Retrieval practice - Leverage the power of retrieval for better recall and retention

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Back in 2017 I posted several questions about various strategies that can be used (with varied effectiveness) to enhance retention and recall. I posted the questions on several groups for VET training professionals and on my own personal thread and had more than 100 responses! 

(You can see the questions and answers at the end of this article.)

Here’s what I found education professionals believed to be effective in enhancing retention and recall:

  • More than 70% of respondents believed that the most effective strategy is to highlight key points in a learning resource.
  • Only 14% selected retrieval practice as the most effective of the strategies listed. 

This is important because despite the consensus in responses, retrieval practice (not highlighting) is the method that has been proven to be significantly more effective and efficient in enhancing learning and retention than the others. And it’s supported by decades of empirical research. 

That’s right, you are reading that correctly, only 14% of respondents selected the correct answer. Now, if you work in the cognitive sciences, my survey results will not surprise you. Why? They reflect what many cognitive scientists have been saying for years. There is a disparity between what educators believe to be effective and efficient learning strategies and those that are supported by empirical research.  

In this instance, the learning strategy we are talking about is “retrieval practice1” or more technically, the testing effect. Retrieval practice involves testing oneself on the material from a learning event at intervals after that learning event. In short, using testing to improve retention and recall, two critical elements of the learning process. 

Retrieval practice can take many forms, from answering multiple choice quizzes, short answer questions, fill in the blanks and deciphering word scrambles. These have one thing in common; they are all ’low stakes’. Retrieval practice is not about formal assessment (although that is also beneficial), it’s about testing where the consequences of getting it wrong are low.

There are big payoffs and it’s relatively easy to implement, but there are some important things to remember when applying the principles of retrieval practice to your next learning event. 

1. No pain, no gain

Don’t make it too easy. Retrieval practice needs to have a level of difficulty to be most effective. Retrieval that is too easy is more likely to promote an illusion of fluency. The idea that a certain level of difficulty is helpful to learning was identified by psychologists Elizabeth L. and Robert Bjork. The Bjorks showed that learning was more likely to stick if the person had to work to recall it. They coined the term ‘desirable difficulty’. The concept of making the learner work a little is reminiscent of social constructivist Lev Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development. Like the Bjorks, Vygotsky argued that the best learning happened when the learner was pushed to the limits of their existing knowledge.

2. Make it low stakes

Low stakes mean that there are no significant consequences if a learner gets the answer wrong. Research indicates that retrieval practice is much more effective when it is low stakes, not linking the results to a person’s overall grading. 

3. Space it out

One learning strategy that works effectively with Retrieval Practice is a concept known as Spaced Practice, the idea that practice (or retrieval practice) is most effective when it is spaced out over time.  

Piotr Wozniak and other researchers have been advocating the use of Spaced Practice in education. Wozniak identified the ideal spacing for language learning and based on his finding designed an algorithm which he used as the basis for the language learning application SuperMemo. One of the ‘secrets’ behind the effectiveness of spaced practice is that it leverages sleep, which helps to consolidate and organise learning. 

Space Practice is highly relevant in the VET sector because of the duration of many courses. Personally, I think this is one of the important elements of the Volume of Learning requirement. It recognises that competency develops over a period of time and if retrieved over that period of time, new learning has a better chance of sticking. 

4. Leverage the different forms of retrieval.

Retrieval Practice can come in many forms, from practising a skill, applying new learning to a specific context, explaining a learned concept and even rote retrieval.  Each has its benefits depending on the learning goal. 

For example, generative retrieval is about putting concepts into own words, teaching others and identifying similarities and differences to other concepts. Elaborative retrieval is about application and problem solving - ideal for many VET-related programs. 

Join me at 11:45am on the 25th of October 2019 to hear more about this highly effective learning strategy. 

VET Training & Assessment Summit 2019 -

See you there!

Tony Kirton

My survey asked the following question and participants were invited to select one of five responses: 

To increase your long-term retention and recall after a learning event, would you (choose one):

a) Increase the amount of time you spend studying before and after the learning event.

b) Re-read all the material over several intervals after the learning event.

c) Test yourself on the material over several intervals after the learning event.

d) Test yourself with an open book over several intervals after the learning event.

e) Highlight the key points in the learning resources and re-read these areas over time.

First let me be clear. This is not a list of the most effective learning strategies. Nor am I claiming that any of them are the most effective. But, at this point, you might be asking “is there a correct answer?”. In short, yes. One of these methods has been proven to be significantly more effective and efficient in enhancing learning and retention than the others. And it’s supported by decades of empirical research. 

And the answer is… C. That’s right, C, ‘test yourself on the material over several intervals after the learning event’.  

So, what did over 100 professionals believe the most effective strategy was? Well check out the results below. 

A = 2

B = 5

C = 14

D = 7

E = 72

Total = 100

Yes, you are reading that right, 86% of respondents, many defined as ‘education professionals’, selected the incorrect response. Only 14% selected the right answer.  

1. Transform Teaching with the Science of Learning. Retrieval Practice. Available from:


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