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Retrieval Practice

What is retrieval practice?

Retrieval practice is a strategy in which bringing information to mind enhances and boosts learning. Deliberately recalling information forces us to pull our knowledge “out” and examine what we know. Learning by pulling information out of student’s heads. Learning is strengthened during retrieval. Requires at least a short delay after something has been learned as once you’ve started to forget you have to work harder to remember

Many pupils use re-reading as a key strategy for learning, but retrieval practice has been shown to be more effective.

Retrieval practice helps learning of a range of different types of content and in a range of settings.

Retrieval practice is most effective when repeated – provide opportunities for pupils to recall information within the lesson but also during subsequent lessons in the following days and weeks.

Ebbinghaus’ (1885) forgetting curve

The forgetting curve is a mathematical formula by Hermann Ebbinghaus that originated in 1885. The curve demonstrated the rate at which information is forgotten over time if we don't attempt to retain it.

However, the rate at which a person forgets depends on several factors including memory strength, how meaningful the material is, and physiological factors such as stress. The good news is that there are a number of methods you can use in your lessons to help your learners challenge the forgetting curve.

1. Spaced learning

To thoroughly understand what is learned, there are two important elements to consider. One is time. And the other is the application of repetition.

This can be achieved with spaced learning, which is why it’s considered one of the best methods for combating the learning curve. Spaced learning helps learners manage what learned information is retained, enabling them to reshape the forgetting curve. In turn, spaced learning benefits students as it supports the retention of skills and increased productivity in the long-term.

So, what exactly is spaced learning? Well, it’s a learning methodology where learners are presented with material they have to learn in a timed session, with a short break provided after they’ve completed it. Spaced learning strengthens memory retention because the learner studies the information, and periodically returns to review it in order to retain the knowledge.

The learner also practices retrieving the learned information using different formats such as solving problems, completing exams, and so on. This reinforces what has been learned, battling the forgetting curve.

Spaced learning can be tailored to suit your teaching needs. The spacing can occur within a single lesson, or by scheduling lessons and topics several hours, days, or weeks apart. By using bite-sized chunks of content and demonstrating the required information repeatedly in different, creative ways, like blended learning, learners are more likely to absorb the information.

2. Keep it engaging

Having engaging lessons will not only improve completion rates, but it also helps learners to retain information. So, when planning out lesson content, keep the forgetting curve top of mind. But how can you achieve this?

We suggest you make information easier to digest from the get-go. Learner concentration naturally wanes if they’re reading mountains of text, reducing knowledge retention. Instead, mix things up and keep your learners interest by varying the content you’re using with videos, images, and webinars. Even better, go the extra mile by having your learners actively participate in the lesson, rather than being passive observers.

Gamification is another option for using engagement to beat the forgetting curve.. It takes the mechanics of games and applies them to other activities, like learning, which can then be used to motivate your learners to complete the required learning. And, because it’s interactive and gets your learners engaged, knowledge retention is more likely.

3. Create a learning culture.

Learners are more likely to prioritize learning, and retain relevant knowledge, if you create a learning culture within your classroom.

Encourage learners to share their feedback after completing a lesson, and use this information to both improve your content and nurture a positive learning culture.

From a practical point of view, you can encourage your learners to embrace this learning culture by making it as enjoyable as possible for them. You can achieve this by creating engaging lesson content.

Actively support knowledge sharing within your classrooms. Once your learners recognize that frequent learning and reiteration is part of your classroom’s daily routine, they’re more likely to engage in lessons and retain pertinent knowledge.

How can Retrieval Practice help students to learn?

When psychologists talk about “retrieving” something from memory, they mean recalling it, or remembering it. So “retrieval practice” just means practising remembering a piece of information you previously read, heard or saw.

A common misunderstanding is that testing yourself on what you know only serves to “check” how much you know at that point, i.e. it won’t help you actually learn information.

Retrieval practice works in a number of ways:

  • Helps students lock information into memory: the very act of pulling a piece of information out of your memory means you can remember it more easily later on.

  • Helps students find the gaps in your knowledge: by testing yourself, you’ll have a better idea of what you know and where you need to do more work.

  • Helps students apply information to new contexts: it’s not just about learning the facts, studying using retrieval practice makes it more likely that you will be able to figure out unfamiliar problems based on what you know, make leaps of intuition, and apply knowledge in new ways. These are all skills often demanded by the questions that unlock top marks in exams.

Not all revision techniques are equal

  • Bad: Highlighting & cramming

  • Good: Retrieval practice, Spaced practice, lnterleaving, Elaboration, Concrete examples, Dual coding

John Dunlosky, "Strengthening the Student Toolbox: Study Strategies to Boost Learning," American Educator, Fall, 2013. pp 12-21.

Megan Smith & Yana Weinstein, The Learning Scientists:

Cramming puts only into short-term and is quickly forgotten. When we forget information it is not gone, merely becomes harder to access. Retrieving these memories is something we can get better at with practice.

Visit TeacherHead for 10 Techniques for Retrieval Practice or Twinkl's blog post on the topic. You can also visit Teaching & Learning Toolbox for Research Informed Education for 20 excellent practical ideas for building retrieval practice into your everyday practice

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