Sunday / March 3

Ways to Enhance Remembering: The Role of Retrieval Practice in Learning 

Part 3 of the 4-part series on Promising Principles to Enhance Learning. 

Part 1: Seven Promising Principles to Enhance Learning in Your School or Classroom  

Part 2: Four Ingredients that Motivate our Learners to Engage 

Whether you teach physics or physical education, mathematics or music, calculus or kindergarten, we want our students to do more than just perform on a single test.  While tests are an essential and necessary aspect of teaching and learning, how learners perform on a test is just one part of what happens in our schools and classrooms.  So, let’s use the following two questions to guide our conversation in this Corwin Connect post: Do you want your students to simply perform on a single test? Or do you want them to really learn the knowledge, skills, and understandings so that they can apply them to later learning?  These questions evoke two very distinct perspectives on the role tests play in teaching and learning.  The first question views tests as the end goal.  If learners perform well on a single test, then we can check the box and move on.  The second question views tests as a means to an end where the act of taking the test increases the acquisition, consolidation, and storage of content, skills, and understandings.  This second viewpoint is where we’re headed in the subsequent paragraphs. 

Unless you followed your learners from one grade-level to the next, the students entering your classroom at the start of the school year spent last year in a different classroom. What do you hope the goal of the previous year’s teacher was for his or her learners? Performing on a test or truly learning the necessary content, skills, and understandings.  That’s what we thought. Our goal would be truly learning as well. Students walk into our classrooms with different interests, background knowledge, and prior experiences. Our goal, and thus our job, is to move them forward in their learning and not simply prepare them to perform on an assessment.   

The learning in our schools and classrooms should be marked by the amount of growth demonstrated by each learner. Consequently, we strive to purposefully and intentionally create learning experiences that result in learning and growth. With the overwhelming collection of research, books, and articles reporting on what works, extracting information that helps us create these learning experiences can be a challenge. Often the take-away is a shiny new strategy that promises to work, not unlike a late-night infomercial for a new product that will dramatically improve your life! Yes, there are incredibly powerful strategies that have shown incredible growth in student learning. However, as Bjork and Bjork (2014) pointed out, the learning is not the result of the strategy producing long-term learning beyond performance on a test, but rather the cognitive processes which are engaged by these strategies. One of these cognitive processes is retrieval practice.   

What is retrieval practice? 

Retrieval practice is the act of “going and getting” declarative, procedural, and conditional knowledge from long-term memory.  Once learning is acquired, encoded, and stored, the act of retrieval is the reactivation of that learning through active processing.  For example, consolidation and long-term learning calls for retrieving the characteristics of reptiles, the process for finding the slope of a line, the importance of citing evidence from the text to support inferences, or the specific building codes for electrical wiring.  The act of “going and getting” information is well-documented in the research as a means for increasing the consolidation and storage of learning (Bjork, 1975; Roediger & Karpicke, 2006).  In fact, the body of research on retrieval practice has yielded four ideas that can enhance remembering and move our learners away from simply performing on a single test. 

  1. Instead of repeated restudying, learners are far better off testing themselves, both early and often.  Simply looking at worked problems, rereading the chapter, or flipping through flashcards, learners should generate their own problems or questions and then try to answer them.  After they attempt to answer them, they should set aside time to check the accuracy of their responses.   
  2. This does not mean that we administer more tests, but rather provide numerous opportunities for students to retrieve previously learned information from memory.  Learners may not be ready, yet, to engage in self-regulated retrieval practice.  We must create opportunities during instructional time that both promote retrieval practice and teach the specific strategies to our students.   
  3. With feedback, either by seeing the answers or reviewing the information, the benefits of testing become even more powerful.  That’s right!  Getting the retrieval practice wrong offers us an opportunity to provide feedback and review specific gaps in student learning.  This also highlights the value of mistakes in the learning process. Mistakes in retrieval practice helps us and our students devote attention to specific learning needs. 
  4. Standardized testing is not an obstacle to retrieval practice.  For multiple – choice questions, have students justify why a particular answer is correct and why other answers are incorrect.  In fact, one way to integrate retrieval practice into multiple-choice tests is to provide the question without the responses.  Then, have learners generate (i.e., retrieve) the response that they would be looking for in the list of choices.  Finally, provide the choices so that they can verify their thinking.   

