69 Retrieval Practice

Active Learning Strategies: Retrieval Practice

Author: Justine Schultz

Editors: Elizabeth Harsma, Carrie Miller, and Michael Manderfeld

Explore these Retrieval Practice topics:

  1. The Forgetting Curve
  2. What is Retrieval Practice?
  3. Keys to Effective Retrieval Practice
  4. Strategies and Technology for Retrieval
  5. Even More Resources

The Forgetting Curve

German psychologist, Hermann Ebbinghaus (1885), discovered that our rate of forgetting is exponential. Therefore, our memory retention is 100% right when we learn something, however our memory retention drops by more than 40% within a few days (Murre & Dros, 2015; Shrestha, 2017).

Through a recent replication of Ebbinghaus work, Murre and Dros (2015) found that when we make no attempt to relearn information, we remember less and less of it as hours, days, and weeks go by. Further, information can be less memorable, depending on how well it is being communicated. For instance, you will more likely remember information that is well organized and logical, as opposed to information this is scattered and scribbled.

Image. The forgetting curve

The Forgetting Curve line graph has a vertical axis labeled Retention and a horizontal axis labeled Time. The line graph shows an exponential downward curve demonstrating forgetting occurs quickly after learning without retrieval.

“Are you giving lessons to be remembered or to be forgotten?”- Cognitive Scientist Joseph Kim

What is Retrieval Practice?

“Retrieval practice is the act of trying to recall information without it in front of you” (Gonzalez, 2017).

In other words, retrieval practice boosts learning by pulling information out of student’s heads (e.g., low or no stakes quizzes, flashcards), rather than putting information into students’ heads (Agarwal et al., 2020; Jones, 2019). Purposefully recalling information from memory allows us to pull our knowledge “out” and examine what we know (and don’t know) in order to enhance learning and understanding.

Odds are you are already giving quizzes, exams, or homework as a way to assess student understanding of key concepts, however the big difference with retrieval practice is that it should be used as a learning strategy rather than an assessment tool (Agarwal et al., 2020).

Agarwal and colleagues (2020) report that when we use retrieval practice as a means for learning, we are able to exercise and strengthen our memory. Further, Agarwal and colleagues’ research suggests that if students struggle to recall an answer (productive struggle) and have to go back and look it up (feedback), that memory is strengthened even more in the long term (2020).

In addition to improving long-term learning, educational research supports that retrieval practice:

  1. Improves recall of related learning, even if it wasn’t previously retrieved,
  2. Boosts student’s complex thinking and application skills,
  3. Enhances student’s organization of knowledge,
  4. Improves student’s transfer of knowledge to new concepts, and
  5. Increases understanding, not just memory/recall (Agarwal, et al., 2020).

Keys to Effective Retrieval Practice

Researchers Agarwal & Bain (2019) and Sherrington (2019) also propose distinct success tips for using retrieval in your course:

  • Assure All Students are Involved in Retrieval: Choose activities that require all students to participate.
  • Make Activities Low or No Stakes: Avoid penalizing mistakes/errors and reward practice over accuracy.
  • Make Feedback Efficient: Remember any feedback is more effective than no feedback. Consider peer feedback opportunities and allow time for students to provide feedback to themselves through self-reflection. Leverage automated feedback using technology and consider a whole class de-brief or group feedback may be effective as well (see also Brame & Biel, 2015).
  • Focus Retrieval on Key Concepts and Learning Goals: Remember retrieval improves recall of related learning, even if it wasn’t retrieved previously. Use time efficiently by narrowing scope/focus of questions.
  • Mix Things Up: Use a variety of retrieval practice questions, prompts, or strategies and require simple identification and recall of concepts as well as apply, evaluate, and create questions.

Strategies and Technology for Retrieval

Here we share a few ways to use retrieval practice strategy to spread out throughout your class sessions or course design to help flatten the forgetting curve:

Video Quizzes

Pepper low- or no-stakes retrieval questions throughout a video micro-lecture, demonstation, or lesson. The Media Space Video Quiz tool is a helpful resource for creating these kinds of retrieval activities.

