What is retrieval practice?

It is a type of practice where you try to remember information that is not directly in front of you, but somewhere in your memory. The video of What's retrieval practice? gives a very good and concrete example on how to use retrieval practice. The good thing about this type of practice is that it is quite easy to implement, and I suspect you have already been using it in your classes. But my question to you is how and how often do you use retrieval practice in your classroom, and can you increase its use?


No/Low-stakes tests or short quizzes

There are several studies in a variety of areas of education that have described the importance of repeated tests for the effective organization of information in long-term memory. These studies have shown that retrieving certain information from memory can increase the long-term learning of that specific piece of information. This phenomenon is called the testing effect and refers to the importance of repeatedly testing content so that it can be efficiently stored in memory - which is likely to facilitate its later recall and application. The practice of retrieval through testing can optimise the time that learners take to assimilate content whether in the classroom or studying individually. Research by Karpicke and colleagues (2007) found that the practice of testing leads to less need for repetition such as the repeated reading of a text to learn content. Can you Imagine, for example, how exam and EAP classes could use that to learners’ advantage?



Why it works

One hypothesis is that tests improve learning because they multiply the number of recall routes for stored events as they work as steps for later recall of information. This happens because of the effort made when memories are recovered (Pyc & Rawson, 2010). According to this hypothesis, the greater effort involved in recalling a memory, the more extensive the reprocessing of the memorised information will be. For this reason, the tests that require the greatest difficulty in retrieving information are the most beneficial for long-term information retention (McDaniel, Roediger, & McDermott, 2007). For retrieval practice to be super efficient, it needs to be spaced out. For a great example on how to use retrieval practice and spaced repetition, check André Hedlund’s brilliant color-coded tags technique.



There are some clear benefits of testing practice to retrieve information (Roediger et al., 2011; Smith et al., 2016)

  • retrieval facilitates later retention;
  • the test identifies gaps in knowledge;
  • testing produces better organisation of knowledge;
  • to test the transfer of knowledge to new contexts;
  • tests provide feedback to instructors;
  • frequent tests encourage learners to study.



How to incorporate retrieval practice in your classes

Teachers are already overworked, so if you are reading this blogpost imagining that you would have yet one more task to design, you are wrong! Whereas you can certainly take the time to design beautifully crafted quizzes, my intention is to put learners at the centre of this process and let them do the prep themselves. Think of yourself as a project manager: you give instructions, check progress, offer help when needed and that’s it. Your role is more of a strategic one where you have the knowledge to guide learners to where and when is the best time and place to do retrieval practice.


Retrieval Practice Challenge Grids

The Retrieval Practice Challenge Grid is a grid with questions to help you remember content. Mix simple and complex questions and assign points to it if you wish. For example, simple questions are worth 5 points, difficult ones 10 points. Learners try to answer the questions and see how many points they can get. Below is an example grid about letter writing, and in Retrieval Practice Challenge Grids for the classroom you can find lots of other examples from different types of content – great for teachers using CLIL.


How do you sign-off a formal letter whose person’s name you know Mention one difference between formal and informal letters How do you address a letter to people you don’t know
Mention one structure often used when complaining. What do you write in the first paragraph Do you always need to write your full name? Why/why not?
Mention one way to close a letter How do you mention an attachment? How do you start an informal letter?


Say it out loud (or type)!

Simply ask learners questions about content you have previously worked with. It shouldn’t take too long, around 10–15 minutes depending on class size (mine has 18 learners). Just remember to create the right atmosphere for this kind of activity. Learners need to understand that there is nothing wrong if they don’t know/remember the answer. This is not a competition!

If teaching online, learners can use the chat function to write quick short answers. If you’re looking for something more elaborate that can be used synchronously or asynchronously, try Padlet or Jamboard (see the links below). Simply write some topics, share the links with learners, set a time limit and let them answer questions without looking back at the lesson or notes.


Brain dumps

Learners get a sheet of paper (or open a word processor) and have to write all the information they know about a given topic. It works really well with vocabulary content taught in English. Once they finish writing the information, learners exchange their ideas in pairs or groups, or they can share their documents and create a collaborative class-document with everybody’s ideas.


Tools to use

Good old pen and paper or chalk and board (white board and pen) can be used for retrieval practice. The Retrieval Practice Challenge Grid is a good example of that. But, as so many of us are still teaching online or using some kind of hybrid approach, see my blog post, Practice makes perfect? The case of interleaving, for a list of tools that can help you create activities. Here are a few extra I have discovered that also work pretty well:

  • Jamboard – digital canvas to create projects that are easy to share
  • Padlet – digital canvas to create projects that are easy to share
  • Poll everywhere – live poll application

All these tools are really user-friendly, and you can teach learners to use them to create their own retrieval practice.



Final Thoughts

Do you have any successful stories you would like to share using retrieval practice? Do you have any suggestions on how to incorporate retrieval without adding to preparation time? Share your thought below in the comments.



Karpicke, J. D., & Roediger III, H. L. (2007). ‘Repeated retrieval during learning is the key to long-term retention’. Journal of Memory and Language, 57(2), 151–162.

McDaniel, M. A., Roediger, H. L., & McDermott, K. B. (2007). ‘Generalizing test-enhanced learning from the laboratory to the classroom’. Psychonomic bulletin & review, 14(2), 200–206.

Pyc, M. A., & Rawson, K. A. (2010). ‘Why testing improves memory: Mediator effectiveness hypothesis’. Science, 330(6002), 335–335.

Roediger III, H. L., Putnam, A. L., & Smith, M. A. (2011). ‘Ten benefits of testing and their applications to educational practice’. Psychology of learning and motivation (55), 1–36. Academic Press.

Rosenshine, B. (2012). ‘Principles of instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know’. American educator, 36(1), 12.

Smith, M. A., Blunt, J. R., Whiffen, J. W., & Karpicke, J. D. (2016). ‘Does providing prompts during retrieval practice improve learning?’. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 30(4), 544–553.