Simply put, long-term retention depends on retrieval practice. However, we can easily walk away from these four ideas believing that quantity is the key message.  Researchers believed the same thing and decided to study this aspect of retrieval practice.  Let’s try an experiment to address this misconception. 

Of the fifteen pennies in the picture below, which one is the correct image of a penny? Only one is the correct image. 

How difficult was this task? You more than likely had to locate a real penny to verify your answer (which is a). However, we have all seen hundreds if not thousands of pennies in our lifetime: repetition. So clearly repetition alone is not the answer to retrieval practice, otherwise you would be able to draw a perfect penny from memory. Completing an assignment of a “gazillion” questions in a packet or reviewing a mile-high stack of flashcards is not going to enhance learning or the desire for future learning. This may help with cramming, but that is performance and not long-term learning. The harder a learner has to work to retrieve the information; the stronger the memory becomes.  Quality, not quantity! 

As we move forward into the new academic year, we must remember that there is a difference between performance on a test and truly acquiring, consolidating, and storing the essential knowledge, skills, and understandings of our grade-level and content areas.  While there are many cognitive processes that support this aim, retrieval practice is an absolute must!  When looking at how you ask learners to retrieve information, is it merely repetition or do they have to actively retrieve learning?  This is the difference between cramming and long-term learning. 


Bjork, R. A. (1975). Retrieval as a memory modifier: An interpretation of negative recency and  

related phenomena. In Information processing and cognition: The Loyola Symposium. 

Nickerson, R. S., and Adams, J. J. (1979). Long-term memory for a common object. Cognitive  

Psychology, 11, 287-307. 

Roediger, H. L., & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). The power of testing memory. Basic research and  

implications for educational practice. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1(3), 


Written by

Dr. John Almarode has worked with schools, classrooms, and teachers all over the world. John began his career teaching mathematics and science in Augusta County to a wide range of students. Since then, he has presented locally, nationally, and internationally on the application of the science of learning to the classroom, school, and home environments. He has worked with hundreds of school districts and thousands of teachers. In addition to his time in PreK – 12 schools and classrooms he is an Associate Professor in the Department of Early, Elementary, and Reading Education and the Director of the Content Teaching Academy. At James Madison University, he works with pre service teachers and actively pursues his research interests including the science of learning, the design and measurement of classroom environments that promote student engagement and learning. John and his colleagues have presented their work to the United States Congress, the United States Department of Education as well as the Office of Science and Technology Policy at The White House. John has authored multiple articles, reports, book chapters, and over a dozen books on effective teaching and learning in today’s schools and classrooms. However, what really sustains John and is his greatest accomplishment is his family. John lives in Waynsboro, Virginia with his wife Danielle, a fellow educator, their two children, Tessa and Jackson, and Labrador retrievers, Angel, Forest, and Bella. John is the author of Captivate, Activate, and Invigorate the Student Brain in Science and Math, Grades 6-12.   Douglas Fisher, Ph.D., is Professor of Educational Leadership at San Diego State University and a teacher leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College. He is the recipient of an IRA Celebrate Literacy Award, NCTE’s Farmer Award for Excellence in Writing, as well as a Christa McAuliffe Award for Excellence in Teacher Education. He is also the author of PLC+, The PLC+ Playbook, This is Balanced Literacy, The Teacher Clarity Playbook, Grades K-12, Teaching Literacy in the Visible Learning Classroom for Grades K-5 and 6-12, Visible Learning for Mathematics, Grades K-12The Teacher Credibility and Collective Efficacy Playbook and several other Corwin books.    Nancy Frey, Ph.D., is Professor of Literacy in the Department of Educational Leadership at San Diego State University. The recipient of the 2008 Early Career Achievement Award from the National Reading Conference, she is also a teacher-leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College and a credentialed special educator, reading specialist, and administrator in California. She has been a prominent Corwin author, publishing numerous books including PLC+The PLC+ PlaybookThis is Balanced LiteracyThe Teacher Clarity Playbook, Grades K-12Engagement by DesignRigorous Reading, Texas EditionThe Teacher Credibility and Collective Efficacy Playbookand many more.  To view Doug and Nancy’s books and services, please visit Fisher and Frey Professional Learning. 

No comments

leave a comment