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When to use Free Recall Retrieval Practice

When to use free recall Retrieval Practice: More nuanced than you think

3 min read
  • Retrieval Practice

Retrieval Practice is widely used in classrooms. With good reason. The evidence that retrieving information can ingrain information and cement it into long-term memory is firmly established.

Now, we can move on to the nuance. The detail. The application. Let’s start off with a specific type of Retrieval Practice known as “Free Recall”.

What is free recall Retrieval Practice?

Free Recall, sometimes referred to as “holistic retrieval”, is a form of Retrieval Practice that requires learners to recall and process a large range of information. They are akin to more open-ended questions.

A typical example in research would be to ask students who have been studying the specifics of how coffee is produced “What can you tell me about coffee?”.

Another example, sometimes referred to as a “brain dump”, is to ask students to write down everything that they remember from the lesson so far. This could be done either at the end of a section or halfway through.

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When to use free recall Retrieval Practice (it depends)

What sounds like a fairly simple and easy to implement strategy is actually more nuanced than it appears, specifically when it comes to when to use it.

To get a better understanding of this nuance, let’s look at the two different options, and what they’re good for. Some suggest it may be better to do it at the start of the learning journey, whereas others suggest it may be better for those at the expert stage of learning. Here are their arguments…

1. Using free recall Retrieval early in the learning process

One interesting study found that having students use Free Recall Retrieval Practice can be beneficial when it comes to developing a broad range of knowledge, as well as increasing student confidence and interest in the topic.

As part of our Teacher CPD Academy, we recently interviewed the lead researcher on this study about this. Here is how he describes the findings in his own words.

So, why might Free Recall lead to this sort of benefit? Well, if you ask a broad question, it is likely that students will get something right. For example, if I ask you “What did you do last week?”, you can probably come up with something. However, if I ask you “What did you do at 4pm last Wednesday?”, which is a very specific Retrieval Practice question, you’re much more likely to get the answer wrong. It becomes more binary. And as we know, experiencing success early on is an essential motivational tool at the start of the learning process.

This opens up a really interesting avenue of research. We don’t often see Retrieval Practice research link to the motivational aspect of learning. Often, it is associated with facts, knowledge and remembering information. This is undoubtedly a very important part of learning – if students don’t remember things, can we really say they have learnt it? But beyond just memory, developing students who are confident, motivated and excited to learn more about the material you teach is fundamental to learning.

2. Using free recall late in the learning process

In a fascinating study that explored how to adapt Retrieval Practice for primary-aged students, when discussing Free Recall Retrieval Practice, the researchers noted that “Free Recall may be problematic if it results in very little retrieval success, which is a risk because the task affords little external support”.

They go on to suggest that guided Retrieval Practice may be better early on. Essentially, we do not want to overwhelm novice learners, as their schema is in its early stages of development, which could happen if the Free Recall task is too open. This appears to be in contrast with the previous suggestion – guided practice or multiple-choice questions may be better for these type of learners.

Final thoughts

It is hard to know which one of these arguments is right. Should Free Recall be done at the start or the end of learning? Perhaps the answer is: both, if used well.

It probably depends on many factors. One such factor may be the purpose of the retrieval task. If it is to develop an interest in the topic and develop self-confidence, then maybe early on can be good. If it is to specifically enhance memory and learning, then maybe towards the end is better.

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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