Making learning stick with retrieval practice

HomeSchool resourcesScience of learningMaking learning stick with retrieval practice

Making learning stick with retrieval practice

HomeSchool resourcesScience of learningMaking learning stick with retrieval practice

In a webinar on using retrieval practice in the classroom, Kate Jones discussed what the science of learning research tells us about how to make learning stick, exploring the benefits of retrieval practice and different ways that teachers can incorporate retrieval practice in their teaching.

What is retrieval practice and why is it important?

Retrieval practice is the act of retrieving information from long-term memory, with the act of retrieval itself making it easier to retrieve information in the future. Retrieval strength refers to the ability to retrieve specific information from long-term memory. It can fluctuate and weaken over time, but retrieval practice will strengthen it. It is beneficial to space retrieval practice over time to improve retrieval strength. The research on retrieval practice is extensive and consistent, and it derives from both lab and classroom-based settings. Retrieval practice is valuable for all ages and across all subjects, although designing retrieval strategies and activities for different subjects and students of different ages requires a thoughtful and nuanced approach.

Other benefits of retrieval practice for students

Research has shown that regular retrieval practice leads to increased student confidence and decreased student anxiety, particularly in relation to tests and exams. It has also been shown that the use of retrieval practice in class leads to better student study habits outside the classroom. An important part of incorporating retrieval practice into classroom routines is teaching students why and how to use it, so that they can use it independently, not just when they are studying and sitting exams, but later, in the workplace and in life more generally.

Important factors when using retrieval practice for teaching and learning

Checking for understanding: The ’encoding’ stage is when information is transferred from working to long-term memory. It is important to check for understanding at this stage, to ensure that what is being encoded is accurate.

Providing individual feedback: Individual feedback on retrieval exercises is crucial. What is important is not how many responses the students get right but what they get wrong, as this identifies the gaps in their knowledge. For this reason, students should not work in pairs to complete retrieval practice activities.

Designing appropriate retrieval exercises for different subjects: Teachers should consider what retrieval practice looks like in their subject, and with their students. For example, sometimes it might be appropriate to use a multiple-choice quiz to support basic factual recall whereas at other times it might be more appropriate for students to provide a written response, which asks them to make connections between different ideas or content.

Adapting retrieval strategies to suit the age of the student: For example, younger children can do verbal rather than written recall before their writing skills are sufficiently automatised, while older students can seek the necessary information to fill the specific gaps in their knowledge, rather than the teacher re-teaching the material.

Designing retrieval tasks that go beyond simple factual recall: While factual recall is important and well-supported by retrieval practice, teachers should also design retrieval tasks that promote higher order thinking, application, and transfer. For example, teachers can have students write a paragraph that explores the implications for a particular idea or piece of content, rather than simply listing factual items.

Some examples of retrieval exercises

‘Cops and robbers’: Students divide a page into two columns. They work independently for five minutes to write everything they can remember on the topic in one column. Then they compare notes with their peers, and add points they did not have in the other column.

Retrieval reflection ticket: At the end of a lesson, students make a note of the gaps in their knowledge or things they did not understand. The teacher then re-teaches and re-quizzes the relevant content in a subsequent lesson, or, in the case of older students, has the students do that themselves.

Digital tools: There are many useful online tools for retrieval practice including online quiz tools such as Kahoot and Carousel Learning, digital flashcard generators like Anki, and tools for online polling such as Mentimeter. One of the advantages of digital retrieval tools is that they provide immediate feedback.

Recommended further reading

To read The Education Hub’s resources on retrieval practice, spaced practice, and memory, click here.

For a full list of Kate’s books, click here.

Kate also recommends:

Dunlosky, J. (2013). Strengthening the student toolbox: Study strategies to boost learning. American Educator, 37(3), 12-21.

Rosenshine, B. (2012). Principles of instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know. American Educator, 36(1), 12-19.

Forgetting lab

By Dr Vicki Hargraves


Dr Vicki Hargraves

Vicki runs our early childhood webinar series and also is responsible for the creation of many of our early childhood research reviews. Vicki is a teacher, mother, writer, and researcher living in Marlborough. She recently completed her PhD using philosophy to explore creative approaches to understanding early childhood education. She is inspired by the wealth of educational research that is available and is passionate about making this available and useful for teachers.

Did you find this article useful?

If you enjoyed this content, please consider making a charitable donation.

Become a supporter for as little as $1 a week – it only takes a minute and enables us to continue to provide research-informed content for teachers that is free, high-quality and independent.

Become a supporter

Close popup Close
Register an Account