What is Retrieval Practice and Why is it so Powerful?

So, what is retrieval practice, and why is it effective? Retrieval practice is a learning technique revolving around repeatedly recalling learned material without seeing it in front of you. There are a few ways to do this:

  • Flashcards
  • Concept Maps
  • Quizzes
  • Worksheets
  • Writing Prompts
  • Elaborative Interrogation

As teachers we know that late-night cramming sessions to study for a test is never the most effective. While students may be able to recall that information for the test, they’re likely to forget everything after the test is over.

For real learning, we need to build retrieval practice into our lessons. This way we are training our students in the skills they need to succeed rather than just giving them the content.

The success of retrieval practice is not anecdotal, it is based on research in cognitive science.

Knowing how retrieval practice is defined will help you come to a deeper understanding of the practice, but that is not all you need to know.

Knowing how retrieval practice works, how to use it, why it works, and who it works for are just a few of the things we will be talking about in this article.

What is Retrieval Practice?

Retrieval practice is a study method that encourages students to engage with the material in an active way rather than passive learning. You may see retrieval practice also referred to as the “testing effect “or “test enhanced learning.”

This may not sound very appealing to some people because testing can be a source of significant stress, but research shows that the more someone practices retrieval or actively engages with a subject, the better long term learning is.

For the sake of simplicity, it is a good idea to think of retrieval practice in terms of identifying what concepts your students struggle with. Retrieval practice will reveal gaps in their knowledge, so you can pinpoint what it is you need to focus on.

Instead of re-reading and hoping that they know everything, retrieval practice forces them to spend more time going over those weak spots until they know the material.

So, how does is work?

Why Does Retrieval Practice Improve Learning?

The way retrieval practice improves learning may seem counterintuitive, but it is the best way to encourage long-term memory rather than learning by rote. It is a more challenging process, but that is part of what makes it work.

At first, it might make students feel like they don’t remember as much as they thought they did.

It’s frustrating, but the truth is that this added challenge is what makes it work.

Retrieval practice helps strengthen schemas that students have built helping them commit the information to their long term memory.

Retrieval practice improves the efficiency of learning; making and using flashcards, concept maps, or any of the other retrieval practice methods will facilitate better learning than highlighting or re-reading.

Having students actively recall the information will benefit you hugely, even if they get frustrated at first.

Tom Sherrington’s YouTube channel is brilliant!

How to use Retrieval Practice to Improve Learning

There are many ways to use retrieval practice. You can find what works best for your students and go from there, although it is beneficial to use several different methods.

This will help their brain commit the information to long-term memory better than using just one method.


The most recognizable type of retrieval practice is the use of flashcards.

As a note, if students are using them wrong or cheating, then they won’t be effective at all. There are a few things that you can do to make sure that you are using retrieval practice when using flashcards.

  • Shuffle – This makes sure that you are not only using retrieval practice but also interleaving and spacing. By making sure the information is mixed up regularly, you won’t be able just to memorize the order of the cards, you will recall the information.
  • Don’t cheat – It is tempting to cheat when using flashcards, especially if you can’t remember an answer. Instead of flipping the card over and looking at the answer, write down the question and go back to find the information that you can’t recall. If you can’t remember something, that means you haven’t actually learned it, and you need to spend more time on that subject or question.
  • Do it again – Flashcards are only effective if you go through them at least three times. This is a good number of times to make sure what you do know is committed to memory, and what you still need to learn is exposed.

Writing Prompts

Writing prompts are a great way to encourage students to think through the subject using complete sentences to glean what they know.

They probably know more than they think once they start writing. An example of how I like to use them would be giving them the start of a sentence and getting them to complete it, e.g. “For Photosynthesis plants need…” or “Natural selection happens because…”.

This can be adapted for different levels of abilities, younger students would require a more scaffolded approach but older or more able students can be given more open prompts such as, “explain the difference between communism and capitalism”

This will show gaps in their understanding as well as misconceptions. Essays should not be graded but checked by the students to see if they are correct. As the teacher, you can have a guide with outlined information for the students to check against once they are finished.

Both components (writing and checking) are essential and encourage active learning and retrieval practice.

Concept Maps

Concept maps are similar to the writing prompts, but instead of the students writing an essay, they will do a keyword map of sorts.

They will start with a large circle at the top of the page with the topic and then begin adding circles with keywords that relate to the topic.

Using concept maps, as with essays, will show what the students don’t know while committing what they do know to long term memory.

Concept maps are also known as mind maps and can include Venn diagrams, timelines, flowcharts, or tables.

Elaborative Interrogation

Elaborative interrogation will feel like a very detailed 20 questions to some people, but it is handy for retrieval practice. This method does not require writing of any kind, although a student can write the answers, and is much better with two or more people.

To implement this in a classroom setting, put the students in pairs, and give them a topic and a list of questions to ask.

The kind of questions that are most effective are questions that require a lot of thought. How and why questions are the best for this.

Below are a few examples, but it is by no means a comprehensive list. The goal is to encourage students to think deeply about the topic and recall what they truly know.

  • Why did this happen?
  • How does this happen?
  • Why does it work?
  • How does it work?


There are several different ways to quiz, it can be done individually or in pairs, groups, or as a class.

Teachers can give students clickers or color cards for answering or even divide the class into teams. There are also quiz several websites and apps that can be used for effectively.

