3 Ways I Use Retrieval Practice In My Classroom

Historically, content-heavy courses in higher education tend to use traditional, lecture-based strategies to deliver content. I would like to illustrate how I implement three student-centered strategies, gamified learning, unlimited quiz attempts, and concept mapping, in my Intro to Kinesiology and Intro to Exercise Physiology courses and how these strategies actively involve students in the learning process in my classroom.

Gamified Learning

I use active learning strategies, in this case, gamified learning, in lieu of lecturing. I do not lecture. At all. Ever. I never stand in front of the classroom with PowerPoint slides on the overhead projector and read from them. Now, I am not saying that this practice is bad or wrong in and of itself. All I am saying is that I do not do it. While I a tech fan, I also love active learning strategies that are low-tech and no-tech and have spent most of my teaching career using no-tech strategies. However, once I made the move to higher ed and my class sizes ballooned well over 100 students, I found that using simple-to-use free tech tools allowed me to be just as effective in large classes as I was in smaller classes and students enjoyed learning how to use their devices to learn and not just socialize.

How I Use Gamified Learning In My Classes

When I present new content to my didactic-based (content-heavy) classes, both in my face-to-face (f2f) and online courses, regardless of the size of the class, I use gamified learning. My students have access to and are allowed to play the games prior to class. Once students arrive in class, content is delivered, or discussed, using the gaming system (I have used Kahoot! since the fall of 2017 although I am shifting to the gaming feature in Nearpod beginning spring of 2020). If more than a set number of students (say 3, for example) miss any given question, we stop and discuss the question. In the beginning of the semester, I lead the short discussion. As the semester goes on, I begin to require that students provide the explanations as to why an answer is correct or incorrect. By the midterm, the students in the class are running the games.

Immediate Feedback

This is an image of the feedback provided by Kahoot! immediately after a question is answered by the class.

During the game, my students and I are given feedback on the performance of the class as a whole on each individual question (as you can see in the picture above). What’s great about this is the performance data drives the class not a PowerPoint slide deck! Additionally, we do not spend time discussing the content and concepts students already know and have mastered, rather, we spend more of our class time focusing on what students do not know and the concepts they are still struggling to comprehend. Like I explained above, at first, I do most of the explaining but as the semester moves on, I put the onus on students to explain why answer choices are or are not correct which helps to strengthen students’ knowledge and understanding. This in-class activity is an example of elaboration, one of the 7 research-based strategies that improve learning, as students are working to explain and describe ideas to their classmates.

Not only are my students and I given immediate feedback about what the class as a whole knows about a particular topic or concept, but students are also given individual feedback about their individual performance on their personal devices – laptop, tablet, mobile device (as you can see in the pictures below). They are told if they got the answer correct or incorrect, how many points they have accrued, what their answer streak is (how many correct answers they have gotten in a row), how many questions remaining on this game, and a few other pieces of information not related to their performance. In addition to all of this data, they are also given information about how their performance rates in comparison to other in the class that day. I will have to admit I was concerned if this would be a good thing or not, but so far students have seemed to enjoy the competitive nature of this feedback and have left positive comments in the course surveys. Maybe they are fine with it because no one else can see this information except them, but I will admit I am still not sure how I feel about it and how it impacts my most vulnerable learners.

Face-to-Face Vs Online

The difference in my online courses from that of my f2f courses is that students play the games on their own, asynchronously. The effect is different, although I cannot yet speak on the impact. I am currently conducting research on using gamified learning in my class and will have more to share in the coming months. Students are able to compete, though, against their classmates or against anyone they want by sending a link to the game. In this way, students have a little more autonomy than the f2f class, although they do not get the opportunity to have the discussions related to each question like the f2f version of the class. They are able to see how they compare to their classmates (Image 4) and once the game closes, they can see who was at the top of the leaderboard with a Podium view of the top three scores (Image 5).

