Teaching Resources

Using Retrieval Practice to Increase Student Learning

Resource Overview

Retrieval practice is a powerful evidence-based teaching strategy that can easily be incorporated into you existing courses.

What is Retrieval Practice?

Retrieval practice is the strategy of recalling facts, concepts, or events from memory in order to enhance learning. The act of retrieving something from your memory actually strengthens the connections holding it there, making it more likely that you’ll be able to recall it in the future. A classic example of retrieval practice is using flashcards as a study tool. Sometimes called the “testing effect,” retrieval practice in teaching is not limited to quizzes or exams, but can include any exercise where students attempt to retrieve what they have learned from their memory.

Evidence shows that retrieval practice is especially effective at increasing longer-term retention and generally outperforms more common strategies such as repeated studying or even more elaborate ones like concept mapping (McDermott, 2021; Karpicke & Blunt, 2011; Roediger & Karpicke, 2006). Research in classrooms demonstrates that retrieval practice is an extremely robust strategy across age groups and subject domains (McDermott, 2021). Retrieval practice also aids in higher-order thinking; it’s not just for memorization. Students who use retrieval practice perform better on complex tasks and show improved metacognition (Pooja & Bain, 2019).

Incorporating activities using retrieval practice into your teaching can increase your students’ learning.

Three Ways to Use Retrieval Practice in During Class

There are many ways to use retrieval practice in your instruction (Agarwal & Bain, 2019). Here are three easy ways to get started:

1) Low-stakes Quizzes

  • Frequent low-stakes quizzes are an easy way to incorporate retrieval practice. Quizzes can be free response, multiple choice, or another format. In-class polling works well too. Student feedback can be automatic (in the case of online quizzes), from the instructor, or from peers.
  • Questions should be neither too hard nor too easy. The goal is to achieve “desirable difficulty.”

2) Two Things Activity

  • Ask students to recall and write down two things they learned today, last class or within a unit of your course. Feedback can come from peers (in pairs or groups), and/or class discussion.

3) Brain Dumps

  • Ask students to write down everything they know about a certain topic. The exact prompt used can be narrow (e.g., What is the definition of culture from our textbook?) or broad (e.g., Why does social mobility vary across social groups?), depending on your learning goals. Optionally, students can then compare and contrast their answers with peers in small groups or breakout rooms. A full class discussion can be used to provide instructor feedback.

Tips for Teaching with Retrieval Practice

Keeping these general tips in mind can help maximize the benefits of retrieval practice exercises for students.

  • Giving feedback to students is an important part of retrieval practice, especially when multiple-choice questions are used (Agarwal & Bain, 2019; Brown et al., 2014). Feedback lets the learners know about any errors they made and helps prevent accidentally encoding the wrong material into memory. It can also focus and motivate further study (i.e. it provides formative feedback).
  • Retrieval practice activities designed to engage every student are more effective than those that primarily engage only a few students at once. For example, a writing activity where everyone writes works better than asking the class a question and calling on a single student for an answer because the writing activity engages all students in the retrieval activity.
  • Most retrieval practice exercises are designed to be closed book in order to maximize “desirable difficulty.” There is evidence, however, that retrieval practice works in both open- and closed-book settings (Agarwal et al., 2008). One possible disadvantage to open-book settings is that they may have the unintended effect of reducing student time spent studying if the students know that the future activity will be open book. In general, we suggest closed-book conditions for most retrieval practice exercises, unless other considerations make this impractical (e.g. online quizzes in remote or hybrid courses).
  • Explaining to students that the goal of the activity is learning and not assessment can increase student buy-in.
  • Not all activities need to be collected or graded, although sometimes collecting even ungraded tasks increases participation.

Agarwal, P. K., & Bain, P. M. (2019). Powerful teaching: Unleash the science of learning. Jossey-Bass.

Agarwal, P. K., Karpicke, J. D., Kang, S. H. K., Roediger, H. L., & McDermott, K. B. (2008). Examining the testing effect with open- and closed-book tests. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 22(7), 861–876. https://doi.org/10.1002/acp.1391

Brown, P. C., Henry L. Roediger III, & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press.

Karpicke, J. D., & Blunt, J. R. (2011). Retrieval practice produces more learning than elaborative studying with concept mapping. Science, 331(6018), 772–775. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1199327

McDermott, K. B. (2021). Practicing retrieval facilitates learning. Annual Review of Psychology, 72(1), 609–633. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-psych-010419-051019

Roediger, H. L., & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). Test-enhanced learning: Taking memory tests improves long-term retention. Psychological Science, 17(3), 249–255. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2006.01693.x

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