AWS Training and Certification Blog

Cognitive Science Post 1: Using Retrieval Practice techniques to improve learning

Over 175 AWS services, hundreds of features, and a whole new lexicon of cloud computing terms and concepts. These are the bricks that make up the wall you’re climbing as you begin learning how to build on AWS. This can sometimes feel a bit overwhelming. And a reliance on passively taking in information as the primary method for learning does little to help you get over the wall.

The good news is that you can leverage findings from decades of research in the cognitive sciences on how people learn most effectively, as well as a portfolio of hundreds of AWS trainings to help you lower the wall and reach your learning goals as an AWS builder.

To that end, this is the first of a series of blog posts I’ll write. Each post will highlight a principle from the cognitive sciences that you can use to help you more effectively learn AWS services, features, and related concepts, and, as a result, become a better and more effective builder. The principles I’ll outline are:

  1. Retrieval Practice
  2. Spaced Practice
  3. Elaboration

For today’s post, let’s start with Retrieval Practice.

The Retrieval Practice principle states that long-term learning is enhanced when a learner regularly retrieves information that was heard or seen earlier and uses that information to solve a problem or answer a question.

Retrieval Practice is about giving a learner an opportunity to pull information out of their memory. This is in direct contrast to the aforementioned and too-often-relied-upon approach that focuses solely on getting information in. The neural networks that store the information you’ve learned become stronger when you recall (or retrieve) information on your own opposed to repeated passive intake of that information.

Default learning methods tend to focus on getting information in, whereas research on how the brain learns tells us that getting information out (via retrieval) is integral to long-term learning.

Let’s take a simple example. There are two groups of people. Both groups just listened to a presentation on Amazon S3. Over the course of the next two weeks, one group—let’s call them the Retrieval Group, or RG—participates in a series of quizzes that challenge them to recall the key concepts and topics presented in the original presentation.

The second group—the Non-Retrieval Group, or NRG—listens to a series of follow-up presentations that repeat the key concepts and topics presented in the original presentation. Unlike with RG, there are no quizzes or tests of the information.

Several weeks, and even months, after the initial presentation, RG will undoubtedly outperform NRG on measures of retention related to Amazon S3. And the key difference was the use of retrieval practice (in the form of quizzes) opposed to passive information review. Members of RG now have the foundation they need to start building with this keystone storage service.

While repeated passive intake of information can lead to short-term learning benefits, retrieval practice leads to stronger long-term learning gains.

So, how do you leverage Retrieval Practice for your own learning of the AWS Cloud? Here are some ideas:

  1. Summarize what you’ve learned after a presentation or video. After participating in one of hundreds of AWS trainings, don’t just walk out of the room or turn the video off and hope some of the information sticks with you over the next few weeks. Without retrieval practice, most of it won’t! Instead, write down everything you can remember, particularly the topics that you find most relevant to your learning goals. You might even consider keeping a learning journal where you can summarize as you learn more and more of the AWS Cloud. If you’re participating in a multi-day (or even multi-week) course, summarize your learning in small chunks (for instance, after each module or course section).
  2. Talk to people about what you’re learning. Maybe you’re not so keen to summarize your learning in writing. To the same end, seek out people who might be interested in what you’re learning and talk to them about what you find most interesting. You can even take this a step further and organize groups of people to take the same courses and then get together to discuss what you’re all learning.
  3. Test yourself. Go through the course material (whether video, PowerPoint slides, technical documents, etc.) and create quiz questions related to the most important topics and concepts. These could take a number of different forms, including multiple choice questions and even notecards. Quiz yourself with these questions/notecards until you feel you’ve mastered the content. Many AWS trainings include built-in knowledge checks and exercises to help more easily facilitate this type of retrieval practice. Take the Exam Readiness course, specific to each AWS Certification, which reviews sample exam questions in each topic area and teaches you how to interpret the concepts so you can use retrieval exercises for your certification study.
  4. Get hands-on in the AWS Management Console. If you’ve just watched an introductory video on Amazon S3, for instance, there’s no better way to learn how to use the service than….using the service! But the trick is to challenge yourself to do so without too much hand-holding, otherwise it’s no longer retrieval practice. For example, if the video you just watched showed you how to create an Amazon S3 bucket, turn off the video and put away the documentation. Then, hop into the AWS Console and try to recall how to create the bucket on your own. Step-by-step instructions can be great, but can often discourage you from recalling the information on your own and therefore lessen the potential for longer-term learning. AWS self-paced labs and AWS Free Tier are two options for getting hands-on in the AWS Console, cost-effectively.

Whatever method(s) you decide to take, the key is to practice retrieving the information you’re learning. Don’t just take information in, but challenge yourself to pull it out.