Ask the Cognitive Scientist: Retrieval Practice - Digital Promise

Ask the Cognitive Scientist: Retrieval Practice

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October 15, 2014 | By

Cognitive and educational psychologists have uncovered a great deal of information about the mind, brain, memory and learning. Some of this research has found its way into practice through educational materials; however, few have been directly translated to practitioners and students.

Recently, a group of scientists identified easy-to-use learning techniques that can help teachers and students achieve their learning goals. We talked with Henry Roediger, a psychologist at Washington University in St. Louis, about retrieval practice – one technique shown to be effective in improving student learning.

How do you define retrieval practice?

Retrieval practice is, as the name implies, the practice of retrieving information from memory. Suppose I ask you “Who was president before Abraham Lincoln?” The question might take most Americans aback, but they probably once knew. If they are able to say, after reflection, “James Buchanan,” that is retrieval practice. You will know that fact better in the future; if you are asked the same question once a month, within a year you would probably know the answer for a very long time. Spaced retrieval practice (that is, practicing retrieval at fairly long intervals) really helps long-term memory. If the person cannot retrieve Buchanan the first time, feedback should be given and then the person should be tested again later when retrieval is possible. Massed retrieval practice – simply saying “James Buchanan” over repeatedly, does not much help long-term retention.

We all know that such practice helps from how we learned multiplication tables. Most of us had flash cards (now on a computer, probably) with 9 x 4 on one side and 36 on the other. We practiced them at intervals until the answers were automatic.

Being tested on information a certain number of times is much better than simply studying the information an equivalent number of times, so long as a person gets feedback (the right answer) if she or he does not know the answer.

Many people find this outcome counterintuitive, because the way many students try to learn is by repeatedly reading information. Repeatedly retrieving it actually works much better for long-term retention.

Why, at a cognitive level, is testing more beneficial than repeated study?

Psychologists disagree – there are several theories. Here is one way to look at it: What we try to do with repeated reading is to get information into memory, into our store of knowledge. That is often a stated goal of education – to learn and store the information. There is nothing wrong with that, and we need to do it. However, what retrieval practice does is to help us practice getting information out of memory, to actively use information. Retrieval practice is part of active learning. Normal study activities like underlining, highlighting and rereading do not promote retrieval practice.

It is clear that retrieval practice improves long-term retention of information. What evidence is there that it also fosters deeper learning?

Good question! Some educators worry that retrieval practice might just lead to students rote learning of little factoids. Knowing that James Buchanan was president before Lincoln is not of much use if you do not also know how his policies in trying to save the Union seemed to infuriate all sides and, by the end of his presidency, led to (or at least did not prevent) secession of a half dozen southern states.

Research is still ongoing to address your question, but work by Andrew Butler, Jeff Karpicke, Shana Carpenter and Mark McDaniel, among others, shows that retrieval practice does seem to lead to deeper learning in the sense that retrieval practice leads to better transfer to new forms of questions than does repeated studying. In the transfer experiments, the practice tests will give one form of the question, but then the criterial test will give a different form of the question or a question from a different domain. For example, the practice question might be about sonar in submarines and how bouncing sounds off objects in the water localizes those objects. Then the question on the final test might be about sonar in bats – the same principles at work, but in a different domain.

What retrieval practice does is to help us practice getting information out of memory, to actively use information. Henry L. Roediger, III

Further, retrieval practice leads to better learning than some popular techniques that are thought to provide deep understanding like forming concept maps.

What suggestions do you have for teachers on how to leverage retrieval practice in their K-12 classrooms?

We have conducted many experiments in classrooms in middle and high schools in Columbia, Illinois. Briefly, our research used the actual materials in schools (say, sixth grade social studies classes). Our research assistants would quiz certain pieces of information three times, other information once, and other information not at all. The quizzes occurred in the classroom and did not count for a grade – the students seemed to enjoy them as a fun activity that broke up the lectures. They used response systems – “clickers” – to signal the answer to questions and then got immediate feedback. What we found was that on chapter tests, on semester exams and, in some cases, even tests given many months later, the material that had been quizzed more was better retained. This outcome occurred in middle school and in high school in a variety of subjects and classes.

Building retrieval practice into courses is relatively straightforward for teachers. For example, in teaching introductory courses in the university, some of us provide a brief quiz at the end of class over the day’s readings and lecture. We can provide retrieval practice on important concepts, and the quizzes also encourage students to do the readings, to attend class and to pay attention in class. Retrieval practice also works well for students when they are studying, if they are willing to make the effort to compose questions as they read and then try to answer them later. They can also use the key terms and questions that often appear at the end of chapters.

Of course, retrieval practice is not a panacea – other strategies for learning help too – but spaced retrieval practice can produce remarkably strong learning that can last a long time.  People often ask me, “How many times should I practice retrieving?” and “What spacing should I use?” The real answer is that these answers are unknown and probably differ for different materials and different people. However, we should retrieve more than once or twice – maybe 5-7 times – and at long intervals, say over a period of days. You should practice retrieval more frequently for difficult material and for material you think you are barely retrieving. Try it. It works.

Henry L. Roediger, III is the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of psychology at Washington University in St. Louis. Dr. Roediger’s research has centered on human learning and memory and he has published on many different topics within this area. He has published over 200 articles and chapters on various aspects of learning and memory, and is co-author of the recently published book, “Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning.”


  1. Roediger, H. L., Putnam, A. L., & Smith, M. A. (2011). Ten benefits of testing and their applications to educational practice. In J. Mestre & B. Ross (Eds.), Psychology of learning and motivation: Cognition in education (pp. 1-36). Oxford: Elsevier.

  2. Roediger, H. L., & Butler, A. C. (2011). The critical role of retrieval practice in long-term retention. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 15, 20-27.

  3. Karpicke, J. D., & Roediger, H. L. (2008). The critical importance of retrieval for learning. Science, 319, 966-968.

  4. Roediger, H. L., & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). Test-enhanced learning: Taking memory tests improves long-term retention. Psychological Science, 17, 249-255.

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