance to chat with you at the BLC… perhaps another time. I wanted to comment on the Epictetus quote in the context of the “less is more” mantra we often hear about at biology education meetings. Like any educational setting, the proper approach depends on goals and context, but I would argue that in some circumstances “more is more” – especially if we’re trying to help students come to realize that what they think they already know is, in fact, incorrect. In the context of biodiversity education my estimation is that most intro bio students fall into the category of “thinking they know” far more than they do. So – our first task is to help them understand they have (and biologists have…) much left to learn. In my opinion exploring biodiversity in some depth is required to bring them to this understanding. In other words, less exploration of biodiversity is not sufficient for them to question situation models such as “most animals are vertebrates”…

    • jchoigt says:

      Hi Jim, thanks for your comment. I agree that biodiversity, by its very nature, is a topic where more is indeed more. Likewise, I advocate, and do, include more material about Archaea, to get students to abandon their situation model of “microbes” or “prokaryotes” are the same as bacteria. I’d definitely like to catch up with you another time.

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