Retrieval practice: a teacher's guide

Paul Main

Why is retrieval practice such an important learning technique for the classroom? In this blog, we explore the theory and practice of retrieval practice.

What is Retrieval Practice?

The technique of bringing information to mind for improving and increasing the learning process is known as Retrieval Practice. Consciously recalling knowledge helps learners in long term retention of knowledge, and to pull their knowledge “out” and analyze initial learning.

Retrieval practice (formerly referred to as the “testing effect") is a useful revision and effective learning technique that helps in memory retention because it involves recollection of prior knowledge, which improves the chances of knowledge shifting to long term memory.

Cognitive Psychologists Professors Roediger and Karpicke are well-known leaders in research on the application of retrieval practice in school environments. Roediger Et Al. indicated that when students study a passage repeatedly, they will remember more in the short-term. However, when they engage in factual recall more frequently, they improve their long-term learning (Roediger Et Al., 2006).

Using Retrieval Practice in school environments

Depending upon the grade levels, the Retrieval Practice condition is applied in several ways in the school environment. It can be as easy as trying to recall initial learning mentally or on a paper without involving complex materials or without reviewing the learning materials. Following are some ways to use retrieval practice in the classroom:

Learning scientists work on retrieval practice
Learning scientists work on retrieval practice

  1. Practice tests: Teachers can ask students in a Middle School Science Classroom to write their practice questions; students can use practice questions from the textbook or use those provided by the teacher; they can make and share questions with their study partner, or use online sources to find questions. Teachers can also ask students to first write the correct answers to the questions in short answer format and then ask students to find the correct answers to the same questions presented as multiple-choice questions in the final test or unit exam.
  2. Flashcards – For students in primary grade levels, teachers can ask students to write questions on one side of the index card and answers on the other side of the card. Students can also use flashcard software systems or create flashcards on a computer and print them out.
  3. Writing prompts - The writing prompts technique is very effective for encouraging students to think about a specific subject and to show what they know. For example, the teacher can write an incomplete sentence on a card and ask the students to complete the sentence e.g. “A plant needs sunlight to ________".
  4. Concept maps: Karpicke Et Al. (2014) explained that creating concept maps, is like writing prompts; but, students create a keyword map of related words instead of writing complete details of retrieval tasks. Students will create concept maps by writing the title at the top of the page and drawing a large circle. Then, they will add circles with keywords about the topic. For different grade levels, the concept maps would indicate what the students don’t know while showing what they already possess in their long term memory.
  1. Elaborative Interrogation: This is an effective method, which mostly includes detailed 20 questions, which is useful retrieval practice in classroom settings. Elaborative interrogation does not involve the writing of any sort, but a student may write the answers and is better with two or more students. To use the Elaborative interrogation technique in an educational setting, the teacher would make pairs of the students, and give each pair of students a topic and several questions to ask. The main purpose is to encourage students to think deeply about the topic and recollect what they truly know.

Below are some examples:

  • When did this happen?
  • Why did this happen?
  • How does it work?
  • Why does it work?
  1. Quizzes: For different grade levels, quizzes are the key ingredient that can be performed in several different ways. These can be performed individually or in groups, pairs, or as a class. Teachers can give colour cards or clickers to the students for answering or they can make the different teams in the class. While considering the level of difficulty, teachers can also use different apps and websites to ask multiple-choice questions or to conduct multiple-choice tests.
  2. Placemats: It is easy to make placemats. Worksheets provide a great way to assess prior knowledge. However, like other study strategies placemats can give great results when they are used alongside other popular methods and educational materials. Placemats are more effective for teaching elementary school children; but, there remains a risk factor for children becoming bored or just stopping to care. Therefore, placemats must be used to perform complex tasks in intentional and responsible ways.
  3. Copy-cover-and-check method: To apply this retrieval practice in school environments, teachers would ask students to simply cover their lecture slides with a card, try to recall the text on the slides, and then remove the card to check. This technique provides the learning assessment without needing little-to-no extra effort before starting to apply retrieval activity in classroom settings.

 research based strategies to improve learning
research based strategies to improve learning

Getting retrieval practice right

If teachers know the kind of questions that will be asked in the course exam, they can also help students by providing successful retrieval practice conditions suitable for similar kinds of questions. Therefore, retrieval condition in classroom settings increases the possibility that students would successfully recall relevant information for their upcoming high-stakes exams.

Depending upon the level of difficulty, teachers can implement cued recall tests and use cue cards to remind students of complex materials and complex concepts. After using the retrieval method, it is suggested to check notes and textbooks to ensure correct and complete retrieval of the information. Cue cards strategy would rectify any mistakes, and give immediate feedback about what one knows and what one doesn't know.

Retrieval practice activity becomes more effective when it is performed along with other effective learning techniques. There are many benefits of testing but the following are some other revision techniques that can have positive effects on retrieval educational practice in making it more effective through creating new memory paths for the knowledge being recalled.

