How often should I use retrieval practice?

The more the better, and space it out. Practice makes perfect, and the more the retrieval practice, the harder it is to forget information. In addition, spacing it out makes retrieval more challenging, and remember that the more challenging the retrieval practice, the better. So, you could include a quick quiz immediately after a lesson, a week after a lesson, and a month after a lesson. These “relearning” sessions are important to refresh our knowledge. Students might forget in between relearning sessions – that’s normal. But, students will also “relearn” information more quickly and effectively each time they engage in retrieval practice.


Should I include feedback after retrieval practice?

Yes. Feedback helps improve students’ metacognition and transfer of knowledge. Without feedback, students don’t know what they got correct and what they got incorrect during retrieval practice. Providing feedback is a key to powerful retrieval practice. Feedback does not mean more work for you, grading more quizzes and assignments. Simply discuss or display the answers and have students self-grade their own retrieval practice. Also, the more elaborate the feedback (e.g., with explanations), the more powerful. Learning and metacognition increase when students receive explanations about why they were correct or incorrect.


Should retrieval practice questions be fact-based or more complex?

Use a variety! Research demonstrates that different questions improve learning in different ways. If you want to boost fact learning, use fact-based questions. If you want to enhance complex thinking skills, use concept-based and higher order questions. Try to avoid using only one type.


Should retrieval practice questions be multiple-choice, short answer, or essay?

All of the above! Our research demonstrates that both multiple-choice and short answer retrieval practice enhance learning. In classroom research, the retrieval benefits from multiple-choice vs. short answer quizzes appear to be similar. In other words, use what's easiest for you. Computer software, online websites, and mobile apps are typically used for multiple-choice questions. At the same time, short answer writing prompts that are quick to complete and easy to follow up with feedback can be very practical.


Should I provide retrieval practice before, during, or after a lesson?

Retrieval practice is most robust if it takes place after a lesson. Again, the more challenging the retrieval, the better. At the same time, nearly any schedule of retrieval practice improves learning when compared to other common teaching and studying strategies. Students and educators should be encouraged to know that the precise schedule of retrieval practice can be flexible. Note, however, that spaced repetition is important. Don't give students homework on what they learned in class earlier that day - challenge them by providing retrieval activities on content learned the prior week.


Should I give retrieval practice for a grade?

No! In fact, providing retrieval practice without points or a grade and keeping it low-stakes will maintain focus on retrieval practice as a learning strategy, not an assessment tool. Students will feel less pressured and more comfortable when making mistakes (which is good for learning!), you can implement challenging retrieval practice without worrying about negative consequences to grades (and you’ll likely see grades increase!), and parents won’t worry that retrieval practice is standardized testing in disguise (it’s not!). Instead, retrieval practice is a tool to help students, not punish them. It improves learning, it improves metacognition, and it decreases test anxiety. Provide feedback, not grades or points, and keep it low-stakes. 


Does retrieval practice increase test anxiety?

No, in fact it decreases test anxiety! Students not only become used to the process of retrieval, but because learning increases, they become more comfortable with course content and less anxious about upcoming exams. Our surveys of middle school and high school students confirm that 72% report a decrease in test anxiety by the end of the school year.


How is retrieval practice different from cold calling?

Teachers often use retrieval practice in their classrooms by simply asking questions throughout their lessons and calling on students to provide a response (also known as "cold calling"). Teachers in our focus groups said that they preferred retrieval practice strategies because they engage the entire class. The standard cold calling procedure, on the other hand, allows students who were not called to be "off the hook." By engaging every student in retrieval practice, every student reaps its benefits for long-term learning.


Do I need to change my style of teaching?

No! You can keep your style of teaching exactly the same. We simply suggest that you insert retrieval practice activities during or after your lessons to improve students' learning and metacognition. Retrieval practice activities can be completely separate from your teaching and lectures, meaning that retrieval practice can be a stand-alone activity. You can teach and use your typical activities in exactly the same way as you have been doing.


Do I need to change my textbook?

No! Retrieval practice works with any textbook materials, especially those that come with practice questions. In our research, we used teachers' textbook materials and we consistently found that retrieval practice was better for learning than was re-reading or re-studying textbook material without retrieval practice. In other words, we did not need to change the instructors textbooks, course materials, or curricula in order to demonstrate large benefits from retrieval practice on learning.

Retrieval practice is a very flexible learning tool that you can use with any materials; you don't have to change your curriculum. Simply adapt your classroom materials to serve as practice retrieval questions.


If I spend time using retrieval practice, how can I cover the same amount of material?

Retrieval practice doesn't take more classroom time - it involves using classroom time more effectively and efficiently. Think about the activities you currently use in class: are students using their "time on task" effectively? How can you be sure that students are learning when you present material (especially if students are re-reading or taking notes)? Research demonstrates that students learn during retrieval practice, and retain very little from typical classroom practices such as lecturing. 

Consider swapping less effective activities with retrieval practice strategies. You'll spend the same amount of time teaching, but your strategies will be more effective and efficient.


What questions would you like us to include? We appreciate your feedback!