Why Retrieval Practice Will Help You Learn More

Why Retrieval Practice Will Help You Learn More

What is the name of that actor? You know the one. He was in The Hangover, loves the Eagles, he’s blondish, and he can sing. What.is.his.name?

Ever had a moment like this one while I struggled to remember Bradley Cooper’s name? I can guarantee that I was looking up and probably gesticulating wildly, while trying to pull that piece of information out of my head. And I eventually did. Whew! And the fact that I was able to pull that factoid out of my head means I learned his name even better.

A few months ago I heard a podcast that made me sit up and listen. Adrianne at Math for Middles turned me onto The Cult of Pedagogy.  It’s a podcast for teachers by a teacher. And it’s ah-mazing. Super research-based and way more useful than almost any professional development I ever sat through!

But you don’t have to be a teacher to love what I’m going to talk to you about today – retrieval practice. It’s a way to remember more information and perform better on quizzes and tests. And it doesn’t take much time. If you’re a student, you can make some small changes to your studying to see real results. If you’re a teacher, you can implement retreival practice in your classroom tomorrow with a few minutes of prep.

This post is LONG, so I created a reference guide for you. Download it now and save it for later. Let’s dig into my (and now your) new favorite learning strategy!

Why Retrieval Practice Will Help You Learn More

What is retrieval practice?

So often, we focus on getting content into our brains, but retrieval practice focuses on getting that information out of our head. Studies show that the more you try to retrieve information, the more you actually learn it!

I’ve said before that your brain is like a muscle; the more you use it the stronger it gets. When you lift weights, you have to push yourself, strain a little, to make progress. When you have to work to retrieve a piece of information from your brain – that’s the same process!

In a nutshell, retrieval practice forces you to retrieve or get information out of your brain. Can you remember that piece of information or this big concept? It’s a low-stakes learning strategy, where there is no penalty for not remembering the content. However, there is (hopefully) some sort of feedback to let the learner know how well he remembered the content.

Retrieval practice is a learning strategy that can be used anywhere and at any time.Click To Tweet

When I couldn’t remember Bradley Cooper’s name that day, I realized that I didn’t know as much as I thought. The same thing happens when you use retrieval practice on yourself or on others. You find out what you know – and what you don’t know. The fancy term for this is metacognition, or thinking about your own thinking or learning. This allows you to go back and relearn content that you forgot.

And retrieval practice just doesn’t help with individual facts, but deeper forms of understanding. When you struggle to retrieve information, you learn the information better. This means you are better able to transfer that learning to other units or courses as well.

Retrieval practice can be used by students of all ages and in all subjects. That’s right – everyone can use retrieval practice to improve their learning.

I’m a student. How can I use retrieval practice?

student in library
Photo by Eliott Reyna on Unsplash

Knowledge is power. So, just knowing about retrieval practice is important. But let’s talk about how you can implement it in your own studying.

Changes in how you take notes

After reading a section from the text, CLOSE THE BOOK and take notes from memory. Then go back and check your answers. Importantly, correct anything you wrote down incorrectly and make additions as necessary.

Get more ideas for taking notes from a textbook in my most popular post!

Upgrade your flashcard practice

When using flashcards, make yourself actually think of the answer before turning the card over. It’s tempting to think, “Oh, I know this one” without actually thinking of the answer. But if you force yourself to think, or even better, say it out loud, you’re doing the heavy lifting of retrieval.

Brain dump

When you start to review a topic, take 5 minutes and write down everything you remember about it. Then take out your notes from that topic and compare your old notes to your brain dump. Use a different colored pen or pencil to make any necessary corrections or additions.

Two Things

At the end of the week or a unit, ask yourself to retrieve 2 things. What are two things I learned this week? This unit? That I want to remember at the end of the year? How does this relate to an earlier unit?

I’m a teacher, How can I use retrieval practice in my classroom?

students and teacher in classroom
Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Here’s the immediate upside of using retrieval practice in the classroom – no grading. That’s right – zero grading, friends. Reteival practice in most efective when it is not graded.

Also, retrieval practice doesn’t require massive changes to what you’re already doing. You might already be using retrieval practice, in fact. You probably only need to make some tweaks to your classroom practices to get started!

Review questions

I actually did this for a few months in my AP Government class. If I’d realized how useful it was for students, I would have kept this up. Post a few review questions at the beginning of class. Include questions from not only this current unit, but older units as well. Go over the correct answers and explain why those answers are correct.

This can be really quick if you have clickers or use a response system like Socrative. Just be sure to vary the type of questions you ask. Use multiple-choice choice today, but a short answer question tomorrow.


When reviewing a topic, either from last month or last night, have students write everything they can remember from the topic. Be specific about the topic or set a time limit for writing. To make it more powerful, have students share with a partner.

Two Things

I love this suggestion for a bell ringer, quick break in class, or exit ticket. Ask your student to write down 2 things about a specific prompt. Some possible questions could be “What are 2 things you learned yesterday?” or “What are 2 ways this topic relates to an earlier unit?”

Tweak Think-Pair-Share

Throw up a quick prompt. If you’re not already doing it, have students first write a response to the TPS prompt. Have students switch papers and respond in writing, adding to their partner’s answer. Then have students talk about what they wrote. Your students are retrieving AND getting feedback from someone other than you!

Flash Forward

Ask students to respond to the following prompt: Now that you’ve taken this class, what is one thing you want to remember 10 years from now (and why)? Give students a few minutes to write down their answers and then have them share answers with at least one other student.

Gah! I love this question because it produces so much rich thought from students. I wish I could go back in time and ask this of all my former students!

Teach your students about retrieval practice!

Let students know this is a learning strategy and tell them how it works. when you use retrieval practice in the classroom, explicitly tell your students what you are doing and why. Then students can start using this on their own!

retrieval practice button

For more information, listen to the Cult of Pedagogy episode or head over to the Retrievalpractice.org website.

Related Posts: Taking Notes from a Textbook, The Best Way to Use Flashcards

Retrieval practice is a learning strategy that can improve your learning - right now! Find out why retrieval practice works and ways to start using it today! #retrievalpractice #studyskills

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