  • Self-Quiz – Students can self-quiz by asking themselves questions, asking the teacher for a set of questions, or searching the internet for questions to answer. Writing the answers down will help commit them more to memory. If the student doesn’t know a particular answer, then they know they need to go back to that material.
  • Quiz websites – There are plenty of quizzing resources on the internet. Teachers or even students can get online and make their own quizzes over a topic of choice. Kahoot! is very good, classmates can compete against each other for a high score while doing retrieval practice (I like to join in the quiz from my phone and see if the class can beat me, it really ups the engagement). Anki is another quiz program that many people love, including language learners and math teachers. The best part of a quiz program that a whole class uses is that it shows the teacher if there are overall holes in knowledge.
  • Paired Quiz – This is a pair of people quizzing each over a topic or two. They take turns asking questions and answering. This is great retrieval practice because the students are getting and giving the information in different ways. By asking the questions, they are committed to memory, and by answering the questions, the answers are committed to memory by both students.


Placemats are easy to make and effective. Worksheets are a great way to find out what students have actually learned and committed to long term memory.

Like all of these methods they shouldn’t be used alone, but when they are paired with some of the other retrieval practice methods, they will do a great job.

The danger of using them all of the time is that students could become bored or just stop caring.

However, when they are used in responsible and intentional ways, they are a great tool for teaching children how to use retrieval practice. This is especially helpful for younger children.

retrieval practice example placemat
An example of a Biology placemat, these can be adapted for any topic in any subject.

Other Revision Techniques

Retrieval practice works really well when it is paired with other revision techniques. By using retrieval practice with one of the following techniques, it becomes more effective in creating new memory paths for the information being recalled.

Some people use these methods as an alternative to retrieval practice, and that is fine, but they are more effective when they are used together. It is also beneficial to alternate these methods if you don’t want to use them together.

Spaced Retrieval Practice

We mentioned cramming at the beginning of the article. It is a really popular method of study. Waiting until the night before a test and trying to shove as much information into your brain as possible and hoping you will remember it on the test.

Spaced retrieval is the very opposite of cramming. This is learning a subject over time.

Spaced retrieval is essentially using a retrieval practice exercise several times, at repeated intervals. In essence, Teach, check, check, check, test.

This method works because students are given time to forget the information before trying to access it. Spacing works with the natural way your brain functions to maximize learning and memory retention.

The best way to use this method is to not quiz your students for some time after they learn the information. Then start using flashcards or another technique for practicing retrieval and spacing.


Interleaving is a really successful way to commit several topics to memory over time.

When you use this method together with spacing and retrieval, all three of them become more effective. Interleaving is the process of switching between topics and subjects rather than just focusing on one thing at a time for hours on end.

For example, instead of studying chemistry for four hours straight, you would study math for an hour, history for an hour, chemistry for an hour, and English for an hour.

During this study time, they would be self-quizzing, making mind maps, or using flashcards for retrieval practice as well.

What Are The Challenges of Using Retrieval Practice?

When first learning about this type of study method, teachers and students may have some questions about potential challenges that may arise when starting to use this method. I want to take a minute to address some of these concerns when it comes to implementing retrieval practice.

Teaching Style Changes

One question that sometimes comes up is: Does a teacher have to change their teaching style to incorporate these revision techniques?

Retrieval practice is not about getting the information in, and because of that fact, no, teaching style doesn’t have to change at all.

If you enjoy lecturing and having students take notes, you can still do that. If you prefer more hands-on teaching methods, then that works too.

What will change is how you have students practice the information taught and the spacing involved.


Another thing that is a concern for some teachers is if they have to change textbooks.

Absolutely not. This is similar to teaching style in that it doesn’t need to change because this is about getting information in. It doesn’t matter what kind of textbook you use because retrieval practice is about getting the information learned from the textbook out.

Taking Up Classroom Time

There is no more classroom time that is taken up by retrieval practice.

In fact, retrieval practice will make better and more efficient use of your classroom time. Students will learn more and commit more to long term memory with this practice.

This leaves you time to move on to other topics or subjects sooner, especially if you pair retrieval practice with interleaving.

Who Does Retrieval Practice Work For?

Because there are different types of learners and many different grade levels, there is a question of whether or not retrieval practice will work for everyone.

While it is true that some students learn better visually or in an auditory manner, retrieval is more concerned with getting the information out not in.

Because of this, it is a method that works for any type of learner.

This practice also works across year/grade levels and even for university students. It will look different depending on the age and level of the students, but retrieval practice is very versatile and can work for anyone.

Retrieval Practice FAQ

Do These Strategies Do More Than Improve Memory?

Yes, when you engage in retrieval practice and spacing, there is more that benefits than just your memory or recall process. Being able to access knowledge is great, but you also need to be able to organize your knowledge and know when it is appropriate or needed. Spouting random information whenever you want is not going to help anyone. These strategies help with organization, application, and also applying the knowledge to different topics it may apply to.

When Should I Provide Retrieval Practice in the Classroom?

While you can truly offer retrieval practice anytime you want to, the best and most effective time is after a lesson. And we aren’t talking right after a lesson or even for homework that night. It is better to test students’ retrieval process on topics that they learned the week before or earlier that same week. Space it out to give them time to forget for the reasons we talked about above. One effective way to do this and to put a writing prompt on the board for a lesson taught a week ago and ask students to write what they know about the subject.

What Kind of Retrieval Practice Questions Should I Use?

Any kind of practice question can and should be used during retrieval practice. Short answer, essay, or multiple choice would all work great as long as you also use spacing retrieval. Any of these methods will let you know what students really know.

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