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Retrieval Practice: The Most Powerful Learning Strategy You’re Not Using

September 24, 2017

Jennifer Gonzalez


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Listen to my interview with Pooja Agarwal (transcript):

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We’ve talked about retrieval practice two other times on this site: First in 2015, when we read the book Make it Stick. Then in 2016, I interviewed cognitive psychologists Megan Smith and Yana Weinstein about the Six Powerful Learning Strategies You Must Share with Students.

In both cases, I noticed that although we were discussing collections of techniques, retrieval practice was at the core of both groups. Because it’s such a powerful technique, I would think that by now it would have really taken off, that I’d hear teachers talking about it and see the term crop up in lots of education spaces, but I don’t see that happening.

So I wanted to give it one more push by carving out a designated spot for it here. My goal is to help retrieval practice become a regular part of classroom practice and part of our common vocabulary as teachers. To help with this cause, I interviewed Pooja Agarwal, Ph.D., cognitive scientist and founder of

Dr. Pooja Agarwal


What is Retrieval Practice?

Retrieval practice is the act of trying to recall information without having it in front of you. Suppose you’re studying the systems of the human body—skeletal, muscular, circulatory, and so on. You could do retrieval practice by attempting to name those systems without looking at the list. Once you’ve listed all you can remember, you’d open up your book or notes and check to see if you got them right.

You might be thinking, This is nothing new. The whole concept of flashcards is built on retrieval practice, and flashcards have been around forever, right?

What’s new is the research: In recent years, cognitive psychologists have been comparing retrieval practice with other methods of studying—strategies like review lectures, study guides, and re-reading texts. And what they’re finding is that nothing cements long-term learning as powerfully as retrieval practice.

The Research

Agarwal and her colleagues studied the effects of retrieval practice with students in a middle school social studies course (McDaniel, Agarwal, Huelser, McDermott, & Roediger, 2011). Over the course of a year and a half, while the teacher continued teaching as normal, students were regularly quizzed on the material with no-stakes quizzes, meaning they wouldn’t count against their grades. These quizzes only covered about one-third of what was being taught. The teacher left the room for every quiz, so she had no knowledge of what was included in the quizzes.

On end-of-unit exams, students scored a full grade level higher on the material from the quizzes than on any of the other material. The other concepts had been taught and reviewed by the teacher as they normally would; the only difference was that some things also appeared on the no-stakes quizzes, and those were the concepts students retained more fully when tested on the exam.

The very act of being quizzed actually helped students learn better.

Here’s what this means for teachers: When we teach something once, then want to do something else to help students learn it better, instead of just reviewing the content, we’re much better off giving something like a quiz instead. In other words, if we do more asking students to pull concepts out of their brains, rather than continually trying to put concepts in, students will actually learn those concepts better.

To read about other studies on retrieval practice, click here. For now, let’s look at some ways you can incorporate retrieval practice into your instruction.

Ways to Use Retrieval Practice in the Classroom

This quick, low-maintenance strategy can be used at any time to have students recall information, then share it with a partner. You can use think-pair-shares with single-answer questions, or make them more open-ended, like “Think of one thing you learned yesterday about cells.” Be sure to have students think on their own before turning to a partner. “It’s important for students to retrieve individually as much as possible,” Agarwal advises. “If you jump right into pairs, then we all know as educators that some students are retrieving and some may not be.” One way to make sure all students retrieve is to have them jot responses down on paper before sharing them with a partner.

Low-Stakes Quizzes
These can be given on paper, in a Google Form, with an individual response system like clickers, Plickers, or Poll Everywhere; or by using a game like Kahoot or Quizziz. It’s important to note that these quizzes are a learning strategy: 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.

Brain Dumps
Have students get out a sheet of paper and, within a certain length of time, write down everything they know about a topic of study. This can be done at the beginning of a unit (similar to how you’d use a K-W-L Chart), partway through as a way to reinforce learning, or near the end of a unit. Once students have completed theirs, they can exchange them in a think-pair-share or use them to compile a whole-class brain dump. Then they can return to their texts to see what they missed or what needs correction.

These can be a powerful retrieval tool in class or at home, but students need to be taught to use them correctly:


click for larger view


Tips and Cautions

Retrieval practice is not the same thing as assessment.
Although some retrieval activities might allow you to formatively assess student understanding, remember that retrieval practice is a learning activity. Again, if you must assign points for practices, make sure they will have a very low impact on student grades.

Space your practice.
Retrieval practice is even more effective if it’s done in short bursts over time, rather than in a single long session. This spacing causes students to forget some of the material, and the struggle involved in trying to recall it strengthens their long-term learning.

