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The activities that maximise Retrieval Practice and Generative Learning

4 types of activities that maximise Retrieval Practice and Generative Learning

6 min read
  • Retrieval Practice
  • The science of learning

Ever wondered what you could to help students learn more and remember more? The answer may lie in Retrieval Practice and Generative Learning and, as recent research suggests, an integration of the two. But what are these concepts, and how can they be best used? Read on for:

  • A quick recap of Retrieval Practice, Generative Learning and their benefits
  • What Retrieval and Generative learning research suggest
  • How to implement Retrieval Practice and Generative Learning in your classroom

What is Retrieval Practice?

In simple terms, Retrieval Practice encourages learners to recall information from memory by answering questions, using their prior knowledge. This helps solidify the information in their long-term memory and strengthens connections, especially during stressful situations, which is particularly beneficial in high-pressure scenarios such as exams.

Retrieval Practice offers several benefits such as:

  1. Enhancing long-term memory retention – By repeatedly retrieving information from memory, your students strengthen their memory traces, making the information more easily accessible for future retrieval. A study found that students who used Retrieval Practice remembered 50% more information after a week compared to those who didn’t use this method.
  2. Promotes deeper understanding – Retrieval Practice encourages a process of elaboration and organisation of knowledge, leading to deeper processing of information and better comprehension.
  3. Identifies knowledge gaps – When your students attempt to retrieve information, they become aware of what they do and don’t know. This immediate feedback allows them to focus their studying efforts on areas that require more attention.

There are plenty of creative ways to integrate Retrieval Practice into your classroom, such as verbal questions, low-stake quizzing and flashcards to name a few.

To improve the use of this strategy at your school, why not book our Retrieval Practice CPD workshop?

What is Generative Learning?

Grounded in Cognitive Science, Generative Learning encourages students to actively build knowledge and make connections between new and existing information.

This strategy moves beyond passive reception of information, instead encouraging learners to actively engage with material, forge connections, apply their knowledge and create fresh ideas from pre-existing knowledge.

Generative Learning brings a host of advantages for students:

  1. Deepening comprehension – By actively participating with the material, students are more likely to gain a profound understanding of the concepts and ideas being imparted.
  2. Enhancing retention – Active engagement in knowledge generation results in better memory retention over longer periods.
  3. Honing critical thinking skills – Generative Learning cultivates critical thinking by prompting students to analyse information and draw connections, refining their cognitive abilities.
  4. Boosting creativity – The active creation of knowledge stimulates creative thinking and the generation of new ideas.
  5. Improving problem-solving abilities – Generative Learning fosters problem-solving skills as students apply their understanding to tackle real-world problems or devise innovative solutions.

There are many ways to utilise Generative Learning in the classroom, such as summarising, self-explaining or drawing. Our blog, 8 ways to promote Generative Learning delves into more detail.

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

How can we combine Retrieval Practice and Generative Learning?

A recent article analysed the relationship between these two key learning strategies, finding that Retrieval Practice and Generative Learning complement each other.


They suggest that Retrieval Practice and Generative Learning primarily involve two key aspects: retrieving the studied information from memory and making sense of the information provided, and that the degree of Retrieval Practice and Generative Learning activities used can substantially affect student learning outcomes.

This table helps illustrate different types of learning tasks. You can control the degree of retrieval required by deciding whether or not to provide your students with access to the learning material while they work on the follow-up learning task. Similarly, you can vary the degree to which generative activities are required through task instructions.

Let’s look at each quadrant of this table in more detail…

1. Low generative activities / Low retrieval required (Top left quadrant)

Open-book tasks, which do not require learners to actively engage with the material, do not encourage generative activities or Retrieval Practice. These tasks often allow learners to refer to external resources or references, providing them with ready access to information that may not necessarily stimulate deeper understanding or critical thinking.

These include restudying tasks, which involves reviewing and revisiting the material to reinforce learning, and rereading tasks, where your students go back over the content to enhance comprehension and retention.

2. High generative activities / Low retrieval required (Top right quadrant)

These open-book tasks encourage learners to engage with the material at a deeper level. They not only require learners to make sense of the content, but also emphasise the importance of active participation.

By focusing on eliciting generative activities, such as critical thinking and problem-solving, learners are encouraged to explore the subject matter from different perspectives, ultimately enhancing their understanding and retention of the material. These open-book tasks provide a valuable opportunity for learners to develop their analytical skills and apply their knowledge in practical ways.

Examples include generative drawing, which involves creating art by following certain rules or algorithms, and prompted self-explaining, where your students engage in active learning by explaining concepts to themselves using provided learning materials. These activities can be performed using accessible learning material.

3. Low generative activities / High retrieval required (Bottom left quadrant)

Closed-book tasks, which are assessments where learners are not allowed to refer to any materials, are specifically designed to elicit Retrieval Practice and focus on your students’ ability to recall information from memory rather than relying on external resources. Engaging in such tasks encourages your students to actively retrieve and consolidate their knowledge, fostering a deeper understanding of the material. The absence of reference materials challenges your students to rely on their own cognitive processes and enhances their long-term retention of the subject matter.

Examples include free-recall tasks, where students are asked to retrieve information from memory without any cues, or quiz questions that specifically test knowledge on a particular subject. These activities provide opportunities for your students to demonstrate their understanding and retention of factual information.

4. High generative activities / High retrieval required (Bottom right quadrant)

These closed-book tasks, which do not allow learners to consult external resources, are designed to challenge learners to make sense of the material independently. These tasks aim to promote generative activities, such as summarising or explaining concepts in one’s own words, and Retrieval Practice, which enhances memory recall. By engaging in these types of tasks, your students can develop a deeper understanding of the subject matter and improve their long-term retention of the information.

Some examples include generative drawing, where your students create visual representations to reinforce their understanding, and prompted self-explaining, where students verbalise their thought process while engaging with the learning material. These activities are particularly effective when performed without immediate access to the learning material, as they encourage deeper comprehension and retention.

How to use these varying degrees of Retrieval Practice and Generative Learning

The beauty of these strategies is that you can manipulate them independently. Want to focus on memory consolidation? Amp up the Retrieval Practice. Want to enhance comprehension? Increase the Generative Learning activities.

Final thoughts

Retrieval Practice and Generative Learning are powerful tools that can significantly enhance student learning. These strategies, rooted in Cognitive Science, are powerful tools that can transform learning outcomes. They stimulate active engagement, promote critical thinking and enhance memory retention.

The interplay between Retrieval Practice and Generative Learning provides a tailored approach to education, and by understanding these techniques, posing the right questions and implementing well-balanced activities, you can help your students master the art of learning.


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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