Using Retrieval Practice to Improve Learning

7 Research-Based Strategies to Improve Learning slide showing each of the 7 strategies: 1) Spaced Practice; 2) Retrieval Practice; 3) Interleaving; 4) Elaboration; 5) Concrete Examples; 6) Dual Coding; 7) Feedback.

Prior to the start of the 2019 fall semester, I led a short workshop on using these 7 strategies you see in the image above in the college classroom. Each of these strategies are relatively easy to use and require very little, sometimes no, preparation to implement in your classroom yet the impact on learning can be tremendous. Although it is listed second in the presentation, I am going to focus this blog post on Retrieval Practice.  In the next post, I will share ways I use retrieval practice in my classroom.

Let’s get started!

What Is Retrieval Practice?
Think flash cards! Remember the days when we created endless numbers of flash cards to help us study for some of our most difficult classes? Turns out it was an excellent study tool even if neither we nor our teachers truly realized it! Why? Because it required the use of retrieval practice.

Retrieval practice is an instructional strategy that boosts learning by requiring students to pull what they know about a topic, concept, or lesson out of their head (e.g., quizzes, flash cards, brain dumps, etc.). In education, faculty usually spend most of their time working to see how much information they can get into students’ heads (e.g., lecturing). Retrieval practice does just the opposite. It requires effort and it is this struggle that improves learning because it strengthens one’s memory. It “is a no-stakes learning opportunity that increases student performance, beyond formative and summative assessments” (Agarwal & Bain, 2019, p. 4). Additionally, there should be a short delay after learning has taken place so that students have had some time to begin to forget what they have learned. This delay increases the effortful struggle which also improves the learning. 

So retrieval practice is not just assessing. As a matter of fact, it shouldn’t be thought of as an assessment at all. Faculty should see the use of retrieval practice as a learning tool – a way to help students learn. Although seldom used in most classrooms across the country at any level (elementary school, middle school, high school, or post-secondary education), retrieval practice is one of the most powerful and effective strategies one can use in the classroom and is backed by over 100 years of empirical research (Abbott, 1909Roediger, Agarwal, McDaniel, McDermott, 2011Adesope, Trevisan, and Sundararajan, 2017). In fact, Agarwal & Bain (2019) cite a 2011 study by Roediger, Agarwal, McDaniel, McDermott that found student performance on quizzed material compared to material that was not quizzed to be was significantly greater (94% vs 81%) on chapter exams; equally strong retention results were witnessed at the end of the semester (79% vs 67%) on content that quizzed.

So, if retrieval practice is so powerful, why isn’t everyone using it?? Great question! 

Why Isn’t Everyone Using Retrieval Practice?
Unfortunately, the problem begins at the teacher preparatory level. Most teacher preparatory programs across the country make encoding, or getting information into student’s heads, the focus of their curriculum training instead of retrieval practice. In fact, a 2016 study showed that every year, roughly 190,000 teacher candidates that graduate from these preparatory programs are not accurately taught what we know about how students learn, how to teach for understanding, or how to improve retention (Pomerance, Greenberg, & Walsh, 2016). Most college and university faculty, particularly those who are not trained educators, tend to rely on the way they were taught when they were in college to inform the instructional strategies and decisions they make in their own college classrooms. 

Unfortunately, the use of such informal training described above is not translating into the kind of student success that is acceptable to the various stakeholders impacted. It is obvious radical changes are needed but what’s not as obvious is what any institution is doing to solve the problem. The use of improved instructional strategies that are backed by empirical research and have been proven to work in real classrooms is a great start! Getting this information into the hands of those faculty responsible for teaching students by developing a system of faculty development and support is another great strategy. My reason for creating this blog and writing posts (and inviting others to write posts) is to help fellow colleagues who may not have support at their institutions have a place to come for reliable ideas, information, and research related to student success, learning, and pedagogy in higher education.

Before we focus in on the benefits of retrieval practice and why you should be using it in your classroom, let’s take a look at the three stages of learning to understand how all of this works. You may be thinking about the ways you use retrieval practice in your classroom already and that’s great! The difference, though, may be that you have not really focused on using it as Agarwal & Bain (2019) suggest – using it “purposely, intentionally, and frequently” (p. 6). I want to encourage you to be thinking about how you might use retrieval practice in these ways as you read the remainder of this post.

Stages of Learning
​As I mentioned already, the focus in education has been on students encoding information, or getting information into student’s heads, which is the first (and critical) stage of learning. In higher education, the primary way encoding has taken place for the last 900 years has been through the use of lecturing (Brockliss, 1996). 

