Choose Radford: Katie Arnold, Ph.D.


Katie Arnold’s cognitive retrieval research leads to great study tips

Katie Arnold, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist you need to know.

Says who?, that’s who. is a hub of research, resources and teaching strategies based on the science of learning. The organization recently published a list of 35 cognitive scientists “you should know” who are publishing the “newest research on retrieval practice.” Arnold, an assistant professor of psychology at Radford University, was among those scientists spotlighted by the organization.

“It is a list of people who are up and coming in the retrieval practice research field and study strategies, in general,” explained Arnold, who just finished her fifth year of teaching in Radford’s undergraduate and graduate psychology programs. “So, it’s always nice to be recognized for the work I’m doing.”

Much of Arnold’s research focuses on learning and memory, and it “specifically focuses on study strategies, such as how students learn and what they can do to learn better,” she explained.

That makes her someone that any student definitely should get to know.

In this Q&A, Arnold described her research and how it can help students learn and perform better in the classroom and on tests. She also explains why she chose to join the Radford University Department of Psychology faculty.

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What can you tell us about your research?

“I do research on retrieval practice effects, which is practicing to remember something. It actually prevents forgetting, and it encourages you to remember information for longer. You actually remember things better if you practice retrieving it just once versus studying it twice. You have to do some initial studying; you have to know the information first.

So, if I asked students in my class, ‘What was it we just went over?’ and they pull it out from their memory and then repeat it back, they will remember it better than if I go over it again or if they read the information a second time. The longer that retention interval goes, the bigger the effect.

I've done research on what happens when you try retrieval practice, but you can't remember something. It turns out that just doing the practice is helpful. So, trying to retrieve something and failing, but then getting the answer, actually helps you learn it better.”

Why is that?

“That’s a great question. We don’t know for sure, but there are some hypotheses. One is that by trying to retrieve something, what you are doing is bringing to mind everything you do know about a topic. Even if it isn’t the answers, you’re bringing your knowledge to bear, and when you get the answer, you have this knowledge structure prepared to incorporate that new information.”

Describe the importance and purpose of this research.

“In high school or in college, students are given assignments to do. And then they're told to study and come back and take the test. But often, they are not taught how to study, and many times, even educators themselves aren't even taught what actually helps students learn and what things should be done for effective study. So, this research is trying to find what's actually an effective study strategy and what's a waste of students’ time.

Frequently, students will come into my class and say, ‘I don't understand. I thought I knew everything, and then I got to the test and I didn't; it's like everything left.’  Or, ‘I'm just a bad test-taker’ is often how students describe it. They just couldn't remember anything.

I have answers for them as to why they probably feel that way, and I can tell them that it's not because they are a bad test-taker. It's because they didn't prepare properly, and there's a reason why they thought they were prepared but were not. And I can describe that to them.

So, I think this research is really important, and I think the spreading of it, like publishing this list of 35 cognitive scientists you should know, is really important because K-12 educators should know about this research so that they can help students actually know and understand how best to study. So, by the time they get to college, they already know effective study strategies that are a good use of their time.”


What is effective, and what is a waste of time?

“Retrieval practice is effective, practicing remembering things without looking at your notes. That can be done with flashcards, but it can also just be done by closing the book and looking up and trying to remember what was said in the lecture.

And spaced studying is the other big one, so no cramming for tests. Spaced studying means spreading out your studying; it helps you remember the information for longer. There's a term called desirable difficulties, which is essentially saying that what helps students learn the best are things that slow their learning down. These strategies should be difficult, but not so difficult the students can’t do them; they have to be desirably difficult to be effective.

Being too difficult is not helpful because students don't like things that are too difficult, and they won’t do them. Sometimes students will say, ‘Oh, that doesn't help me learn because it doesn't feel good.’ Yeah, it feels hard. But, as it turns out, things like retrieval practice and spaced study are harder than cramming and just reading a book, but they also help you learn. Another example is trying to explain a concept to somebody else. It's hard, but it helps you learn better than doing things that are easy.”

What effects does curiosity have on learning?

“It’s actually quite related to retrieval practice. The way my students and I have been inducing curiosity, getting people interested to know the answer, is by asking them if they know the answer and trying to get them to retrieve the answer. The prevailing theory for where curiosity comes from is from being aware of the gap in your knowledge and wanting to fill that gap. By asking questions, we are making students aware of that gap.

We often use trivia questions. For example, one of my [recently graduated] graduate students did his thesis on curiosity and learning, and he used football and cooking trivia.

So, you could ask someone, ‘Who has the record for the longest field goal in NFL history?’ If they don’t know the answer, we ask, ‘How curious are you to know the answer?’ If you are really curious, you’ll be more likely to remember the answer later.

He chose football and cooking because he wanted two domains that are independent. If you know a lot about football, that really doesn’t tell us anything about what you know about cooking, and vice versa.”

What first interested you in this research?

“I’ve been doing research in memory since I was an undergraduate student at Furman University. I started out my research looking at prospective memory, which is remembering to do something in the future, like picking up milk on your way home. That is probably the type of memory that people complain the most about not being good at. 

When I went to graduate school, I continued to do research on memory, and one of the things that my lab was looking at was this idea of retrieval practice. It had reemerged then as a really hot topic. So, I started looking into research about what happens when you don’t answer questions correctly, and that’s what I ended up doing my dissertation on.”

What inspired your interest in studying memory?

“I took intro psychology with a professor named Dr. [Gilles] Einstein, and I chose his class specifically because his name was Dr. Einstein,” she said with a laugh, “but he just really excited me about psychology in general. He did research on prospective memory, and after I took that first class, I got involved doing research in his lab. I was fortunate enough to do some summer research with a program similar to Radford’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (Summer Undergraduate Research Program). The next summer, I was able to do research on retention at the University of Cambridge in England. So, it was really that professor, Dr. Einstein, who inspired me to go into that area of research.”

Now you are inspiring Radford students in the same ways.

“I really hope so! Some of my master’s level students have gone on to Ph.D. programs and are looking at research and memory with an education focus. I’m excited for them, and it definitely makes my work feel worthwhile when I see them succeed.”

Why did you choose to teach at Radford?

“I wanted to teach at a school that focuses on teaching. That's my research area. I care about teaching, and that's what Radford University cares about, too. I also was attracted to the master's program here. I wanted to have students who were really focused and really starting to specialize in the area of experimental psychology and cognitive psychology, in particular. So that combination of having that focus of teaching both the undergrads and the master's program was attractive to me.”

Aug 2, 2022
Chad Osborne