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Effective questioning for Retrieval Practice- What does the latest research say

Effective questioning for Retrieval Practice: What does the latest research say?

5 min read
  • Questioning, Cold-Calling & Wait Times
  • Retrieval Practice

Retrieval Practice strengthens memory. However, the effectiveness of Retrieval Practice largely depends on the quality of the questions we pose to students. Fortunately a wealth of research exists about this. This includes different types of questions, the timing of those questions, as well as what should happen after they get asked.

So, read on if you would like to learn more about:  

  • The significance of effective questioning during Retrieval Practice
  • Outline strategies for using these techniques in the classroom with examples
  • The latest research on effective questioning
  • Tips for using effective questioning for Retrieval Practice
4 tips for Retrieval Practice

4 tips for Retrieval Practice

What does the latest retrieval research say?

Recent Retrieval Practice research highlights how small adjustments to the questions can significantly enhance the effectiveness of them…

Can Retrieval Practice help with Seductive Details?

In a study, researchers wanted to see whether specific questions during Retrieval Practice could help students focus their recall on the main ideas rather than seductive details. Seductive details are interesting but irrelevant information that can distract from the main ideas. The study involved 103 participants who either did or didn’t have any seductive details within the text. The key findings were:

  1. If the text contained seductive details, students who were asked specific Retrieval Practice questions remembered 39% more of the important information.
  2. If the text contained seductive details, students who were asked generalised Retrieval Practice questions remembered less of the important information. They were the only ones to remember the irrelevant information.

Learning is messy. And classrooms are complex environments. Therefore there is likely to always be an element of seductive details when it comes to teaching. This study suggests that using specific questions, that focuses on granular detail, can be a way of combating the negative impact of seductive details.

Giving hints during Retrieval Practice

Does giving hints help or hinder learning? This study aimed to find out whether more or less informative hints would change how effective Retrieval Practice is at improving memory retention and recall. In it, students studied different bones in the skeleton, then completed one practice test, based on three different conditions: no hint given, easy hint given and a hard hint given.

Researchers found that:  

  • Weaker hints were found to be more beneficial for long-term retention compared to stronger hints.
  • Participants who received weaker hints showed better performance on delayed post-tests. This suggests that weaker hints encourage more effortful retrieval processes, which are known to enhance memory consolidation.
  • While stronger hints led to better immediate recall due to the ease of retrieval, they did not support long-term retention as effectively as weaker hints did.

This suggests that a degree of difficulty is a key part of retrieval. This is sometimes referred to as the “retrieval effort hypothesis”. Finding that balance of making it hard enough that students have to think, but not too hard that they are demotivated seems to be key here.

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The type of Retrieval Practice questions

Does the type of retrieval question students receive have an impact on how much they remember, how confident they feel and their interest in the topic? In this study, students were instructed to read a text before being asked. All students then performed two different types of Retrieval Practice, either short-answer questions or free-recall questions.

The main findings were:

  • Short-answer questions retrieval led to more targeted specific information being remembered.
  • Free-recall questions retrieval led to a wider range of information being remembered.
  • Doing free-recall questions led to higher self-efficacy (+13%) and an increase in interest in the topic (+14%).

Delayed vs immediate Retrieval Practice

This study aimed to see whether making a small change to traditional multiple-choice questions by only showing the potential answers 4 seconds after posing the question (instead of displaying all at once) would boost learning. The research calls this delayed format “Stepwise multiple-choice questions”, while the usual format is termed “standard multiple-choice questions.

Findings were as follows:

  • Students who had been asked Stepwise multiple-choice questions remembered significantly more and performed better than those who did not.
  • Students who did the Stepwise multiple-choice questionnaire had a higher degree of accuracy in predicting how well they did compared to those who did standard multiple-choice.
Maximising questions for learning

Maximising questions for learning

6 ways to improve your Retrieval Practice with Effective questioning

1. Open-ended questions

Open-ended questions require students to generate answers that go beyond simple yes/no responses or factual recall. These questions encourage deeper thinking and elaboration, which are critical for robust Retrieval Practice.  Use these questions to prompt students to explain concepts in their own words.

2. Probing questions

Probing questions delve deeper into students’ initial responses, encouraging them to expand on their thoughts and clarify their understanding. When a student provides an answer, follow up with probing questions, such as “Can you explain why you think that?”, to explore their reasoning and encourage a thorough examination of the topic.

3. Wait Times

Allowing sufficient Wait Times after posing a question gives students the opportunity to think critically and formulate more thoughtful responses. Research suggests that extending Wait Time to at least 3 seconds can significantly improve the quality of student answers and engage more learners. So, after asking a question, count to three (or longer) in your head before calling on a student to answer.

4. Scaffolding questions

Scaffolding involves breaking down complex questions into smaller, more manageable steps increasing in difficulty. Start with easier answers, progress to more difficult ones, and provide hints or prompts as needed to support students in recalling and connecting information.

5. Provide timely feedback

Offer timely feedback about your students’ responses to reinforce correct answers and address misconceptions. Immediate feedback helps solidify learning and correct errors before they become ingrained in your students’ memory.

6. Encourage peer discussion

Time allowing, facilitate peer interactions where students can discuss and answer questions collaboratively, for example by making use of Cold-Calling or Think, Pair, Share.

Final thoughts

The secret to successful Retrieval Practice isn’t just about asking questions, but in asking the right ones for the specific learning outcome. Effective questioning for Retrieval Practice ignites thought, reflection, and meaningful learning. When you craft questions that truly challenge and engage students, it can significantly boost learning outcomes and deepen their understanding of the material.


About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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