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When should students not use Retrieval Practice?

When should students not use Retrieval Practice?

4 min read
  • Retrieval Practice
  • Study skills & exam prep

Is there ever a time where Retrieval Practice isn’t an optimal learning strategy?

Retrieval Practice is one of the most well-supported and talked-about learning techniques, for good reason. Evidence suggests it is one of the highest-utility Teaching & Learning strategies and that it benefits all students. But perhaps there are a few occasions when it would be best avoided.

Recently, we at InnerDrive had the pleasure of interviewing researcher, Dr Tino Endres about when and how to best use Retrieval Practice, as part of the Expert Insights series on our Teacher CPD Academy. Towards the end of the interview, he touched on when he would actually advise students to avoid Retrieval Practice. This isn’t a subject that is often spoken about, so it really caught our attention.

Our interview with Dr Tino Endres

You can catch up with our interview with Dr Endres in the following video. Now, let’s dive deeper into the excellent points he makes…

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When not to use Retrieval Practice

1. When the information wasn’t encoded correctly to begin with

Encoding is the first stage of memory, where we process the information as we receive it.

Sometimes, when we don’t quite understand the information to begin with, the encoding process doesn’t work effectively. As a result, we might either encode incorrect information or only encode bits and pieces of the whole picture. In this instance, according to Tino, “retrieval will be poor” because “if you didn’t get the essentials down and the information is complex, you won’t be able to put in sufficient mental effort when you retrieve.”

If a student only has an incomplete idea of the information or doesn’t really understand it, then trying to retrieve it will either prove frustrating and/or be limited in its success. After all, how can you successfully retrieve something if you haven’t understood it in the first place?

Instead, Tino says it is may be “better to engage in elaborative strategy” for students to get a better grasp of the information first before being able to move on to Retrieval Practice. This might include trying to expand on the knowledge they have by reading then summarising, paraphrasing, and even creating analogies.

2. When you’re prioritising short-term performance

It is important to distinguish between learning and achievement. Learning is a change to long-term memory that takes place over time. On the other hand, achievement is a short snapshot of temporary performance. Clearly, we want to encourage students towards the former, as the latter doesn’t last and is often an illusion.

Now, there is no doubt that Retrieval Practice is an extremely useful strategy to aid students with their studying, as it helps cement information into their long-term memory. However, Retrieval Practice works better if students do it repeatedly, requiring a much longer period of time to make the biggest impact.

Often, what helps students in the long term doesn’t help them in the short term. While long-term learning is the ultimate goal in education, the reality is that exam results have a significant impact on students’ opportunities, and that because of this, the focus will sometimes be on short-term achievement.

Cramming as much Retrieval Practice into a single night before the exam is unlikely to be beneficial when it comes to grades. The takeaway from Tino here is that Retrieval Practice “won’t be effective for short-term learning.” That is, if students are trying to learn information quickly and only for use in the very near future, its effectiveness will be limited.

Just to re-iterate: last-minute cramming is not something we would advise. It is stressful and won’t benefit students in the long term. But knowing about this short-term limitation is still probably worth it.

Final thoughts

Retrieval Practice has the potential to ingrain and cement information into students’ long-term memory, as well as many other benefits, such as making this knowledge stronger in the face of pressure.

As things stand, it is probably our best bet for learning. But as more research is released and as the bridge between researchers and practitioners gets smaller, we get closer to learning the nuances and caveats of how best to apply their findings.

Helping build this bridge between researchers and educators Is exactly why we created the Teacher CPD Academy, which makes high-impact, in-house CPD easy. You can find Dr Endres’s interview as well as many others on our Expert Insight series, along with hours of self-paced courses, pre-made lesson materials and further reading resources. If you think this could propel your school’s application of Cognitive Science principles, request your free trial today.


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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