1. Why?

As a student, have you had an experience where you thought that you were ready for a test since you read the textbooks and reviewed your notes many times, but then realized that you did not really know the materials when you actually took the test? 

As an instructor, have you asked your students about the material that you covered earlier in the semester and found out that students have forgotten most of it?

If that is the case, you might want to consider using retrieval practice as a learning strategy. Research shows that retrieval practice helps students’ understanding and retention of classroom materials (1)(2)(3).

  1. What?

Retrieval is a practice that helps you bring information to the forefront of your mind from memory. Retrieval practice focuses on getting information out from your head, rather than putting information into your head, which is a more traditional way of teaching and learning (1)(2)(3).  

By retrieving knowledge many times and from various angles, that knowledge gets more durable and eventually becomes more flexible so that you can use the knowledge in different contexts in the future. 

There are some indirect benefits of retrieval practice as well. Through the process of retrieval, instructors and students can realize where the students have gaps in their knowledge. This knowledge allows instructors to adjust their teaching and students to adjust their own learning (1). 

When retrieval practice is used in the classroom, it often comes in the form of low- or no-stakes tests. Therefore, students get used to taking tests and this frequent test taking practice actually lowers students’ testing anxiety (1). 
One important thing to remember is that retrieval practice tends to produce learning benefits after a delay. Retrieval practice is a more effective learning strategy for long-lasting and durable learning, rather than short-term learning (1).

  1. How?

Students can use retrieval practice when they study by themselves. After finishing with one chapter or section of a book, they write down everything or a few things that they remember. This practice will help avoid the situation when they finish reading a book and realize that they do not remember much about the content of the book (2).

Instructors can incorporate retrieval in classrooms to boost students’ learning. When it is used in the classroom, it should be used as a learning tool, not as an assessment tool. It should be low- or no-stake, and used frequently throughout the semester (1)(2)(3). 

Retrieval practice can be in many formats: mini quizzes, essays, brain dumps (where students write down everything they remember), a few things (where students write down a few things they remember), concept maps, affinity maps, or teaching to their classmates. It can be incorporated at the beginning or end of each class, or during a class pausing every 15 minutes or so for brain dumps. Retrieval practice should ask students to retrieve various contents including facts, concepts, and procedures (2)(3). 

Instructors can make retrieval practice even more powerful by incorporating another effective learning strategy, spacing. They can ask students to retrieve materials from a few days, weeks, or months old, or even last semester (1).

Getting feedback on their answers makes retrieval practice even more effective for students too (1). Feedback does not always have to come from instructors. Students can do so by checking their answers in their textbook or notebook after they are done with the retrieval practice. Instructors can also display and discuss correct answers with students. 

Unlike the case of cold calling, which involves one or two students, retrieval practice can involve all students. All students are engaged in the process of retrieving information. Instructors can use various tools for retrieval practice including analog tools such as a piece of paper or small whiteboards or digital polling applications such as Poll Everywhere, Kahoot, or PearDesk (3).

  1. Why not?

Why isn’t retrieval practice used more broadly by students and instructors? Students might not use it because they do not think that it is an effective learning strategy. In their book Understanding How We Learn, Weinstein and Sumeracki share research that shows that students who were engaged in retrieval practice feeling less confident about the upcoming exam compared to the students who were engaged in repeated reading despite the fact that students who were in the retrieval practice group did better on the test a week later (4).

Even if they know retrieval practice is an effective strategy, they might not use it because it is harder than passively reviewing textbooks or notes. Robert A. Bjork calls this desirable difficulty (5). He says that learning needs to be a bit difficult to be effective. At first, they will probably struggle retrieving information and they get frustrated and might give up. However, this struggle actually helps strengthen the memory and make the knowledge durable. 

How about instructors? They might not use it because they think that giving frequent small quizzes or pausing their lecture for retrieval practice takes too much of the class time and there is so much to cover. However, retrieval practice does not have to take a lot of time. It can be done in a few minutes. 

Instructors might think retrieval practice is only for remembering facts, concepts, and procedures. However, having solid fundamental knowledge about facts, concepts, and procedures leads to critical thinking (6). In Particular, retrieving a broad area of knowledge helps transfer the knowledge so that the knowledge can be used in new contexts (7). I will write more about this in future blog posts.  

Retrieval is a scientifically proven effective learning tool. We should take advantage of it to increase students’ learning!


  1. Weinstein, Y., Sumeracki, M., Oliver Caviglioli, O.(2019). Understanding How We Learn. London and New York, Routledge. 117-134.
  2. Agarwal, P., Bain, P. M. (2019). Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass. 25-91.
  3. Agarwal, P., Roediger, H., McDaniel, M., McDermott, K. How to Use Retrieval Practice to Improve Learning, Washington University in St. Louis, 2018, http://pdf.retrievalpractice.org/RetrievalPracticeGuide.pdf 
  4. Weinstein, Y., Sumeracki, M., Oliver Caviglioli, O.(2019). Understanding How We Learn. London and New York, Routledge. 132.
  5. Bjork, R. (2015). Using cognitive psychology to enhance learning, Teaching in Higher Ed, Podcast EPISODE 072, OCTOBER 29, 2015, https://teachinginhighered.com/podcast/cognitive-psychology/
  6. Willingham, D. T. (2009). Why Don’t Students Like School?: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass. 19-39.
  7. Pan, S., Agarwal, P. (2018). Retrieval Practice and Transfer of Learning: Fostering Students’ Application of Knowledge. UCSanDiego, NSF. http://pdf.retrievalpractice.org/TransferGuide.pdf

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