Spaced Retrieval Practice

Spaced retrieval practice is a popular method and a useful retrieval-based learning strategy of Cognitive Science, which means studying a topic more than once but having long gaps between learning sessions. In other words, it divides learning into time. Research in cognitive psychology shows that the spacing effect is more beneficial for long-term, meaningful learning. The space must be of longer duration rather than very short breaks. This strategy works better than rote learning because students get the time to forget the details before striving to access them. The best way to use spaced retrieval practice in classroom settings is to not quiz the students for some time after studying the information. Afterwards, students can be engaged in retrieval-based learning activities or they will be asked short-answer questions using flashcards or other learning techniques for practising spacing and retrieval.

nine ways to use retrieval practice in your classroom
nine ways to use retrieval practice in your classroom


Interleaving techniques

The process of changing subjects or topics rather than just paying attention to one topic for long periods is called interleaving. For instance, rather than studying Biology for four consecutive hours, a student would study Chemistry for an hour, Biology for an hour, History for an hour, and Mathematics for an hour.

In this study time, the student would be using flashcards, making mind maps, or self-quizzing for a long-term, meaningful learning and effective retrieval practice in classroom settings.

Both spacing and interleaving techniques can help increase students' long-term meaningful learning and memory retention of important information.

When a student utilizes interleaving alongside spacing and effective retrieval practice, it improves test-enhanced learning and improves the effectiveness of all three of them.

Interleaving is also a useful Retrieval based learning strategy to retain several topics into memory in a specific amount of time. Interleaving improves meaningful retrieval-based learning by mixing up topics closely related to one another. This improves students' learning process and their ability to differentiate between numerous concepts.


Benefits of Retrieval Practice

Research in cognitive science indicates that students may find it difficult in the beginning; but, having students vigorously recollect the information will benefit them greatly. There are many benefits of Retrieval Practice in classroom settings. Some of the most important effects of retrieval practice are:

  1. Retrieval practice is an effective strategy because it helps reinforce schemas that learners have created, which helps them save the information in their long term memory. In a study, Carpenter & Lund (2016) observed that high-performing students benefited in exams more from retrieval-based learning class activities than copying and rote learning; on the other hand, low and middle-performing students benefited more from copying and rote learning as compared to retrieving
  2. Retrieval practice enhances the retrieval-based learning activities; concept mapping, flashcards, or any of the other powerful learning strategies will promote meaningful learning as compared to re-reading or highlighting. Through self-explanation students explain to themselves parts of a learning material which improves their understanding. Also, prior laboratory studies have shown the effectiveness of the practice of retrieval, which can be broadly characterized as recognition tests, cued-recall, and free-recall (McDaniel Et Al, 2011).
  3. According to an Assistant Professor, Cognitive Scientist, & Former K-12 teacher, Pooja Agarwal, the act of calling information to mind or retrieval, our memory for that specific information is strengthened and it becomes less likely to forget about that information.
  4. Yana Weinstein (2013), an Assistant Professor at University of Massachusetts, Lowell, states that retrieval practice is useful for protecting against the negative impact of previously memorized information on the learning of new information, alongside increasing the retention of subsequent information.

Challenges of using Retrieval Based Learning

Both teachers and students show concerns about classroom practice of retrieval-based learning activities. Some teachers do not recognize the effectiveness of retrieval practice and they are hesitant to use retrieval practice because they feel that they might have to change their teaching style or the textbook. But, it's not true because the effectiveness of retrieval practice is not only about receiving the information. Teachers must see how their students use spacing and practice the things that have been taught. Also, some teachers believe that retrieval practice would waste their class time. But, it's not right too. Application of retrieval practice will act as a learning tool that will enable students to learn more quickly and retain more information in their long term memory.


Using mental modelling for retrieval-based learning

The block building methodology that we have been using across schools in England was initially seen as a knowledge-building tool. Some of our member schools quickly realised that this engaging pedagogy was a useful way of finding out what students knew. We have seen educators ask students to build a conceptual model of a body of knowledge. This type of creative retrieval based activity is more engaging than multiple-choice tests. Unlike multiple-choice and short answer questions, students have to create a structure that represents a particular piece of knowledge. This for example could be a timeline, I hierarchical structure or categorising items into groups. The process uses student creativity to make sense of complex materials. These types of alternative learning strategies are more accessible than traditional classroom tasks as they free up the working memory to do more critical thinking. You can see the learning tool in action on the dedicated webpage.

building a model as retrieval practice
building a model as retrieval practice



Blunt, JD & Karpicke (2014). Learning with retrieval-based concept mapping - Journal of Educational Psychology.

Carpenter, Lund, Coffman (2016) A classroom study on the relationship between student achievement and retrieval-enhanced learning, Journal of Educational Psychology, Springer.

Mark A. Mcdaniel & Barbie J Huelser (2011). Test-Enhanced Learning in a Middle School Science Classroom: The Effects of Quiz Frequency and Placement, May 2011Journal of Educational Psychology 103(2):399-414

Pooja Agarwal, (2013). How to use retrieval practice to improve learning.

Roediger and Karpicke (2006). Test-enhanced learning: Taking memory tests improves long-term retention, Educational Psychology Review,

Yana Weinstein (2012). Testing improves true recall and protects against the build-up of proactive interference without increasing false recall. Taylor & Francis.