Think of retrieval as a learning strategy, not an assessment tool.
Retrieval practice is a strategy in which calling information to mind subsequently enhances and boosts learning. Deliberately recalling information forces us to pull our knowledge “out” and examine what we know. For instance, I might have thought that I knew who the fourth U.S. President was, but I can’t be sure unless I try to come up with the answer myself (it was James Madison).
Often, we think we’ve learned some piece of information, but we come to realize we struggle when we try to recall the answer. It’s precisely this “struggle” or challenge that improves our memory and learning – by trying to recall information, we exercise or strengthen our memory, and we can also identify gaps in our learning.
You're probably already using retrieval practice.
Sounds like a no-brainer? Probably because you’re already using retrieval practice! You might ask questions aloud or use flashcards, assign or complete quizzes and exams, and/or provide problem sets as a way to “practice” what was learned – these are all examples of what we call retrieval practice. The big difference, however, is that retrieval should be used as a learning strategy, not an assessment tool.
In fact, research demonstrates that retrieval is a more potent learning strategy than other techniques commonly used by teachers and students, such as lecturing, re-reading, or taking notes. So, instead of retrieving information only during exams, encourage retrieval during learning to improve students’ understanding and retention of important information.
To learn more about the cognitive science demonstrating the benefits of retrieval practice, peruse a few Research Articles. For recommendations on how to encourage retrieval during learning, see Strategies for Educators.