Incorporating Retrieval Practice in Your Course

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by Kristen Mosley

The adage “practice makes perfect” underlies many teaching and learning efforts. However, how one practices – as opposed to merely whether one practices or not – has been found to matter for how well one learns.1 This week’s post introduces the concept of retrieval practice and how this tool can facilitate long-term learning for your students.

While many college courses have several high-stakes assessment and feedback opportunities, such as midterms, end-of-module exams, and finals, what lies between these larger moments may prove fruitful for students’ long-term retention of learning. Retrieval practice, defined as an “act of calling information to mind rather than rereading it or hearing it”,2 stems from cognitive research focused on understanding what makes learning stick. Research in this area has blossomed over many decades, resulting in two widely accepted notions:

(1) The utility of retrieval practice seems to defy tacit assumptions about learning. Specifically, while many think the initial learning moment is the most important for knowledge construction, later opportunities to retrieve, reconstruct, and enhance understanding may supersede the impact of the initial learning moment.3

(2)  Repeated, spaced retrieval practice – actively recalling previously learned information after time has elapsed – facilitates long-term learning. Retrieval practice, therefore, serves two functions: it alerts the learner to what extent they understand the material and the act of retrieving the material further strengthens the learning memory.4 That is, putting time between initial learning and later retrieval initiates momentary forgetting that may, in fact, deter long-term forgetting.

Unfortunately, many students employ ineffective learning techniques, such as highlighting, rereading, and summarizing,5 and their struggles with successfully recalling their learning at later time points abound. However, low-stakes testing and participation opportunities, such as assigning weekly quizzes or using student-response systems during class, can provide opportunities for effective retrieval practice.6

Our office suggests taking advantage of the many technological tools we have, such as Canvas quizzes and Poll Everywhere, but retrieval practice doesn’t have to be so formally or technically executed. If looking for a low-lift way to incorporate this technique into your course, consider adding a few slides to the beginning of each class with which you ask students to respond to questions about previously learned material. For example:

1. Open-ended retrieval practice stem:

“Last week, we discussed ___. If you were to describe ___ to someone who hasn’t taken this course, what would you say?”

2. Closed retrieval practice stem:

“In the prior unit, we learned about ___. Which best describes ___?”

            A. …

            B. …

            C. …

Remember, the point of incorporating retrieval practice is not to formally track students’ learning progress for them. Instead, the addition of retrieval practice in your course should provide additional opportunities for students to actively think about (retrieve!) previously learned information to champion their long-term retention of the material.

1. McDermott, K. B. (2021). Practicing retrieval facilitates learning. Annual Review of Psychology72, 609-633.

2. Roediger III, H. L., & Butler, A. C. (2011). The critical role of retrieval practice in long-term retention. Trends in cognitive sciences15(1), 20-27.

3. Karpicke, J. D. (2012). Retrieval-Based Learning: Active Retrieval Promotes Meaningful Learning. Current Directions in Psychological Science21(3), 157–163.

4. Roediger, H. L., & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). The power of testing memory: Basic research and implications for educational practice. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1, 181-210.

5. Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest14(1), 4-58.

6. Nilson, L. B. (2010). Teaching at Its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors. John Wiley & Sons.

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