By using retrieval practice as a learning strategy (not an assessment tool!), we exercise and strengthen our memory. Research demonstrates that this improvement in memory and long-term learning is flexible. Studies demonstrate that retrieval practice:

  • Improves complex thinking and application skills
  • Improves organization of knowledge
  • Improves transfer of knowledge to new concepts

In other words, retrieval practice doesn't just lead to memorization - it increases understanding. Because students have a better understanding of classroom material by having practiced using this information, students can adapt their knowledge to new situations, novel questions, and related contexts. You can use a variety of question types (fact-based, conceptual, complex or higher order, etc.) to ensure that students are not memorizing, but using information flexibly.


Retrieval practice encourages flexible understanding, improving higher order thinking skills and transfer of knowledge.

As an additional benefit, retrieval practice helps us to identify gaps in learning. In other words, not only does retrieval improve learning and help us figure out what we do know - more importantly, it helps us figure out what we don't know. This crucial benefit of retrieval practice is called metacognition, or awareness of what students know and don't know. For instance, some students study hard for tests and don't do well, usually because they studied what they already know - they didn't study what they didn't know.

By engaging in retrieval practice, students are able to evaluate what they know and what they don't know, and then make better study decisions. Improved metacognition also benefits teachers: by seeing what students know and don't know, teachers can adjust lesson plans to ensure that all students are on the same page (similar to formative assessment).

An important component of metacognition is feedback, or providing students information about whether they got something correct or incorrect. Without feedback, students won't know whether their retrieval of information was successful. Thus, feedback should always be provided to students after retrieval practice.

More information about retrieval question types, timing, and feedback, see our FAQs