Retrieval practice improves learning more than reviewing classroom content

Summary of Cranney et al. (2009), Larsen et al. (2009), and McDermott et al. (2014)

Motivation: While retrieval practice has been established as a robust strategy to improve learning, a frequent concern is that it takes more time than typical classroom activities in order to yield an increase in student learning. Recently, numerous scientists have examined whether retrieval practice improves learning to a greater extent than classroom review of content or “business as usual” classroom activities.

Educational Settings & Content Areas: Middle school (the animal kingdom and physics), undergraduate (introduction to psychology), and medical school classrooms (neurology)

Retrieval Practice Format: Short answer quizzes

Comparison Condition(s): Reviewing content and “business as usual”

Final Assessment Delay: Ranging from 7 days to 6 months

Procedures: In three studies from a variety of educational settings and content areas, instructors implemented retrieval practice in the form of brief short answer quizzes, followed by immediate feedback. For the review condition, researchers asked students to study a review sheet containing the same information as quiz questions but with answers written out (Cranney et al., & Larsen et al.). In the McDermott et al. study, clicker questions were read aloud with answer statements, in contrast to students individually clicking in an answer during quizzes. In the two studies with “business as usual” control conditions, typical classroom activities continued in lieu of quizzing or reviewing content (Cranney et al., & McDermott et. al).

Results: Regardless of final assessment delay, all three studies found a significant benefit of retrieval practice compared to reviewing or “business as usual” in authentic classroom settings, confirmed by large effect sizes (greater than d = .80).

Takeaway: Educators are encouraged to incorporate brief in-class quizzes in lieu of reviewing already-presented content. Retrieval practice does not take more time than reviewing; instead, it is a more effective and efficient use of classroom time.

Cranney, J., Ahn, M., McKinnon, R., Morris, S., & Watts, K. (2009). The testing effect, collaborative learning, and retrieval-induced facilitation in a classroom setting. European Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 21, 919-940. [PDF]

Larsen, D. P., Butler, A. C., & Roediger, H. L. (2009). Repeated testing improves long-term retention relative to repeated study: A randomized controlled trial. Medical Education, 43, 1174-1181. [PDF]

McDermott, K. B., Agarwal, P. K., D’Antonio, L., Roediger, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Both multiple-choice and short-answer quizzes enhance later exam performance in middle and high school classes. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 20, 3-21. [PDF]

Improve Textbook Learning with Within-Chapter or After-Chapter Retrieval Practice

Click here for the abstract.
AuthorsOyku Uner & Henry L. Roediger, III
JournalJournal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition

Where should retrieval practice questions be placed in textbook chapters? In an experiment with 40-page biology textbook chapters (very long, compared to most research in the field!), college students:

  • Completed questions after reading sections within a chapter

  • Completed questions after reading the entire chapter

  • Completed questions both after sections and at the end of the chapter

  • Read the chapter once without questions

  • Read the chapter once, followed by reading the answers (without retrieving)

After two days, the retrieval practice conditions led to greater final test performance than the two reading-only groups – regardless of whether questions were within or after the textbook chapter. Also, "the more the better:" Answering questions in both locations produced the most learning.

FindingRegardless of the placement of questions, retrieval practice enhances learning more than reading or re-reading long textbook chapters.

Tip: Encourage students to retrieve using practice questions, whether they do it during they read or after they read long textbook chapters.

Enhance Learning Using Elaborative Feedback with Examples

Click here for the abstract.
Authors: Bridgid Finn, Ruthann Thomas, & Katherine A. Rawson
Journal: Learning and Instruction

Does providing feedback with examples benefit conceptual learning? In two experiments, students studied psychology definitions and then:

  • Retrieved the keyword (e.g., outgroup) when provided with the definition (e.g., a group to which a person does not belong), followed by feedback of the correct keyword

  • Retrieved the keyword, followed by feedback with the correct keyword and an example

Final tests included:

  • Providing the original definition and asking for the keyword

  • Providing a new example and asking for the keyword

  • Providing a classification test to examine conceptual understanding

Finding: Feedback with examples improved final test performance more than feedback without examples, regardless of the final test format.

Tip: Provide students with elaborative feedback that includes explanations and examples.


Brief Articles by Cognitive Scientists

Strengthening the Student Toolbox: Study Strategies to Boost Learning by John Dunlosky, published by the American Federation of Teachers. (In this commentary, John Dunlosky condenses 100+ years of research on 10 specific learning strategies into only 21 pages. It's a superb resource for both educators and students who want a succinct review of cognitive research on retrieval practice and additional strategies from an expert. If you'd like to read the 55-page peer-reviewed journal article, which delves into greater detail about this research, it is available here.)

Ask the Cognitive Scientist: Retrieval Practice by Aubrey Francisco, published by Digital Promise. (In this commentary, the author interviews Henry L. Roediger about retrieval practice, improving deeper learning, and applying retrieval strategies in K-12 classrooms.)

A Powerful Way to Improve Learning and Memory by Jeffrey D. Karpicke, published by the American Psychological Association. (In this science brief, the author reviews retrieval practice research and provides tips for implementation in classrooms.)

Using Retrieval Practice to Help Students Learn by Cynthia Brame and Rachel Biel, published by the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. (In this article, the authors review research on optimal retrieval practice strategies: quiz format, feedback, benefits beyond memory, and more. They also provide tips for instructors and caveats to keep in mind.)


Research Articles from Peer-Reviewed Journals

Retrieval Practice Produces More Learning Than Elaborative Studying with Concept Mapping by Jeffrey D. Karpicke and Janell R. Blunt, published in the journal Science. (In this research article, the authors report a set of experiments in which they compared the effectiveness of free recall retrieval practice vs. concept mapping as a study strategy, with college students. Students spent the same amount of time recalling as they did creating concept maps while studying, yet retrieval practice significantly increased later exam performance. This study demonstrates that retrieval practice is more effective for improving learning than concept mapping during studying, a commonly used educational tool. Note that a follow up study demonstrated that concept mapping, when used as a retrieval tool, can be as effective in increasing performance as free recall.)

Integrating Cognitive Science and Technology Improves Learning in a STEM Classroom by Andrew C. Butler and colleagues, published in the journal Educational Psychology Review. (In this research article, the authors report a specific experiment in which retrieval practice and additional learning strategies were implemented in a college course on engineering. The use of a simple and inexpensive online tool for retrieval practice significantly increased student exam performance compared to standard classroom practices.)

The Importance of Seeing the Patient: Test-Enhanced Learning with Standardized Patients and Written Tests Improves Clinical Application of Knowledge by Douglas P. Larsen and colleagues, published in the journal Advances in Health Science Education. (In this research article, the authors report a specific experiment in which they compared the effectiveness of retrieval practice vs. studying with first-year medical students. Students' exam performance was significantly improved following retrieval practice, demonstrating that retrieval practice can be successfully implemented in medical education.)

Recent Research on Human Learning Challenges Conventional Instructional Strategies by Doug Rohrer and Hal Pashler, published in the journal Educational Researcher. (In this review article, the authors examine recent research on three effective learning strategies, including retrieval practice. The authors provide an excellent introduction to the theory, evidence, and implications for implementation for each strategy.


Do you have a recommendation for a book, article, or additional resource about retrieval practice? Please let us know!