Student Feedback

Image 6: Survey Feedback ESMS 3700 Intro to Exercise Physiology Spring 2019

Overwhelmingly, student feedback with regards to using gamified learning has been positive (See Image 6 above). There has been a very small percentage of students who have stated in their feedback that they would prefer more lecture. Sure they would. Being fully engaged in class each day requires hard work on the part of the student whereas sitting back and allowing the faculty member to do all the work lecturing means the student doesn’t have to do much work if they do not want. Not happening in my class! Harry K. Wong, educational specialist, is famous for saying, “Whoever is doing the work is doing the learning.” I agree with this statement. Faculty should do their work prior to class; once class begins, students should be the ones doing the hard work and faculty should be facilitating their learning. I have shared a couple of comments from students in my Intro to Exercise Physiology course from my Spring 2018 class. Comments like these are extremely representative of the feedback from students as a whole from one class to the next and from one semester to another.


One of the most important ways I use retrieval practice in my classes, f2f and online alike, is through the use of weekly quizzes. As suggested in this article by Megan Smith and Yana Weinstein-Jones, quizzing provides a number of benefits beyond those that come from retrieval practice:

  1. Quizzing improves learning
  2. Quizzing provides feedback to me about student learning needs
  3. Quizzing improves attendance
  4. Quizzing promotes the expectation of upcoming quizzes
  5. Quizzing improves studying

The questions I created for the Kahoot! games discussed above were used as the questions for the test bank for the quizzes. Since I created my own questions, I only allowed students three attempts on each quiz when I first began allowing more than one attempt because it took me some time to build out enough questions. As the test bank grew (over 1,200 questions in Intro to Exercise Physiology), I allowed students an unlimited number of attempts on each quiz to encourage students to spend more time studying using retrieval practice, one of the 7 research-based strategies that improve learning. While most students attempted 3 or less quizzes most of the time, there were a number of students who needed more attempts on some quizzes. I loved being able to provide additional access to students who needed the extra time. I must add one key piece of information – each quiz in my class is cumulative and the questions are randomly drawn from the growing test bank. Obviously, this design option increases the rigor as it becomes less and less likely that students will draw the same question with each additional attempt each week.

From a motivational standpoint, students see an assignment labeled a quiz and their approach to it is completely different than that of one labeled class participation, for example. Wouldn’t you agree? And, since I have so many quizzes (sometimes 2-3 each week these days), quizzes in my classes are often worth 30-60% of the grade depending upon the course. For example, in my summer Maymester course, which lasts 14 days, quizzes account for 60% of their grades but they are only worth 35% of their grade this fall.

The use of unlimited quiz attempts allow me to see how much time students are spending with my content whereas before I never knew if they were even reading the textbook. For me, time is not my greatest concern, rather, I am more concerned if my students are mastering the content. What I mean is, I am less concerned if students know something in week 3 of the course; rather, I am more concerned that they have mastered the content by the end of the course. For some students, mastery on a piece of content may not occur until week 10. Check! For others, mastery of the same content may happen much earlier. Fine. I do not penalize my students because they need more time to learn. I reward them for not giving up and for continuing to put forth the effort they needed to master the content.

In the graph above, you see data from the first quiz students take in my Intro to Exercise Physiology course. At the end of the semester, one student did not attempt the quiz. Forty-seven students attempted the quiz only once (not too surprising as this is the first quiz of the semester and the easiest quiz). Notice the other end of the graph. One student needed 10 attempts on this quiz. Let’s take a deeper look into the quiz attempts of this student (see below).

There are a number of thoughts one could have about this student’s performance on this first quiz. Here are some of mine: What if this student is entering this class with little to no incoming knowledge around this topic? What if this student does not yet have the textbook? Does this student have a learning disability? I wonder if this student is working while going to school full time. 

What if I told you this student had had open heart surgery a few months prior to the start of the semester and was still recovering from a congenital heart condition? Would you see this data set differently now? 

The point is, because of this data, because I allow students an unlimited number of attempts, I was able to have this possible red flag about this student who needed so many attempts on arguably the easiest quiz of the semester. Upon reaching out to the student, I learned that the student was recovering from another open heart surgery – one of many over the course of this student’s life. The data helped me make a connection with this student I might not otherwise have made.

