BECOME A MEMBER! Sign up for TIE services now and start your international school career


The Power of Retrieval Practice to Improve Long-Term Memory

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

The article: “Retrieval Practice: The Most Powerful Learning Strategy You’re Not Using” by Jennifer Gonzalez in Cult of Pedagogy, September 24, 2017, See Memos 189, 553, and 610 for “classic” articles on the retrieval effect.
In this Cult of Pedagogy article, Jennifer Gonzalez says she’s surprised that “retrieval practice” (trying to recall information without having it in front of you, then checking to see how much you remembered) isn’t discussed more frequently by teachers and school leaders. But isn’t this old hat? After all, flashcards have been around for at least 100 years. “What’s new is the research,” says Gonzalez. “In recent years, cognitive psychologists have been comparing retrieval practice with other methods of studying – strategies like review lectures, study guides, and re-reading texts. And what they’re finding is that nothing cements long-term learning as powerfully as retrieval practice.”
Gonzalez interviewed Pooja Agarwal, a leading researcher in this area, who described one of the experiments she conducted with her colleagues. In a middle-school social studies class, students were given regular quizzes that covered only 1/3 of the material they were learning. During these no-stakes quizzes, the teacher left the room and didn’t know which segment of her curriculum was being quizzed. In end-of-unit exams, students scored a full grade higher on the material that was quizzed than on the 2/3 that was taught and reviewed in the usual manner. Clearly the act of being quizzed was what improved students’ long-term memory.
“Here’s what this means for teachers,” says Gonzalez. “When we teach something once, then want to do something else to help students learn it better, instead of just reviewing the content, we’re much better off giving something like a quiz instead. In other words, if we do more asking students to pull concepts out of their brains, rather than continually trying to put concepts in, students will actually learn those concepts better.” Gonzalez reviews some time-honored ways to use this approach in the classroom:
• Think-pair-share – The teacher poses a question – for example, “Think of one thing you learned yesterday about cells” – has all students jot down their answers, and then turn to a partner and share answers. Having students first retrieve individually is important, because if they immediately pair up, only the quickest responder will get the retrieval benefit.
• Low-stakes quizzes – These can be on paper or with an all-class response system like Plickers, Poll Everywhere, or clickers. Making quizzes low-stakes is important to tapping into the retrieval effect without raising students’ stress level.
• Brain dumps – Have students get a sheet of paper (or launch a blank document on their computers) and write down everything they know about a topic. This could be at the beginning of a unit, part way through, or near the end. Students then discuss what they’ve written with a partner, focusing on discrepancies and gaps, and combine the whole class’s information into a whole-class brain dump.
• Flashcards – These can work well in class or at home, but students need to be taught how to use them correctly: (a) Once a card has been mastered, keep it in the deck until it’s been answered correctly three times; (b) Actually retrieve the answer and say it out loud (students don’t get the full benefit if they look at a familiar item, think “I know this,” and look at the back of the card); (c) Shuffle the deck; changing the sequence makes remembering more challenging. See for more ideas on flashcards.
Gonzalez suggests using retrieval practice in Do Nows, during-class sponge activities, exit slips, and something to do while students stand in line for lunch. Some additional suggestions:
- Remember that retrieval practice is a learning activity, not an assessment, and should be kept low-stakes.
- Retrieval practice is most effective when it’s done in short bursts over time, rather than in a long session. “This spacing causes students to forget some of the material, and the struggle involved in trying to recall it strengthens their long-term learning,” says Gonzalez.
- Include feedback. “If students retrieve the wrong information, the practice won’t be much good unless they find out the right information,” she says, “so be sure to give them feedback as they go.” This also improves students’ metacognitive judgment on when they really remember something and when they don’t.
- Include higher-order questions if that will be the focus of the unit’s summative assessment.

Please fill out the form below if you would like to post a comment on this article:


There are currently no comments posted. Please post one via the form above.