The Five Things You Need to Know About Retrieval Practice

When it comes to learning, people are often focused on getting facts into their heads. But experts argue that people should be more focused on getting information out of their heads via brain dumps, summaries, and quizzes.

These types of active learning strategies are known as retrieval practice.

The rationale behind retrieval practice is three-fold. First, actively trying to remember something or perform some skill is a more effective way of learning than passively re-reading about it. Second, learning practice provides people with better ways of monitoring what they know. In other words, retrieval practices help engage metacognition.

Finally, retrieval practice keeps people focused. The act of re-reading a textbook, for instance, often encourages mind wandering, but retrieval practice can keep individuals engaged in the task at hand.

Many studies have shown that when people attempt to recall or retrieve information, they are actually improving their memory. In this sense, the brain works like a muscle: recall exercises the brain to strengthen memory. Also, much like exercise, retrieval activities build habits that lead to long term learning.

The more difficult the retrieval practice is, the more effective it becomes for long-term learning. ​

1. Retrieval Practice Works

Retrieval practice is one of the most well-researched learning strategies. The approach works for a wide variety of people across contexts. As Jeff Kapricke (associate professor of psychological sciences at Purdue University) explains in an article for The American Psychological Association: “recent research has established that repeated retrieval enhances learning with a wide range of materials, in a variety of settings and contexts, and with learners ranging from preschool ages into later adulthood.”

One such study explored how well people can remember lists of words. In the study, psychologists had one group read (or “study”) a word list for a period of time, so they could try to remember as much as they could. Another group practiced remembering the words through testing: they would cover the list up, try to remember all they could, see what they missed, and repeat again. Those who practiced retrieval (or self-testing) remembered more words than those who merely re-read or studied. ​

The following chart that Karpicke created displays data proving that those who exercised retrieval practice were able to recall more, but those who spaced out their retrieval practices could recall much more. “Spacing,” or pausing between retrieval exercises, allows for the brain to rest and forget some information. Self-testing after “spacing” increases information recall and promotes long-term learning.

​Informational Recall Through Spacing

2. Retrieval Practice Makes Learning Active

Not long ago, I was rereading my notes in an attempt to get ready for a speech. In a room by myself, I realized that I was using my notes like a warm blanket. They were there just there to keep me feeling confident about the speech. 

This is a weak approach to learning. It’s too passive, and I quickly realized I should be doing retrieval practice instead. Learning scientist Pooja Agarwal describes retrieval practice well. “It is a powerful strategy that boosts learning by pulling information out of students’ heads (e.g., quizzes, clickers, and flashcards), rather than cramming information into students’ heads (e.g., lectures). It’s a no-stakes learning opportunity that is flexible and quick, with a huge impact on long-term student achievement.”

At The Learning Agency, we interviewed Agarwal not long ago, and she described the process of retrieval as something very active. “If you think about your very first childhood friend, you probably weren’t thinking about them until right this moment…Going back and thinking of something and sort of bringing it up – that’s what scientists call retrieval,” she said. 

One of the reasons that retrieval is so effective is that memories are not “fixed” objects. Instead, our brains can mold memories at any point in time. Thus, it is essential that newly learned information is given permanence. When practicing retrieving a memory, the brain can strengthen that memory by filling in the blanks with any missing information while also connecting the memory with new ideas. In this regard, retrieval practice takes the basic skeleton of a certain idea from past learning and allows it to be expanded upon, which helps the information stick into the mind long-term instead of just short-term. 

One of the easiest ways to incorporate retrieval practice into learning and teaching is via low-stakes tests or quizzes. According to learning scientist Yana Weinstein-Jones, “Simply the effect of bringing information to mind from memory…is going to increase learning.” 

But while retrieval practice often can take for the form of a quiz or short essay. It is not the same as an assessment but is simply a learning activity. The activity should have little or no grade impact. Also, retrieval practice is more effective when it occurs in short spurts versus one long study session. This allows learners to have time to forget some of the information and attempt to recall it, which helps the information stick. 

A Conversation With Pooja Agarwal

3. Retrieval Practice Encourages Knowing About Knowing

Generally, people tend to believe that they are more knowledgeable about specific topics than they actually are. Most people believe they are better looking than average. They also tend to think they are smarter and know more information than the average person. 

Participating in retrieval practice combats this sort of overconfidence. It allows learners to see exactly what they can remember and gives educators a chance to provide tips and feedback along the way. 

For example, some learners suffer because they are overconfident in what they believe they have retained, often having notes as a crutch. When convinced that they have all of the required knowledge on a certain subject, learners tend to become, well, lazy. They study less and don’t try to assess or correct themselves while learning. Retrieval practice helps prevent this sense of false security, which in turn allows learners to study efficiently, targeting the information they cannot recall.

Similarly, learners have the tendency to believe that because they are familiar with a topic, they must know everything about the topic. Being repeatedly exposed to a particular subject does not equate to comprehension of that topic. Retrieval practice causes learners to measure what they are familiar with against what they actually have learned. In other words, retrieval practice forces learners to think critically about what they have learned instead of simply repeating the first piece of information that comes to mind.

Want to try your hand at retrieval practice? Low-stakes quizzing is an easy way to get started! Create a short quiz or just engage in some brain dumps!