Include feedback.
If students retrieve the wrong information, the practice won’t be much good unless they find out the right information, so be sure to give them feedback as they go. This can be as simple as providing the correct answer or letting students check their texts after they have attempted to retrieve. “Part of that isn’t just so students know if they got their answer correct or incorrect,” Agarwal says, “but it adjusts students’ metacognition,” helping them get “better at estimating or judging what they know and what they don’t know.”

Match your practice to your assessment.
If your summative assessment for a chunk of content will be basic recall of facts, then the retrieval practice can be that simple. But it you’re going to include some higher-order questions as well, then be sure to ask those same types of questions in retrieval practice.

Does it Fit with Inquiry Learning?

If your classroom is built around more hands-on, inquiry-driven approaches to learning that don’t prioritize retaining specific content—structures like Genius Hour and project-based learning—you might wonder whether retrieval practice is relevant to your teaching.

Consider this: Within any of those frameworks, students still have to learn and retain discrete information. Take, for example, a student who has decided to learn Arabic as his focus for Genius Hour, or students who are studying soil pH as part of a gardening project. Both students will need to study and remember concrete information in order to make progress, so even if your instruction isn’t set up in a traditional way, understanding how retrieval practice works can help you help your students learn better.

A Little Goes a Long Way

Agarwal’s final piece of advice is to start small. “If a student just writes down two things or one thing they learned, and then you move on, that’s okay,” she says. “You’ll still get benefits of retrieval without spending five minutes in a classroom discussion.”

It can be a bell-ringer. An exit slip. A sponge activity. Something you do while students stand in line for lunch. Don’t overthink it. Agarwal advises teachers to ask themselves this: “What is one way we can flip from reviewing information to students retrieving information? What can we do tomorrow?”

What will you do tomorrow? ♦


Learn More

Dr. Agarwal and her colleagues have put together this comprehensive guide to using retrieval practice. Visit to get a free copy for yourself.


Karpicke, J. D. (2009). Metacognitive control and strategy selection: deciding to practice retrieval during learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General138(4), 469.

McDaniel, M. A., Agarwal, P. K., Huelser, B. J., McDermott, K. B., & Roediger III, H. L. (2011). Test-enhanced learning in a middle school science classroom: The effects of quiz frequency and placement. Journal of Educational Psychology103(2), 399.

There’s a lot more where this came from.
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  1. Erin Farley says:

    I have a wacky review game that I created based on a New Year’s Eve game I played as a kid, that works really well. And after reading your article, I see that the my 8th graders are using retrieval practice. It’s pretty much the only review game I use because it’s so effective to study for a social studies test.

    I call it the three round game. There is a large bowl full of cards with key terms, people, etc. like one side of the flash card. Kids are out into three teams. Round 1 is kind of like the game Taboo: one player comes up and gives as many social studies clues as possible without saying the word and the card and tries to get their team to guess the word. The student does as many cards as possible in a minute. 1 point per card. If team doesn’t guess the card it goes back in the bowl. Next team goes, then the third, etc. round 1 ends when the bowl is empty- every card guessed correctly. Round 2- every card goes back in the bowl so the kids have seen them all. Now it’s charades and each card is worth 2 points. Same idea as round one: 1 minute per team but doing Charades. Round ends when the bowl is empty. Round 3-all cards back in, kids have seen them twice. Like the two previous rounds kids have to get their team to yell out the answer but this time the clue giver can only say one word. One social studies related word that will get their team to guess the word and each card is worth five points. This game is crazy loud and fun and they know their stuff after. And it’s all retrieval, I only give them the terms.

    • Hi Erin. Three rounds sounds amazing! I can imagine that just one of the rounds would be effective, but the combination of all three sounds incredibly valuable. I might even try this with my college students. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Student made flashcards are worked into our Word Work Must Do for Guided reading. The create the deck with a partner and quiz each other on the words. They keep past and present decks in their folder.

    After shared reading during their reflection time I ask them to simply define the concept we learned in one sentence. For example, “What is point of view? ” When they show me their journal I either star for effort or give a check for a correct response. Student can immediately retrieve and also get immediate feedback on their learning.

    Definitely will be bringing this to teachers at my site!

    • Fantastic use of retrieval and feedback that’s low-stakes and engaging. The star for effort (wrong answers?) sounds like a great method for feedback. Thanks!

  3. Leigh says:

    I play classroom bingo which incorporates retrieval. It takes a lot of work, so I don’t do it but a couple of times a year, but it can probably be adapted to your own needs.

