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Why knowing the benefits of Retrieval Practice isn’t enough

Why knowing the benefits of Retrieval Practice isn’t enough

5 min read
  • Retrieval Practice

It’s been proven to be one of the most effective learning strategies over and over again. So why don’t students use Retrieval Practice?

Not knowing about it is only part of the problem. Simply telling students to use it may not actually be that effective. For example, did you know that the likelihood of your students using Retrieval Practice isn’t just based on whether they know about it?

The research behind this and its applications in the classroom are a significant part of what we discuss in our Retrieval Practice Teacher CPD workshops. Let’s dive into the most important points:

  • Why Retrieval Practice is so important
  • The role of teacher supervision
  • Strategies to teach students to use Retrieval Practice

4 reasons why Retrieval Practice is important

Retrieval Practice is a method where students recall previously learnt information from memory instead of passively reviewing it or copying their notes. This strategy helps reinforce memory pathways and aids long-term retention.

Research suggests four key benefits of Retrieval Practice:

  1. Deepening understanding – Retrieval Practice requires students to actively reconstruct their knowledge. This deepens their understanding as they’re not just recognising information, but also connecting various concepts and contexts.
  2. Identifying knowledge gaps – If a student struggles to recall specific information, it’s a strong signal that they need to review and reinforce those areas. This helps them focus their learning efforts on weaker points, improving their overall academic performance.
  3. Facilitating transfer of learning – By recalling and applying knowledge in different scenarios, students enhance their ability to adapt their learning to new situations.
  4. Boosting metacognitive awareness – Retrieval offers insight into what students know well and what they still need to work on, fostering the development of self-regulated learning.

What does the research say about getting students to use Retrieval Practice?

Research suggests that being aware of the benefits of Retrieval Practice and encouraged to use it may be a good first step. The researchers in that study found that not only are students more likely to use it within the current task, but they are more so to do so again in the near future.

However, a recently released study has potentially added more nuance and depth to this area of research. In this experiment, researchers asked participants to learn 20 English-Swahili word pairs and split them into two groups: under their teacher’s supervision or working unsupervised.

The researchers found that:

  1. Students who retrieved frequently remembered more word pairs.
  2. Supervised students were 11% more likely to use Retrieval Practice than those who were working independently. Researchers were unsure why supervised sessions led to more Retrieval Practice, but speculated it could be due to:
  • Less distractions (for example, being unable to go on their phones).
  • The presence of an authority figure, which may be due to the Hawthorne Effect.
  • The academic setting, which could mean that students naturally exerted greater effort.
  1. Simply knowing about the benefits of Retrieval Practice was not enough to make a difference.

Findings from this study not only demonstrate a positive benefit to memory from the use of Retrieval Practice, but also highlights how teacher supervision can help promote it. It would suggest that a combination of knowledge, experiencing the benefit and being supervised to start with holds the key to adopting Retrieval Practice.

Perhaps it is only after this strategy becomes habit that the supervision can be reduced, so that in the long term, students use the strategy independently and repeatedly themselves.

Accelerate academic growth at your school with one of the most effective Teaching & Learning strategies.

What does good Retrieval Practice look like?

So, what can using and supervising good study skills in your classroom look like? There are many effective ways to incorporate Retrieval Practice into students’ learning that we frequently recommend in our workshops. Try guiding your students towards these strategies…

1. Past exam papers

    Past exam papers are especially useful for students preparing for exams, as it also helps them prepare for the real thing in a lower-stakes environment. For students who aren’t there yet in their school career, you can use essay answers from previous assignments for them to practise on without looking at their notes or textbooks. This will also enhance their level of analysis and application of knowledge.

    2. Multiple-choice questionnaires

      Apart from being a great tool for Retrieval Practice, they also help you check for your students’ understanding and provide some support for more novice learners. However, make sure to design your multiple-choice questionnaires effectively to reap the full benefits.

      3. Answering flashcards

        Flashcards are a simple but effective way to practise retrieval. On one side, students write a question or keyword, and on the other, the answer or explanation. You could get your students to create their flashcards in class under your supervision to make sure they make the best of them. Plus, this strategy also gets students to engage in Spacing, another effective learning strategy.

        4. Teaching others

          Try grouping students and getting them to explain concepts to one another. This is a great way to make use of the Protégé Effect, which states that teaching others (or even simply expecting to) gets learners to engage more deeply with the material and put more effort into organising their knowledge. Essentially, it is hard to teach someone else if you don’t retrieve the information first.

          5. Classroom quizzes

            This is a quick, easy way to incorporate retrieval into your daily practice, as well as check for understanding frequently. For example, you could quiz students at the beginning of your lesson on what they learnt last time to jog their memory and identifying what may need to be revisited, then again at the end of the lesson to revisit their new knowledge.

            These are just some of the many ways to use Retrieval Practice with your students. To learn about more research and figure out how to best use it in your school, book our Retrieval Practice CPD workshop.

            Final thoughts

            All students can benefit from Retrieval Practice. However, knowing about this isn’t likely to yield the best result – your supervision may be the influence that boosts your students’ willingness to implement this strategy into their learning. Over time, this can be reduced. But to start with, it may be key in getting them to start internalising the benefit of retrieval.


            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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