Anedra Robertson, Rebekah Haynes, and Troy Hobson from Greenlawn Terrace Elementary in Kenner, Louisiana implemented retrieval practice in their classrooms.

4. Retrieval Practice Encourages Higher-Order Learning

In his lab at the University of California, Rich Mayer has shown in multiple studies that we gain expertise by producing what we have learned. He demonstrates that behaviors like retrieval practice create higher-order learning, which leads to long-term retention. As Mayer once said to me: “Learning is a generative activity.”

Mayer gives a great description of how this works. First, people need to pinpoint what exactly they’re going to learn—like psychology for example. Then people need to create some type of mental connection between their current knowledge and the new information they have yet to absorb.

So if someone is learning about “social cognition,” they should link what they know about the topic (that it is a sub-topic of psychology) to what they wish to learn about it (it focuses on the role that cognitive processes play in social interactions). 

The power of “mentally doing” (creating value in an area of expertise) is clear in basic memory tasks. Trying to remember the Spanish word for “door”, or “la puerta?” It’s easier to recall the word if a letter is missing from it. For example, “p_erta” creates an activity to engage in. When someone has to add the “u,” they’re completing the word. It is the act of finishing the thought—and this strengthens learning, in turn, making it more meaningful. 

This idea also branches into more complex cognitive tasks such as problem-solving. Encouraging yourself to overcome difficult obstacles or dissect complex issues helps the brain retain more information in the long run. This is because practicing your ability to solve problems teaches you to apply the knowledge already in your brain that is waiting to be put to use, thus aiding in its permanence. 

The research on learning as a type of “mental doing” has altered the wisdom surrounding how people retain knowledge. After reviewing the research, Kent State’s John Dunlosky and some colleagues discovered that highlighting was an ineffective means of learning new information. This act does not push people enough mentally to influence any meaningful learning. Adding to that, Dunlosky noted that simply re-reading text was not very beneficial either. The activity doesn’t spark enough “mental doing,” which means the brain needs more stimulation. 

When I reached Dunlosky on the phone, he argued that the most effective techniques were the ones that required more effort, self-quizzing, or self-explaining for example. 

“This is a fundamental feature of how our minds work,” he told me. To learn, “we’re not just copying the information. We are making sense out of facts.”

Learning as a type of mental doing works in larger settings as well. I once sat in on biology professor Jennifer Doherty‘s course at the University of Washington in Seattle. The course has long been praised for its high outcomes. Despite the large size of the lecture hall, Doherty continually pushed the students to learn through dedicated cognitive effort.

During the course, for instance, she often asked the entire class to answer quiz questions and would randomly call on students to test their retention. Doherty also had the students pair up and then ask their small group for an answer, asking things like, “How do plants get their food if not from the soil?”  This is the power of retrieval practice. 

5. How to Encourage Retrieval

Retrieval practice makes learning a bit of a struggle, but it also makes learning more effective. Let’s run down some examples. 

“Brain Dumps” are useful for exercising retrieval practice. In this exercise, learners write down everything they can think of on a topic to test their knowledge. 

Concept maps are another useful tool. A learner may fill out a concept map to encourage retrieval. They are beneficial since they allow a person to see the bigger picture instead of just individual pieces of a puzzle. Concept maps also allow learners to group important information together and establish meaningful connections.

Flashcards. One of the most familiar ways of using retrieval practice is through flashcards. These can be very effective if used the right way. Students should keep cards in their deck until they have retrieved the information at least three times. They should also consciously and vocally recall the information before turning the card over to review the answer.

“Repeat backs” are also great, and the next time a person gives you a set of detailed instructions, take time to repeat the instructions back to them. When you repeat back everything in your own words, you’re taking steps to generate knowledge, and you’ll be far more likely to remember the information long-term.

The “Think-Pair-Share” exercise can be powerful. In this approach, learners think about a topic, jot down what they have learned, and share it with a partner. Learners should be allowed to think independently before exchanging information. 

There are a few things one should keep in mind. For one, people should note that retrieval practice requires more than a test at the end of teaching a concept. Retrieval should be used before the test as a way to practice. 

Teachers should also pay attention to providing feedback. Learners can always review the right answer, but they will get better at identifying what they know and don’t know if given constructive feedback. ​

​At The Learning Agency, we recently worked with Greenlawn Terrace Elementary in Kenner, Louisiana. Teachers include Anedra Robertson, Rebekah Haynes, and Troy Hobson.

Anedra and Troy made adjustments to their classroom practices to increase retrieval practice. For example, Troy adapted his “Jeopardy” game to allow all learners to jot down their answers before the problem was solved. Adding to that, Anedra realized that giving learners the opportunity to solve different problems increased their ability to retrieve “old” learning.

Taking that diagnostic test, or doing the problem of the day...that’s not a check. That’s when the learning is actually happening.

“I’ve been cycling more of those skills and then using them more often,” adds Troy. His actions are giving learners more opportunities to practice retrieval. For her part, Anedra states that adding low-stakes tests to her classroom confused some of her learners. 

“I had to let them know, no, it’s not a test… I just want to know what you know.” ​​
Author: Ulrich Boser