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What does the latest research on Retrieval Practice say?

What does the latest research on Retrieval Practice say?

4 min read
  • Retrieval Practice

Professor Pooja K Agarwal is well-known for her work focusing on Retrieval Practice, the act of recalling information from long-term memory to enhance learning and recall. She is the author of Powerful Teaching, creator of and a practising cognitive scientist. Agarwal and her colleagues, Ludmila D. Nunes and Janell R. Blunt have recently published a review article entitled Retrieval Practice Consistently Benefits Student Learning: a Systematic Review of Applied Research in Schools and Classrooms (2021).

This review (which initially began in January 2018) analysed nearly 2,000 research abstracts and 50 classroom experiments that met specific criteria set (see below) in order to clearly “establish a clearer picture of the benefits from Retrieval Practice in real world educational settings”.

There is a wealth of evidence, dating as far back as over a hundred years ago, that illustrates the importance and benefits of recalling previously learned content to support and enhance long-term memory and long-term learning. There is now a shift to focus more on applied research. What does this look like in the classroom, and what can that research tell us to support teachers in the classroom?

What did this review focus on?

Agarwal, Nunes and Blunt’s literature review had three main aims:

  1. To focus on evidence from experiments carried out in a classroom context only (not comparable or including laboratory studies). Carrying out research in the classroom is not as straightforward as doing so in a laboratory. Whilst the context is more applicable and relatable for many educators, classrooms are messy places to carry experiments and studies out in due to the huge number of variables that are challenging to control.
  2. To inform future directions for research on Retrieval Practice. As well as providing information, data and answers, research can also result in further questions and areas that need to be addressed and investigated in the future.
  3. To clarify recommendations for classroom implementation of Retrieval practice. The aim here is to further support teachers and students with the use of Retrieval Practice to support learning in a school environment.

But what does it mean when the reviews refers to “classroom research”? They stated the following guidelines applied:

  • Relevant course materials – Information to be learned for research purposes was the same as, or directly related to, assigned course materials.
  • Individual, not collaborative – All students engaged in Retrieval Practice individually under the supervision of researchers and instructors.
  • Closed-book, not open-book – All Retrieval Practice took place without the use of notes, external learning aids, or the internet.

The review investigated unresolved questions that are often asked and associated with Retrieval Practice, including: is there an optimal frequency of Retrieval Practice to improve student learning? Do all subjects and age ranges benefit from Retrieval Practice? Is there a specific type of Retrieval Practice that is more beneficial than others?

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What did the researchers find?

  • The majority of effect sizes indicated medium or large benefits from Retrieval Practice. The review stated that “for almost all studies reviewed, possible values for effect sizes are in a positive direction, indicating a consistent benefit from Retrieval Practice on student learning”.
  • Experiments were evenly distributed across education levels/ages and effect sizes were the largest for studies conducted in middle school classrooms.
  • In terms of content/subject, most experiments were conducted in science, psychology courses, a few in history, spelling and vocabulary and statistics. The results, similar to the findings from the recent EEF cognitive science report, demonstrate the need for more applied research across a wider range of subjects.
  • The vast majority of experiments reviewed (94%) were conducted in the USA and Western Europe, highlighting the need for further research in non-WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, Democratic) countries.
  • In terms of timing, the review recommends “educators provide students with opportunities for Retrieval Practice regardless of the precise timing”. This means that Retrieval Practice should be a regular classroom routine, but teachers should not fixate on specific timings. That is, in terms of the spacing delay and how much time to dedicate within a lesson to the act of retrieval as well as feedback – although various research studies have previously stressed the importance of providing feedback with Retrieval Practice.
  • The review also recommends teachers and students should use both multiple-choice (cued recall) and short answer formats (free recall) for Retrieval Practice.
  • The review encouraged further research on Retrieval Practice and transfer in applied settings.

Find out more…

To find out more about the work of Pooja K Agarwal and this specific review where the database can be freely accessed, visit her website and follow @RetrieveLearn on Twitter.

About the author

Kate Jones

Kate Jones

Kate Jones is a teacher, leader and Senior Associate of Teaching & Learning at Evidence Based Education. With over a decade of teaching experience in both the UK and abroad, she has also presented and worked with schools around the world as an education consultant. Kate is the author of seven books including best-seller Love to Teach: Research and resources for every classroom, and regularly contributes to various educational magazines. Alongside her teaching and leadership roles, she is also an Ambassador for bereavement charity, Winston’s Wish.

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