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What is Retrieval Learning or Retrieval Practice?

Updated: Mar 8, 2023

Educators, parents, and students are often looking for ways to help improve learning. Much has been studied and much has been advocated as aids to learning, including many suggestions that may not be supported by research. For instance the idea that one should focus on one's learning style and teachers should teach to student's learning styles has been advocated for a while now yet there is little to no scientific evidence to support this method of learning.

On the other hand some methods have been well researched and found to enhance learning. Retrieval learning or retrieval practice is one of these strategies that has substantive research to support its use and that is why we rely heavily on retrieval practice with our online modules. But what is retrieval learning?

Most of us have probably used retrieval learning. We just didn't know that it is called this. For instance have you ever tried to memorize a list of items or maybe a poem by repeating the items or lines from memory by either closing your eyes or removing the items/poem from view? Every time you try to recall the items or try to recall the lines you are practicing retrieval. And it works. It not only works in the short term, but can work in the long term if you periodically practice over time. This is called spaced-practice, but that's a subject for future blog post. Suffice it to say that a combination of retrieval practice and spaced-practice helps place information into long-term memory.

Retrieval learning appears to improve learning because there is some struggle involved in recalling the information. It is this process that lays down the neural pathways in the brain and subsequently, over time (with practice), puts this information into our long-term memory. Important note: Remember you must actively try to recall the information from memory or the process is ineffective for learning. If you simply try to read something, for instance, your are not recalling the information.

Here are some good strategies for retrieval learning:

  1. Flashcards: Questions, terms, phrases on one side of a card and the answers on the other side. But you can't look at the answers before trying to recall from memory. That doesn't work.

  2. So-called 'brain dumps': Take a topic and a scrap piece of paper and, from memory, write everything you can remember about the topic. As a variation do it as a web in which you circle a piece of information and then web off of this. Then check the information against your notes and consciously fill in the gaps you missed (perhaps even add this to your scrap piece of paper).

  3. Nightly note re-writing: In the evening after school re-write your notes from class that day, from memory, without looking at the notes you took in class; at least until you have finished. Then compare your notes.

  4. There are other strategies, but you can also use our learning modules. We have built in retrieval practice; in fact it is what we base our learning modules on. Yes we use other strategies as well, but fundamentally our modules ask learners to recall the information and later receive feedback and additional information on a topic. The great thing about our modules is our practice tests can be repeated for the length of your subscription. Plus we have sections that act like flash cards ("In a Flash") and we reduce assistance (hints, for instance) and increase difficulty over time.

Check out a sample test to get an idea of how our practice tests work.

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