Free Recall or Brain Dumps

At the start, end, or after a section of related content, pause for one or two minutes. During that time ask students to write down everything they recall from the previous class session, last week’s content, the current lecture, etc. Then move on with the class.

Free Recall activities can be completed using:

A variation on this strategy is the Pair Share. After the free recall activity pair students in break out rooms or ask them to turn and compare their recall with peer. Students can identify common recalled items and provide each other feedback if inaccuracies or mismatches in information occur (Agarwal & Bain, 2019).

Low- or No-Stakes Stakes Quizzes

As mentioned above, these quizzes are most effective when designed as a learning strategy, not an assessment. Ideally, students wouldn’t get scores on them at all, but if you must give some points, make them an almost negligible part of students’ overall class grade (Agarwal & Bain, 2019; Brame & Biel, 2015;; Sherrington, 2019).

Low stakes quizzes can be conducted with:

Engage Students in Writing Test Questions

When students are able to help write test questions, they are actually practicing a wide variety of skills (Agarwal & Bain, P, 2019). For example, they need to:

  • Think about what may be on an exam,
  • Think about what is most important,
  • Find terms or concepts that are in the same category to write reasonable “distractor” options in multiple choice questions, and
  • Confirm each of the “distractor” options are wrong (Agarwal & Bain, 2019).

You can use technology like:

This tech provides spaces for students to share their test questions with each other and can practice quizzing themselves to prepare for an exam. You might also choose to create a quiz using student created questions  any one of the technology tools shared above.

Even More Resources

Access various guides and strategies for teaching with retrieval practice at RetrievalPractice.org including this specific guide on Retrieval Practice.

Help students understand retrieval and improve their study skills with downloadable resources from The Learning Scientists blog.

Listen to a podcast on retrieval practice on the Cult of Pedagogy website.

Download resources for retrieval practice from the authors of Powerful Teaching.


Agarwal, P. K., & Bain, P. M. (2019). Powerful Teaching: Unleash the science of learning. Wiley. Kindle Edition.

Agarwal, P. K., Roediger, H. L., McDaniel, M. A., & McDermott, K. B. (2020). How to use retrieval practice to improve learning. Retrieved Practice. Retrieved December 10, 2021, from https://orbit.texthelp.com/?file=http%3A%2F%2Fpdf.retrievalpractice.org%2FRetri            evalPracticeGuide.pdf.

Brame, C. J. & Biel, R. (2015). Test-enhanced learning: The potential for testing to promote greater learning in undergraduate science courses. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 14, 1-12.  www.lifescied.org/content/14/2/es4.full.pdf+html

Chen, Huang, C. (Kathy), Gribbins, M., & Swan, K. (2018). Gamify online courses with tools built into your learning management system to enhance self-determined and active learning. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks JALN22(3), 41–. https://doi.org/10.24059/olj.v22i3.1466

Gonzalez, J. (24 September 2017). Retrieval Practice: The Most Powerful Learning Strategy

You’re Not Using. CultOfPedagogy.com. Retrieved from:   https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/retrieval-practice/

Jones, K. (2019). Retrieval practice: Research and resources for every classroom. John Catt Educational Ltd.

Murre, J. M., & Dros, J. (2015). Replication and analysis of Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve. PloSone, 10(7), e0120644. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0120644

Sherrington, T. (2019). 10 techniques for retrieval practice. Teacherhead. Retrieved January 20, 2022, from https://teacherhead.com/2019/03/03/10-techniques-for-retrieval-practice/

Shrestha, P. (2017). Ebbinghaus forgetting curve. Psychestudy, https://www.psychestudy.com/cognitive/memory/ebbinghaus-forgetting-curve.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

Maverick Learning and Educational Applied Research Nexus Copyright © 2021 by Minnesota State University, Mankato is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book