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What’s next for Retrieval Practice research

What’s next for Retrieval Practice research?

4 min read
  • Retrieval Practice

Despite it’s growing popularity amongst educators, there is still so much we don’t yet know about Retrieval Practice. According to a recent publication, “there remain many unanswered research questions, under-explored approaches to practice testing, and other dimensions of test-enhanced learning that have yet to be thoroughly investigated”.

Fortunately, we have just read a brilliant recent research paper, called Emerging and Future Directions in Test-Enhanced Learning Research thatprovides an insightful overview of the current state of Retrieval Practice and sets the groundwork for future directions.

So, what do we currently know about Retrieval Practice, and what does its future look like?

The current state of Retrieval Practice

Retrieval Practice, or the act of recalling information from memory, has been extensively studied, with a wealth of evidence suggesting many benefits. According to the paper mentioned above, the current body of research on Retrieval Practice primarily investigates…

1. The influence of Retrieval Practice on test performance

Studies have consistently shown that incorporating Retrieval Practice activities, such as quizzes or flashcards, result in higher test scores compared to traditional study methods.

2. The efficacy of various Retrieval Practice techniques and their application to different subjects

Research has examined the use of Retrieval Practice in various academic disciplines, such as Maths, Science, and language learning, finding consistent benefits across subjects.

3. How Retrieval Practice compares to other learning strategies, such as concept mapping or worked examples, in effectiveness

Multiple studies have found Retrieval Practice to be more beneficial for long-term retention compared to other strategies.

4. The effect of Retrieval Practice on learning outcomes beyond memory, including problem-solving skills

Recent studies have shown that Retrieval Practice can improve problem-solving abilities and transfer of knowledge to new contexts.

5. The connection between Retrieval Practice and other educationally relevant factors, such as metacognitive skills, self-regulated learning and exam anxiety

Understanding how Retrieval Practice interacts with these factors can lead to more effective implementation of this strategy in the classroom, and indirectly improve learning outcomes.

6. The types of Retrieval Practice strategies employed, including spaced learning, pre-questions and pre-testing, and Successive Relearning

Each of these strategies has demonstrated effectiveness in improving long-term retention and can be tailored to fit different learning objectives and student needs.

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The future of Retrieval Practice research

The benefits of Retrieval Practice are obvious, but recent studies highlight a gap in current research and offer multiple recommendations for enhancing research in Retrieval Practice.  

This paper outlines several promising directions for future research, including:

1. Evaluating the effectiveness of Retrieval Practice when used alongside or complementing other learning strategies

For instance, researchers have been studying the integration of Retrieval Practice with elaborative encoding strategies. This is where information is made more memorable through additional meaning, such as semantic elaboration, self-explanation, and the use of the keyword mnemonic. The findings suggest that employing elaborative encoding strategies prior to Retrieval Practice can boost learning and retention.

Similarly, other researchers examined the relationship between Generative Learning and Retrieval Practice. Findings suggest that Generative Learning strategies involve features that enhance Retrieval Practice. Tasks engaging learners in generative activities prior to learning a topic can improve mental representation. Therefore, viewing these learning strategies as complementary can offer valuable insights.

2. Exploring various methods of implementing Retrieval Practice, including Successive Relearning and pre-testing

Research shows that pre-questioning and pre-testing can significantly improve learning outcomes in various contexts. However, there is a clear need for further research on the different types of implementations of Retrieval Practice in education.

Additionally, more research is required on Successive Relearning as a strategy for Retrieval Practice.

3. Advocating for the introduction of forward testing (testing material before it has been learned)

Research supports that learning new material is enhanced through forward testing. One study found that when students are exposed to forward testing, they naturally engage in Retrieval Practice, thus facilitate subsequent learning.

This “effortful” testing, which can take the shape of difficult multiple choice questions during the lesson, boosts performance. However, deeper insights into the mechanisms behind the forward testing effect are needed.

4. Promoting the effective use of Retrieval Practice

Understanding how to use Retrieval Practice for learning is one thing, but knowing when to use it is another.

Students often view Retrieval Practice primarily as a means of assessment – and yet, it should be recognised as a powerful learning tool. Additionally, research indicates that in the absence of supervision, students tend to shy away from utilising Retrieval Practice.

This highlights the need for future studies to explore interventions that effectively encourage the adoption of Retrieval Practice.

Final thoughts

The pathways for future research into Retrieval Practice are vast and promising.

This paper highlighted the potential for future research, emphasising how crucial Retrieval Practice is for enhancing learning outcomes across various settings. While much remains to be discovered about maximising its effectiveness, its advantages in boosting classroom learning are clear.

The research directions outlined here give educators and professionals a guide to delve deeper into Retrieval Practice. By combining it with diverse teaching strategies, studying its impact across disciplines and finding adaptive methods, we are on the path to significantly enhancing academic achievements.


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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