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Retrieval Practice

Retrieval practice is a long-established practice in education. It provides the basis of cognitive testing in some contexts, and some research suggests that retrieval practice produces better outcomes than studying (Roediger & Butler, 2011). Examples of retrieval practice include the use of in-class tests, flash cards, and memory exercises to test knowledge recall. You will have experienced retrieval practice at work as you have responded to quiz discussion questions.

A recent issue of Impact, the Journal of the Chartered College of Teaching (Spring 2020) was devoted to cognition and learning. Debates for and against ‘retrieval practice’ within this issue highlighted the diverse range of views and practices associated with retrieval practice, and some of the challenges for educators as we embed new knowledge into our practice.

In that issue, Richard Coe provides some words of caution against the use of retrieval practice in the classroom. His specific issues are:

  • Retrieval questions might be generated that focus solely on factual recall (these questions are easier to generate) rather than requiring higher-order thinking.

  • Questions might be too easy and boost confidence without providing real challenge, which is likely to be a key ingredient for generating the kind of learning hoped for.

  • Too much time could be allocated to the quizzes, effectively losing the time that students need to cover new material (Coe, 2020).

Coe argues that educators can avoid some of the pitfalls with: skill to judge whether students have learnt material, or create good questions; understanding that the effect is greatest when recall is difficult; and commitment to planning the quizzes and ensuring there is time in class to fit them in.

Firth et al. (2017) advocate for greater use of retrieval practice in assessment. They argue for an active approach to retrieval, noting that different approaches work across varying age groups. It is important to note the distinction between recall and retrieval. The article poses the question: ‘Recall, review, repeat. This is all well and good, but what can we, as teachers, do to help facilitate successful retrieval?’ (Firth et al., 2017). It is worth reading through the articles below.

This is our final section in this lesson, and the discussion point to consider is:

Do you agree that there is a difference between recall and retrieval? Provide an explanation or illustrative example to support your response.


Coe, R. (2020). Does research on retrieval practice translate into classroom practice? Impact. Retrieved from: https://impact.chartered.college/article/does-research-retrieval-practice-translate-classroom-practice/
Firth, J., Smith, M., Harvard, B., and Boxer, M. (2017). Assessment as learning: The role of retrieval practice in the classroom. Approaches to assessment. Retrieved from: https://impact.chartered.college/article/firth-assessment-as-learning-role-of-retrieval-practice-in-classroom/

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This article is from the free online course:

Learning and Memory: Understandings from Educational Neuroscience

Central Queensland University