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The impact of Retrieval Practice on student cognitive load

The impact of Retrieval Practice on students’ cognitive load

3 min read
  • Cognitive Load Theory
  • Retrieval Practice

Nowadays, Retrieval Practice and Cognitive Load Theory are two of the most talked about areas from cognitive psychology in education. Many researchers have praised Retrieval Practice for being an effective revision technique, and teachers are becoming more and more interested in avoiding cognitive overload for their students.

It can be difficult for students to manage their cognitive load, and when it’s time to revise it can become even harder – especially for those who cram most of their revision in a short amount of time. So, what is the relationship between Retrieval Practice between Cognitive Load Theory and Retrieval Practice?

What is Cognitive Load Theory?

Cognitive Load Theory refers to the idea that our working memory has a limited capacity. When too many of our brain resources are taken up, it suffers from an overload, which can slow down learning and allow less information to be processed effectively and move on to long-term memory.

Evidence suggests that most people are only able to accurately recall a sequence of 7+/-2 items at one time when presented with a series of numbers. It is important to organise students’ learning material in a way that allows for an efficient transfer of information to their long-term memory.

What is Retrieval Practice?

Retrieval Practice is a revision technique that requires students to recall previously learnt knowledge in a low-stress context. This includes completing past papers, quizzes, multiple-choice tests and flash cards. This is based on the idea that, to truly remember something, you need to leave enough time to forget it so you can relearn it and create stronger connections each time. It also allows students to examine what they do and don’t know. If they are given a question and they are unable to recall any relevant information, then this tells them where to focus their revision.

Research shows that Retrieval Practice helps improve retention and recall of information, ultimately contributing positively to academic performance. Teachers should attempt to use Retrieval Practice as a revision technique, as opposed to purely as a means of assessment to determine what the student knows.

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Using Retrieval Practice to manage cognitive load

Using Retrieval Practice helps free up students’ cognitive load in several ways:

  • Retrieval Practice has been shown to help solidify knowledge in students’ long-term memory instead of keeping it in working memory for too long.
  • Using an efficient revision technique such as Retrieval Practice helps students avoid cramming all their studying in short periods of time.
  • Using Retrieval Practice helps students improve their memory during times of stress (such as exams), which can cause cognitive overload.
  • By focusing only on what they need to learn, they avoid clogging up their working memory with irrelevant information – also known as the Redundancy Effect.

Research suggests that cramming is the least effective way to revise as students recall little to no information – because it stays in their working memory. Giving them access to past papers and preparing quizzes related to the exam topic will be a great help in introducing them to Retrieval Practice. Even for your own records, you can have a pop quiz every so often which can help you keep track of students’ progress and see where some struggling students may need some more guidance.

Reducing cognitive load in students is particularly important as overload can slow down and even sometimes halt learning. Young students have many things to stress about, from their social lives to university applications, which means their cognitive load may already be quite high before they even step into your classroom. By the time exams roll around, this becomes even more intense. Try and ensure that your students are adopting strategies to help them reduce their cognitive load throughout the whole academic year. This will better prepare them for the exam period and provide a solid foundation for managing stress and workloads in the future.

Final thoughts

When students are taking in too much information, their cognitive resources can become overloaded. This can have detrimental effects on their learning and can hinder their academic performance. Teaching students effective learning strategies such as Retrieval Practice can help overcome these negative impacts – effectively improving several areas of their learning at once.

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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