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The complete guide to understanding Retrieval Practice

The complete guide to understanding Retrieval Practice

5 min read
  • Retrieval Practice

Retrieval Practice is one of the most powerful learning strategies out there. Multiple studies have found that it can help accelerate the rate of learning.

To explore the details, nuance and application of it, we’ve created a comprehensive guide to help you understand why Retrieval Practice is so effective and how to make the best use of it in your classroom and with your students.

Read on to find out:

  • What is Retrieval Practice?
  • 6 benefits of Retrieval Practice
  • 3 ways to avoid common problems with Retrieval Practice
  • How is Retrieval Practice linked to other Cognitive Science theories?
  • 5 ways to use Retrieval Practice in the classroom

What is Retrieval Practice?

Retrieval Practice, sometimes referred to as the Testing Effect, is not just a study method but a powerful learning strategy. Retrieval Practice is the process of generating an answer to a question using existing knowledge. It involves actively recalling information from memory rather than simply reviewing it passively.

By engaging in Retrieval Practice, students not only reinforce their understanding of the material but also get better at retrieving their knowledge in other contexts – from high-pressure environments such as exams, to real-world settings.

This active learning approach promotes deeper comprehension and better prepares students for success both in school and beyond.

The 6 benefits of Retrieval Practice

So, what makes Retrieval Practice such an effective learning strategy? It supports six key mechanism of Teaching & Learning

1. Identifying gaps in knowledge

Using Retrieval Practice helps highlight gaps in students’ knowledge. This allows them to figure out where to target their revision, but also allows you to identify the concepts your students may need more support with.

2. Making connections

Retrieval Practice gets students to think hard, which helps consolidate their existing knowledge and make better connections between the information they know.

3. Checking for misunderstandings

Retrieval Practice points out misunderstandings clearly to students. This allows both you and your students to directly identify areas which require improvement.

4. Strengthening connections

To get the most out of Retrieval Practice, it needs repetition. By repeating tests and sustaining retrieval over long periods of time, we make knowledge connections in students’ memory stronger each time. This helps overcome the problem of forgetting, whilst cementing knowledge into students’ memory.

5. Maintaining connections under pressure and stress

The more stressed we become, the harder it is to retrieve our knowledge from memory. However, research has shown that students who use Retrieval Practice are 72% less stressed than those who do not, and they are also more likely to recall information when they are put under pressure.

6. Making it easier to learn new things

The Matthew Effect, also known as the Rich-Get-Richer Effect emphasises how the more you know, the easier it is to learn new information. Retrieval Practice provides a firm foundation for future learning.

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

3 ways to avoid common Retrieval Practice mistakes

While Retrieval Practice is a powerful learning strategy, it is important to acknowledge that it is not foolproof. It’s important to consider common factors that may get in the way of using Retrieval Practice most efficiently in schools in order to build a more comprehensive, better applied understanding of the theory.

1. Trust teachers to use research to inform their judgement, not replace it

Retrieval Practice is not meant to be uniform, and no two classrooms will implement it the same. Each teacher knows their classroom and students the best. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to Retrieval Practice, so embrace both what you know and what the research suggests.

2. Embrace trial and error

By experimenting with what works best for your classroom, you can find a range of retrieval strategies that work best for your students. Research on retrieval can point us in a general direction, but it can’t say with certainty what you should be doing.

3. Discuss general principles

Understanding why you are doing something is beneficial, as it allows you to think critically and creatively about it. Focusing on the “active ingredients” or “general principles” allows everyone to apply Retrieval Practice strategies with nuance.

How do other Cognitive Science theories link with Retrieval Practice?

Retrieval Practice and Cognitive Load Theory

Retrieval Practice has been shown to have a positive impact on cognitive load by improving memory transfer and retention. When they engage in Retrieval Practice, students effectively organise and consolidate information, which in turn makes it easier for them to retrieve and apply that to new information when needed.

This powerful learning strategy not only enhances memory retention, but also strengthens critical thinking skills and improves long-term knowledge retention. By actively retrieving information from memory, students can reinforce their understanding and develop a deeper level of mastery in the subject matter, whilst also managing their cognitive load.

Retrieval Practice and Metacognition

Engaging in Retrieval Practice enhances our metacognitive awareness, which refers to our ability to monitor and regulate our own learning processes. Through active recall, we become more attuned to our learning strengths and weaknesses, allowing us to identify areas for improvement and adopt more effective learning strategies.

Providing feedback in Retrieval Practice is key to enhance metacognition, as it explicitly highlights where students need to improve. By providing feedback, you’re facilitating students’ use of the core of metacognition: reflecting on what they do and don’t know.

5 ways to implement Retrieval Practice in your classroom

So, now that we’ve covered the basics of Retrieval Practice and the research behind it, how can you actually implement it into your classroom? At the heart of it, it consists in generation an answer to a question, meaning that there are many ways to make use of Retrieval Practice, including:

  1. Past papers and practice tests – By using practice tests and past papers, you not only prepare your students for the exam setting, but also reduce your students’ test anxiety.
  2. Classroom quizzes – Regular classroom quizzes are an efficient way to check your students’ understanding. This allows both you and your students to monitor their progress. Quizzes don’t just assess learning; they also accelerate it.
  3. Multiple-choice tests – These are beneficial in the early stages of revision, as they allow students to actively engage with the questions and retrieve knowledge with some support, especially with well-designed multiple-choice questions.
  4. Answering a question out loud – Retrieval Practice doesn’t just have to be written down. Verbal Q&A counts as a form of Retrieval Practice, which can also help develop students’ confidence around participation and oracy.
  5. Teaching others – This is also known as the Protégé Effect and states that explaining concepts to someone else act as a vehicle for Retrieval Practice, as students have to retrieve, organise and clarify their knowledge, and be ready to answer questions about it.
  6. Flashcards – This already popular revision tool is a great way to make use of Retrieval Practice with the right approach.

Final thoughts

Retrieval Practice seems to have it all: a powerful learning strategy with many benefits, easy to implement and offering many different applications.

By actively recalling information, your students can enhance their long-term retention, improve their knowledge transfer and develop crucial cognitive skills. You are spoilt for choice when it comes to implementing it school-wide and in the classroom, helping your students become more successful learners with guidance and the right learning environment.


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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