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The Surprising Effect of Retrieving Information from Memory

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

This piece is reprinted from The Marshall Memo, Kim Marshall’s weekly summary of current research and best practices in the field of education. Drawing on his experience as a teacher, principal, central office administrator, consultant, and writer, Kim Marshall lightens the load of busy educators by serving as their “designated reader.”
The article: “How to Use Retrieval Practice to Improve Learning” by Pooja Agarwal, Henry Roediger, Mark McDaniel, and Kathleen McDermott in an Institute of Education Sciences paper, 2013,; the authors can be reached at
“When we think about learning, we typically focus on getting information into students’ heads,” say Pooja Agarwal, Henry Roediger, Mark McDaniel, and Kathleen McDermott (Washington University/St. Louis) in this Institute of Education Sciences paper. “What if, instead, we focus on getting information out of students’ heads?”
More than 100 years of research has shown that “retrieval” – calling information to mind – has the effect of strengthening retention, thus enhancing and boosting learning. “Deliberately recalling information forces us to pull our knowledge ‘out’ and examine what we know,” say Agarwal, Roediger, McDaniel, and McDermott. “Often, we think we’ve learned some piece of information, but we come to realize we struggle when we try to recall the answer. It’s precisely this ‘struggle’ or challenge that improves our memory and learning – by trying to recall information, we exercise or strengthen our memory, and we can also identify gaps in our learning… Retrieval practice is a powerful strategy for improving academic performance, without more technology, money, or class time.”
The central message of this paper is that retrieval should be used not as a for-grades assessment tool (classroom questions, quizzes, and tests) but as an everyday learning strategy. Research has shown that retrieval is much better for cementing understanding in long-term memory than commonly used strategies like re-reading, highlighting, underlining, note-taking, reading review sheets, watching a video, and listening to a lecture. These strategies may produce short-term gains when cramming for a test, but memory researchers have found that they don’t produce long-term retention. Counterintuitively, information that feels easy to recall is least likely to stick in our minds.
“Retrieval practice,” say the authors, “makes learning effortful and challenging. Because retrieving information requires mental effort, we often think we are doing poorly if we can’t remember something. We may feel like progress is slow, but that’s when our best learning takes place. The more difficult the retrieval practice, the better it is for long-term learning… Slower, effortful retrieval leads to long-term learning. In contrast, easy strategies only lead to short-term learning.”
What’s more, retrieval increases understanding and higher-order functions. It improves students’:
- Complex thinking and application skills;
- Organization of knowledge;
- Transfer of knowledge to new concepts.
The process of retrieval also clarifies for students what they don’t know. Their improved metacognitive sense of what they’ve mastered and what they haven’t gives students a more realistic sense of their academic status and leads to better decisions on how to spend study time.
Agarwal, Roediger, McDaniel, and McDermott pose and answer several questions about retrieval practice:
• For which grade levels, subject areas, and students is it appropriate? Researchers have found that it’s helpful for all grades, students at all achievement levels, and all subject areas – studies have been done in science, math, social studies, history, vocabulary learning, and foreign language vocabulary.
• What are the best classroom strategies? It’s best to use retrieval with the whole class (using an all-class response system like clickers, Plickers, dry-erase boards, colored index cards, exit tickets); to use retrieval as a learning strategy rather than an assessment; and to always provide feedback to students on their responses.
• What are some potential challenges? There’s no need to change textbooks, since retrieval practice works perfectly with review or chapter questions. Nor is there a need to change one’s teaching style – questions are still asked of students, but the response is more universal. And retrieval doesn’t take more time – it just uses time more effectively, getting more bang for the instructional minute.
• How is retrieval practice different from “cold calling”? Retrieval involves calling on all students and getting an immediate sense of how well the entire class is understanding what’s being taught. “By engaging every student in retrieval practice,” say the authors, “every student reaps the benefits for long-term learning.”
• How much retrieval practice is necessary? The more the better, say the authors, but spaced out, which makes retrieval more challenging and effective. In terms of timing, retrieval is best a little after a learning experience – the more the spacing stretch, the more powerful the benefit.
• Should retrieval questions be graded? No, say the authors. Keeping the questions low-stakes helps students feel less pressured and more comfortable making mistakes, which students need to realize will help them learn better. Provide immediate feedback to correct errors, misunderstandings, and misconceptions, rather than grades.
• Does retrieval practice increase test anxiety? Quite the contrary, say the authors; it decreases worries about high-stakes assessments by improving mastery and confidence and embedding information more deeply in students’ memories.
• What types of questions are best? Retrieval works equally well for facts, concepts, and higher-order, complex material – ideally mixed together. And it’s a good idea to shift between multiple-choice and open-response questions.

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