    I often play classroom bingo on a “fun” day like Halloween. I make up bingo cards based on words and phrases from the day’s lecture. (this is the part that is time intensive.) Students will mark the words when I discuss them. When they get bingo, then they call it out. I ask them to tell me about one of the words in their winning bingo line. Not only does it help the students retrieve the information from the lecture, but it also helps me catch misunderstanding early. Students can call out bingo for the entire class period, so there are multiple “winners.” Students also get a small prize when they call out bingo.

    • Mary Frawley says:

      Hi Leigh,
      I love this idea. I think you could lessen your workload if you flash the words up on the board, have the students copy them on a bingo board anyway they want. Then continue the game…. You are giving them a pre-view of the words, AND you don’t have to make bingo boards for them.

    • Bingo! Retrieval + feedback + multiple winners + low-stakes + formative assessment. Super. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Mark Carstens says:

    Thank you for posting this article, Angela. I found Pooja’s web site two years ago while research Robert Bjork’s (UCLA) work on learning. What a gift!

    Using start of the day “Do Now” one and two question “tests” (magic if the mini white board) of previously taught curriculum (especially math) and low stakes quizzes not only helps my kids learn (through retrieval practice and feedback), but provides me useful formative assessment data that helps shape my instruction.

    Really good stuff. 👍

    • I’m flattered, Mark! Glad you found Bob Bjork’s website. I have a few of his presentations in a playlist on my new YouTube channel: Enjoy!

  5. Jeanie Elder says:

    You never cease to amaze me, Jennifer! I am always eager to listen/read to your podcasts. One clarifying question I had was, I know that retrieval practice is NOT the same as assessment, but would it be appropriate for teachers to use that information formatively?

    • Debbie Sachs says:

      Hi Jeanie, I’m a Customer Experience Manager with Cult of Pedagogy and a former teacher. Yep, there are times when retrieval practice lends itself well to informing instruction, especially if the practice indicates particular misconceptions. The main thing is to remember the practice is a learning activity and should have little to no impact on student grades. Hope this helps!

    • Hi Jeanie! Great question which we didn’t touch on. Retrieval practice can definitely serve as formative assessment for teachers. I like to emphasize that retrieval practice is foremost a learning strategy for students, with the added benefit of formative assessment. This way, we keep in mind the primary purpose – learning. I hope that helps.

      • Kendra Grant says:

        I like the terms assessment of, for and as learning. Assessment of learning is summative. Assessment for learning is formative used by the teacher for next steps. Assessment as learning is metacognitive (and reflective) used by the student to understand themselves as a learner and to plan next steps. In this case, retrieval practice is both assessment for and as learning.

  6. Regina Schantz says:

    I love this article, plus all the tips and activity suggestions. Today in Spanish 3, pairs of students worked together to recall 20 facts/events from chapters 1-6 of a 10-chapter novel we are reading. They listed them in Spanish on a paper. It was a good review after a crazy homecoming week last week. Now they are prepared for today when we will read chapter 7.

  7. Randy Sparks says:

    Great article. I apply this technique as a golf coach. By asking questions the athlete can achieve guided discovery but more importantly, the athlete/golfer is better prepared on the golf course during a tournament when chaos takes place. They are better prepared for problem solving.

    • Great adaptation, Randy! All of these strategies (retrieval, spacing, feedback, etc.) all apply in sports and motor learning. More research on applications to sports is described in Make it Stick (mentioned in the podcast and linked above). You may also be interested in a book entitled Choke by Sian Beilock. She’s a psychological scientist who looks at performance anxiety and choking under pressure (especially in sports). Thanks!

  8. Frankie Davis RN MSN says:

    Thank you. These strategies can be applied with nursing students in the clinical settings to help them retrieve pathophysiology of patients disease processes.

    Thank you again.

  9. Jerome says:

    What a great post. Thanks for sharing all the resources as well. Quick question; Is it better to pair a picture with the word, or with the definition/information/fact side of a flashcard?

  10. OK so I finally got on Pinterest (really!) and guess what the first article I read was? Thank you for this information, showing we really can go back to the basics when helping students memorize. I appreciate the research as well, and will check out Dr. Agarwal’s site. We found that flashcards weren’t working well for my homeschooled, hands-on kid in learning math facts—ironically. So we’ve switched to a sing-song cadence she does while we’re going to or from rehearsal or practice, 5 days a week. She goes through a number, multiplying it from 0 to 12 in order, 3 times. Then I ask her the facts, out of order. If she doesn’t get something right, I remind her of the answer and she says, for example, “6 x 7 is 42,” 3 times, in the same sing-song cadence. So far, we’re seeing a huge improvement in her recall! Of course I’m open to suggestions and love the ideas I’m seeing here. Thank you!

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