Retrieval Practice: Scientifically Proven Study Hack for Mandarin Chinese 

Do you spend a lot of time studying Chinese but can’t seem to make much progress? It might be a sign that your current study technique is not right for you. Finding the best strategy and most effective learning method can really boost your progress.  

This article will give you an overview of a famous study technique – retrieval practice. This method has been proven to benefit your long-term memory, and we’ll tell you how it can help you conquer Chinese.

Related article: Learn Chinese Characters Effectively With The Spaced Repetition Learning System  

What is retrieval practice? 

Retrieval practice is a study method where you try to recall knowledge without having it in front of you.

For example, you want to learn the Mandarin words for body parts – arms, legs, eyes, neck, etc. You read through the list and try to remember all this new Mandarin vocabulary. 

Then, you apply retrieval practice. Don’t look at the vocabulary list and try to say or write as many of the body parts you can remember.

Once you’ve listed as many as you can, you’d open up your book or notes and check to see if you got them right and how many you got correct.

This very act of forcing yourself to generate answers has been consistently proven to strengthen your long-term memory.

Lastly, you compare what you could recall with the correct answers and determine which words or areas you need to review or study more. 

So basically, retrieval practice is like a self-exam where you learn and test yourself on those materials. That’s why retrieval practice is also known as ‘testing effect’ or ‘active recall.’ You learn by assessing yourself on the knowledge; instead of the traditional way: reread information until you memorize it. You focus on getting the information out rather than merely putting it in. 

How does retrieval practice work?

There are numerous reasons to explain why this method works and why it is truly effective. 

One is that retrieval practice requires active learning. 

Human beings tend to believe in ourselves as information sponges, soaking up information we come across. But true learning occurs when we actively engage with the content, like when we link new knowledge with things we’ve learned before.

In fact, the more you can actively engage with the information, the better. When you use the retrieval practice technique, you constantly demand your brain to work and build connections with the new knowledge to make it easier to recall next time. 

Another reason is when you try to recall information, your brain works out a pathway to bring it to mind. In other words, you gradually integrate the learned knowledge into your own existing knowledge, encoding it deep in your brain. 

This is the exact opposite of the re-studying method, in which you only focus on the end information and ignore the pathway leading to it. That means you will face more challenges whenever you want to recall the information. 

After all, think of retrieval practice as a brain exercise. It forces your brain to take the hard route, actively engaging with the knowledge. The more you do it, the more recallable the knowledge becomes.

How to use retrieval practice to ace Mandarin Chinese?

Everyone can use the retrieval practice learning technique with any subject or topic. Learning a foreign language is no exception. In fact, many research papers have been done on this matter and have proven it does help improve your linguistic study and results.

Listed below are five easy ways you can use retrieval practice daily to enhance your Chinese: 

1. Flashcards 

Flashcards are the most traditional way to apply retrieval practice to real-life situations. It might not sound like something new to everyone, but flashcards are extremely effective tools to test yourself, especially when it comes to new vocabulary. 

It’s also really simple and cheap to make a flashcard. Take an A5 blank paper, write on one side of the paper the new word you need to learn, and the meaning with extra details like the stroke numbers or related radicals on the other side. After you finish a pile of flashcards, make sure you put all your textbooks away, try your best to guess what’s written on the back of the paper, then check to know which words you got wrong. 

If you have no time for arts and crafts, check out Pandanese. Pandanese is a web-based app that provides unique flashcards to help Chinese-language learners memorize 6000+ Hanzi characters and vocabulary in just one year. Pandanese constantly quizzes yourself about newly learned items with flashcards, ensuring your brain gets used to and memorizes them. Plus, their retrieval reviews are built with another proven memory-aid technique – Spaced Repetition System (SRS) to help you remember Chinese vocabulary as productively as possible. Especially, whenever you get an item wrong, Pandanese’s algorithm will guarantee you will be tested on that item frequently until it’s stuck in your brain!

This method means you choose a topic and write down on a blank paper everything you can think of on that topic. For example, you’ve just learned 10 new words made from the radical 水 (Shuǐ), meaning water. Try to remember and jot down those 10 words plus any characters you know related to the radical water. This method assesses your study and makes you actively connect new information with learned information. And that’s how your brain stays active and strong! 

3. Past exams 

Past exams or general practice tests are also a form of retrieval practice. These tests are most beneficial when you want to go over a large amount of knowledge or when you’re preparing for an HSK test and/or any other Chinese-language exam. Mock exams can also psych you up for the real test, allowing you to build test strategies like time allocation for each part or section. You can find many Chinese-language practice tests online for free or get a book of exams from your nearest bookstore!

4. Quizzes 

If you like taking quizzes, this way of study will be so much fun and very effective, too! You can choose any kind of quiz that works best for you: multiple choice, yes or no quizzes, true or false quizzes, etc., you name it! These can be done on paper or in an online app like Google Form, Plickers, Poll Everywhere, Kahoot or Quizizz. 

5. Mind maps 

A mind map usually begins in the middle of a page with the main concept and expands in all directions. The enlarged branches should include similar thoughts and ideas, making the information easier to organize. Mind maps are an excellent way to learn Chinese vocabulary. Individual but related words are visually linked together, allowing the brain to see the connection and thus remember better and faster. 

To create a vocabulary mind map, you need to find a theme. Next, you can group vocabulary by theme. Assume you have to remember the names of 12 months in Chinese. A “Month” mind map can help you with that! Start by asking some questions like: 

  • What are the Chinese names for 12 months? 
  • What are the seasons in a year?
  • Which months belong to each season?

And here is what your mind map would look like:

Source: Chinese4kids

There are no standard rules that you need to follow with mind maps. You can group words with the same theme, phrasal verbs, or synonyms/antonyms. You decide what’s best for you!

6. Paired interrogation

Get a friend or study partner to ask you questions and have them note down your performance and/or how many correct answers you gave. During this kind of retrieval practice, your partner should use a lot of open questions like ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions as these push you to dig deep down into the matter, which helps you express more and develop a fuller understanding. For example, they shouldn’t just simply ask closed questions such as yes/no questions like “Are the tones here marked correctly?”. Instead, they should ask “Why are they correct/incorrect? If it is incorrect, how can you fix it?”

It’s best to try this method with a native speaker or your linguistic mentor, as they can give you immediate feedback. However, trying this with another Chinese-language student can still help you get awesome results.

Don’t worry if you study Chinese 100% on your own and don’t know anyone who shares your passion for Chinese.  You can join the Pandanese community. It’s a place where people worldwide ask, answer, and help each other learn Chinese. You can find a study partner there to progress and master Chinese together! 

Study smarter, not harder! 

Retrieval practice is a simple approach for long-lasting results. It’s been proven in countless research studies to be one of the most effective methods to learn and develop your language skills. 

Flashcards, related words, past exams, quizzes, mind maps, and paired interrogation are all great ways to implement retrieval practice into your daily Chinese study. They force you to actively engage with the information, help you identify which parts you need to work on harder, and retain knowledge in your brain. 

Try Pandanese for free to experience retrieval practice for your Chinese right now! 

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