Had I given students only one quiz attempt, this student would have earned a 53% on the first quiz of the semester. Ultimately, this student went on to earn a 95% A in the course but would likely have scored lower had my course been designed with only one attempt per quiz. Luckily I have been able to build out a pretty robust test bank in my courses (over 1200 questions in the course for the student above) and am able to allow my students the opportunity to take quizzes an unlimited number of attempts.

Concept Mapping

I absolutely love using concept mapping for helping students see the connections between concepts within a lesson, across lessons, chapters, units, and even across the course as a whole. Concept mapping forces students to retrieve what they know about a topic and make note of what they do not know (identifying gaps in knowledge). It also helps students build the mental schema needed to help move information into long-term memory (something we will discuss more in an upcoming post) and be able to attach new information to. 

Concept mapping was invented by Dr. Joseph Novak and is a visual representation of a student’s knowledge. I like to introduce concept mapping to my students by discussing the Anatomy of a Concept Map. I use concept mapping in my class for retrieval practice. Sometimes I provide students with a list of key terms and have them create a map showing the relationship between the terms. Other times I ask students to work in pairs or small groups to create a larger concept map. One of my favorite concept mapping activities is what I like to call Concept Map Gallery Walk. In this activity, students work in groups (video) before moving to another group to provide feedback (video) on their concept map. Student feedback from the Concept Map Gallery Walk is pretty good. Take a look: video. (For more videos from my class, visit my ePortfolio.) 

In my Intro to Kinesiology course this semester, we took concept mapping to another level. We used them to help students take notes prior to and during class and to use for differentiated self-assessments (see the message posted in the course to students below). If you click on the Motor Behavior example below, you will see that Self-Assessment A is easier than Self-Assessment B. This allows students to test their knowledge at varying levels of complexity based upon what they think they are ready to demonstrate, which gets students thinking about their learning. Examples of a few concept maps are provided below.

Instructions posted in the learning management system for Intro to Kinesiology Fall 2019 course.

Sample concept maps that my graduate assistant and I created for our Intro to Kinesiology students this fall:
1. Lesson on Joints: https://bit.ly/34s4IwJ
2. Structure of Muscles: https://bit.ly/33e8jgo
3. Synovial Joint of the Knee: https://bit.ly/2DeHNc0
4. Anatomical References & Terminology: https://bit.ly/2pMqjAG
5. Motor Behavior: https://bit.ly/2sgIZtr

Whole Class Concept Mapping Midterm Review Activity

To build off of the ideas from the Gallery Walk concept mapping activity students did in previous lessons and classes, I wanted to see what would happen if we engaged in a whole class concept mapping activity where we mapped the content for the entire midterm exam on one large piece of butcher paper.

After organizing my students into groups, each group chose a section of the content we have learned this semester and were given about 10 minutes to jot down key terms on sticky notes related to the content. Next, each group moved to the large piece of butcher paper on the wall at the back of the classroom and began to map out the content using the sticky notes before using pencils, pens, and markers to add any additional information they could remember about the content.

After students worked in small groups to retrieve everything they could remember about the content for their chosen section, students were given a chance to move across the map and add content to other sections if possible. Then, students were asked to sit back and review the larger map as a whole and to look for connections with the content across the map (see the video below).

Connecting to the Research

What is important to note about using gamified learning, increased quizzing, and concept mapping is that the success of my students is supported by the following research-based learning sciences: retrieval practice, spaced practice, and feedback, discussed in my workshop 7 research-based strategies that improve learning conducted prior to the start of the Fall 2019 semester. Gamified learning, specifically the use of Kahoot!, incorporated the use of retrieval practice, spaced practice, and immediate feedback. Students had to recall the information in order to answer the questions and earn points in the game. Additionally, they could play the games prior to and after class as often as they wanted, incorporating the use of spaced practice. Immediate feedback was provided after each question and at the end of each game on individual and class performance.