As information comes into the brain, it must be converted into a storable form so it can be recalled at a later time. This stage of learning is storage, or how long something can be kept, or stored, in the mind. To reference Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger, & Mark A McDaniel’s 2014 book , Make It Stick, The Science of Successful Learning, this is the part of learning where the information sticks! But oddly, it’s what we do in Stage 3 that impacts Stage 2 – (a little backwards if you ask me).

Information can be stored in short-term or long-term memory. Short-term memory can store much less information for a shorter amount of time while long-term memory can store what is thought to be an unlimited amount of information for a lifetime. Our goal is to get as much information from our courses into students’ long-term memory as possible, or an approach known as Mastery Learning (Zandvakili et al., 2018).

The third stage of learning is retrieval, which occurs when we recall the information we originally encoded and stored. The more you recall what you know, the greater the chance the information gets stored in your long-term memory, which is why retrieval is the most critical of the three stages of learning (Agarwal & Bain, 2019). Agarwal & Bain (2019) state in their latest book, Powerful Teaching, “In fact, research demonstrates that retrieval practice is more potent than other techniques commonly used by teachers and students, such as lecturing, re-reading, or taking notes” (p. 27).

Setting the Stage
When we think about what takes place in most college and university classrooms across the country today, surely this makes us think we have really been doing things wrong for a long time. It is my sincere hope that by the time you are done reading this blog (and hopefully some of the research linked up in this post and on this site), you will earnestly begin to understand how important and urgent it is that faculty begin making changes in their classrooms. The good news is that none of these strategies require more work by you. Actually, the work needs to shift more to the student. As education specialist, Harry K. Wong, is noted saying, “Whoever is doing the work, is doing the learning.” 

What Are The Benefits of Using Retrieval Practice?
Contrary to the opinion of many, the use of retrieval practice is more than memorization. There are many benefits to the use of this powerful instructional strategy. In fact, Agarwal & Bain (2019) research in Bain’s classroom show that retrieval practice improves learning for (p. 32):

  1. “Diverse student populations (e.g., K-12 students to medical school students)” – Students come into our classrooms with varying levels of incoming knowledge. Incoming knowledge has the greatest impact on future knowledge (Shute) and adequately meeting the needs of those with less incoming knowledge is critical to their success. Implementing retrieval practice strategies in class and as part of out-of-class activities can help to close the knowledge gap for those students with less incoming knowledge at any level.
  2. “Subject areas (e.g., introductory history to CPR skills)”– Retrieval practice can be used in every subject area; it is subject-agnostic. Any content or information that students need to remember is perfect for retrieval practice. 
  3. ​​“Time delays (e.g., ranging from weeks to months)” – In study after study, student performance was significantly better when using retrieval practice weeks and even months later (Agarwal & Bain, 2019).
  4. “Developmental stages (e.g., preschool, young adults, and older adults)” – Retrieval practice is effective for every age group. Developmentally, the use of retrieval practice can not only help identify the learning gaps in students sooner but also allow faculty more information to better assist those students who demonstrate a need for support.​

Why Retrieval Practice?
In addition to the benefits addressed above, Roediger, Putnam, & Smith (2011, p. 38) gives us 10 reasons why faculty should be using retrieval practice.

  1. Improves students’ learning and retention of information over the long term ​​​  ​
  2. Increases students’ higher-order thinking and transfer of knowledge 
  3. Identifies students’ gaps in knowledge, which provides formative assessment for teachers and students 
  4. Increases students’ metacognition and awareness of their own learning 
  5. Increases students’ engagement and attention in class 
  6. Increases students’ use of effective study strategies outside of class 
  7. Increases students’ advance preparation for class 
  8. Improves students’ mental organization of knowledge 
  9. Increases students’ learning of related information that isn’t initially retrieved 
  10. Increases students’ learning in the future by blocking interfering information​

To learn more about each of the 10 reasons why faculty should be using retrieval practice, read the full chapter here. You will be able to see that these benefits make sense and are actually very practical. With that, it is my hope that higher education faculty and leaders will begin to see that small changes in classroom practice can make a huge impact in learning and retention.

The goal of this blog, Transforming Paradigms, is to radically transform the way we think about the impact and power of learning and teaching in higher education. Please stay tuned for the next post where I share detailed examples of what retrieval practice looks like in a real classroom. Thank you for sharing this post with your learning community!

Happy Learning!

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Published by Dr. Niki Bray

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

One thought on “Using Retrieval Practice to Improve Learning

  1. Great overview! I look forward to reading more. The tools you describe are very easy to understand. Good teaching doesn’t have to be hard when you use these strategies!


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