Allowing multiple or unlimited quiz attempts increases the retrieval practice opportunities students are exposed to and since I use the learning management system to deliver these quizzes, I am able to capture the data for further evidence and analysis. Additionally, the design incorporates the use of spaced practice because the quizzes are cumulative and the questions are drawn randomly from the growing test bank. Immediately after each quiz, I allow students to see their responses and the answers to each quiz. Having immediate feedback allows my students to know exactly what they know and what they still need to spend time studying. With quizzes being cumulative, students’ knowledge of content will be tested multiple times with increased attempts, increasing the likelihood of greater mastery.

Concept mapping also allowed students to retrieve information from memory but it also allowed students the opportunity to elaborate on their understanding and the development of their own mental schema. While concept mapping can also be used for quizzing (formative assessments, low-stakes and no-stakes assessments), it is really good for see the big picture, something we as faculty do not always help students understand – how what they are learning from one week to the next connect and relate to one another.

So How Do You Get Started?

My biggest advice to faculty and institutions who visit my classes, attend my workshops, or hire me for consulting is to focus in on one thing at a time and implement one activity at a time. Additionally, I tell them to talk to your students. Let them know you want to try some new strategies because you want them to be more prepared for the work once they graduate from their chosen program of studies. Let them know that the activity might not go as planned and if it falls apart, no one is going to panic. Explain that you will adjust similarly in the real world – you will analyze the break down, determine a solution, implement it, and see what happens – together. Keep it low-stakes, no-stakes when implementing new strategies for the first time and make sure students know their grades will not be negatively affected should it all fall apart. Model that your classroom is a safe place to fail – to innovate – and that the greatest learning comes from some of the most epic failures. When students know you care about them and are only trying to help them learn and be successful, they will be grateful for your efforts. 

Final Thoughts

While attending The EDUCAUSE 2020 Top 10 IT Issues session at the EDUCAUSE Conference in Chicago this fall, one of the presenters on the panel said the following to those of use in attendance:

    “Raise your hand if you would buy a car that worked 40-60% of the time. Raise your hand if you would buy a house that leaked 40-60 % of the time. Raise your hand if you would use a mail service that delivered your mail on time 40-60% of the time. I wonder why we continue to accept graduation rates of 40-60% in this country.”

Opinder Bawa (@obawa), VP & CIO, University of San Francisco EDUCAUSE Conference, 2019
Slide from Opinder Bawa’s Presentation on the 2020 Top 10 IT Issues

It is difficult to accept that the student success rate is this low in our colleges and universities. We have more knowledge than ever about how the brain works, how people learn, what works, what doesn’t work and the empirical data to prove it. If we keep doing what we have been doing and expect different results – well, you know the rest. What do we have to lose by trying a new way – an empirically conclusive way?? It’s time to break the 900-year tradition of passive learning in higher education and engage students in ways that are meaningful to them and will help prepare them for the demands of the workforce. Won’t you join me?

Happy Learning!

Follow My Blog

Get new content delivered directly to your inbox.


Published by Dr. Niki Bray

Director of Academic Innovation & Student Success in the School of Health Studies at the University of Memphis. ePortfolio: nikibray.com Email: n.bray@memphis.edu Twitter: @adaptivechat Instagram: nikibray1 Facebook: Niki Bray LinkedIn: niki-bray

3 thoughts on “3 Ways I Use Retrieval Practice In My Classroom

  1. I have used Kahoot for years and it is a tried and true practice. Based on your blog, I tried mind mapping. I was nervous and my students were even more nervous, but they actually enjoyed it towards the end. In fact, I noticed several weeks later that many of them remembered and discussed some of the prevailing concepts that people chose for their mind maps!
    Retrieval practices are critical to learning. What’s the point if they won’t retain it?
    Thanks for this!


    1. Thank you for the feedback, Ayanna. My now provide students will a variety of concept maps I create for them to take notes on during class and to use for assessing their own learning, which helps them identify precisely what they have yet to master. Now, my students spend more of their time studying what they do not know versus reviewing content they have already mastered.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: