Why and how we should be using retrieval practice and space learning
Published: 01 December 2021
Retrieval practice alone is not enough. We must also consider spaced learning, interleaving, feedback and metacognition if we are to have an impact on the retention and transfer of knowledge and skills. Kristian Still looks at why we must use and combine all five approaches
There is a “wealth of evidence” (Agarwal et al, 2021) about the “reliable advantage”, (Yang et al, 2021) of test-enhanced learning – more commonly referred to as the testing effect or retrieval practice – over other study methods.
Retrieval practice involves bringing information to mind from your long-term memory. This process of retrieving makes information easier to access and remember at a later date compared to simply re-studying and other more popular study activities. It also increases your ability to use and apply the information to new situations (for more see Webb, 2017).
In fact it was one of only two techniques described to have “high utility” in Dunlosky et al’s seminal 2013 paper – the other being distributed or spaced learning (Webb, 2019), which we will come back to shortly.
Also, retrieval practice was one of only a handful of cognitive science approaches to receive an endorsement in the recent report Cognitive science approaches in the classroom from the Education Endowment Foundation (2021).
The report states: “The positive impact of the retrieval studies, the good theoretical grounding of the practice, and the low cost of implementing low-stakes testing and quizzing generally mean that it is a promising approach that teachers should consider.”
With benefits persisting across a “wide array of educational levels, settings, testing formats and procedures” (Adesope et al, 2017), it has been heavily promoted as “the” research-informed teaching and learning technique.
Moreover, retrieval practice offers more than just improved memorisation skills and securing long-term learning, it also increases understanding by improving complex thinking and application skills, organisation of knowledge and transfer of knowledge to new concepts (Pan & Rickard, 2018). It can help reduce test anxiety and help inoculate again stress (Smith et al, 2016).
Ultimately, retrieval practice, readily available to all teachers, classrooms, and pupils, continues to draw significant research and pedagogical interest.
But what should you consider – exactly?
Most recently Latimier et al (2021) in a recent meta-analysis focused on both “high utility” techniques, spacing and retrieval practice, identifying 11 – yes 11 – moderators:
- Education level.
- Type of material.
- Design (expanding versus uniform).
- Type of test in the training phrase.
- Final test type.
- Retention interval.
- Total number of exposures (initial phase and total).
- Type of spacing schedule.
- Time of the first retrieval event.
And even that is not an exhaustive list, nor does it account for some of the simple logistics of teaching – notably periods per-week and timetabling as directly linked to distribution. Nor does it reference the benefits of interleaved or variable practice that can “vastly improve the quality of student learning and at no (or very little) additional time cost” (Wiseheart et al, 2019).
Nor does it reference the importance or opportunity to leverage metacognitive gains (Rivers, 2020; Coutinho et al. 2020; Barenberg & Dutke, 2019). Nor supervised and unsupervised study, the latter becoming more and more important as pupils move through their school careers.
Let’s summarise, before exploring the opportunities of unsupervised relearning and of personalisation.
Testing or retrieval practice, spacing and interleaving, all aid retention and can facilitate the recall of material in the long term. These proven techniques lead to better organisation and improved transfer of knowledge. They improve attentional control and reduce test anxiety. Finally, most teachers know that thoughtful testing encourages learners to study in the first place (adapted from Roediger et al, 2011).
Search “retrieval practice” and you will uncover a bevy of resources and templates. Ask yourself, can the resource be reused? Can the knowledge be reordered before it is refreshed? Will learners be exposed to the correct answer?
Now consider applying these seven tips: Keep it low stakes (one), repeated (two), spaced retrieval (three) – relearning and overlearning – with feedback (four).
The critical mechanism is “successful retrieval” or exposure to the correct response. Use free recall (five) as opposed to “recognition recall” and ask learners to elaborate (six) on, or connect, their thinking to prior knowledge. Reduce your workload and leverage the metacognitive benefits of self-assessment (seven).
What of unsupervised relearning and personalisation
In educational contexts, learners report using less effective strategies equally or more often than practice testing. Learners tend to test themselves only under conditions that encourage retrieval success, conflating short-term performance with long-term learning –
when, in fact, there is “overwhelming evidence that learning and performance are dissociable” (Soderstrom & Bjork, 2015).
Learners’ on-going assessments of their own learning are frequently inaccurate, producing “illusions of competence” that are rooted, in part, in our tendency to use current performance as an index of long-term learning.
Faulty beliefs and inaccurate monitoring often leave learners both “misassessing and mismanaging their own learning” (Bjork, Dunlosky & Kornell, 2013).
Hence students rarely use strategies involving repeated successful retrieval even when it would lead to improved retention. In fact, Rivers (2020) reported that learners all too frequently adopt ineffective or “low utility” learning techniques:
- Rereading (43 per cent).
- Copying notes (11 per cent).
- Highlighting (four per cent).
And too few adopt highly effective or “high utility” learning strategies:
- Self-testing (eight per cent).
- Flashcards (nine per cent).
- Practice questions (eight per cent).
- Summarising (14 per cent).
- Memorising (five per cent).
That said, when learners are supported and trained, retention under supervised and unsupervised relearning conditions is very similar and both equally impressive.
Correctly recalling items one time in three sessions versus three times in one session (repeated, spaced retrieval) yielded a 262 per cent increase in retention test performance (Rawson et al, 2018).
Apply that to a typical school setting, where “supervised” refers to teaching in class and “unsupervised relearning” refers to homework (preferably repeated, spaced retrieval with feedback) and there is an opportunity to revisit and relearn what was previously taught. And with mobile phones alone at near saturation by the time pupils are in year 9 (ChildWise, 2020), personalisation is ever more attractive.
Of course, in secondary, tertiary and higher education, these spaces are extended as the curriculum becomes more specialised and the potential gains, even greater.
- Kristian Still is deputy head academic at Boundary Oak School in Southampton. A school leader by day, together with his co-creator Alex Warren, a full-time senior software developer, he is also working with Leeds University and Dr Richard Allen on RememberMore, a philanthropic project, offering free resources to teachers and pupils. Visit www.kristianstill.co.uk/wordpress/
- Adesope et al: Rethinking the use of tests: A meta-analysis of practice testing. Review of Educational Research (87,3), 2017.
- Agarwal et al: Retrieval practice consistently benefits student learning: A systematic review of applied research in schools and classrooms, Educational Psychology Review,2021.
- Barenberg & Dutke: Testing and metacognition: retrieval practise effects on metacognitive monitoring in learning from text. Memory (27,3), 2019.
- Bjork, Dunlosky & Kornell: Self-regulated learning: Beliefs, techniques, and illusions, Annual review of psychology (64),2013.
- Coutinho et al: Metacognitive monitoring in test-taking situations: A cross-cultural comparison of college students, International Journal of Instruction (13), 2020.
- Dunlosky et al:Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology,Psychological Science in the Public Interest (14), 2013.
- EEF: Cognitive science approaches in the classroom, July 2021: https://bit.ly/3FjLueC
- Koriat & Bjork: Illusions of competence during study can be remedied by manipulations that enhance learners’ sensitivity to retrieval conditions at test, Memory & Cognition (34,5), 2006.
- Latimer et al: A meta-analytic review of the benefit of spacing out retrieval practice episodes on retention, Educational Psychology Review, 2020.
- Pan& Rickard: Does retrieval ̦practice enhance learning and transfer relative to restudy for term-definition facts? Journal of Experimental Psychology. A Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, (23,3), 2017.
- Roedigeret al: Ten benefits of testing and their applications to educational practice. In Psychology of Learning and Motivation: Cognition in Education (Mestre, ed), Oxford, 2011.
- Rivers: Metacognition about practice testing: Areview of learners’ beliefs, monitoring, and control of test-enhanced learning, Educational Psychology Review, 2020.
- Smith et al: Retrieval practice protects memory against acute stress, Science (354), 2016.
- Soderstrom & Bjork: Learning versus performance: An integrative review, Perspectives on Psychological Science: A journal of the Association for Psychological Science (10), 2015.
- Webb: Revision and study skills: Retrieval practice, SecEd, October 2017: www.sec-ed.co.uk/best-practice/revision-and-study-skills-retrieval-practice
- Webb: Revision techniques: Interleaving and spacing, April 2019: www.sec-ed.co.uk/best-practice/revision-techniques-interleaving-and-spacing/
- Wiseheart et al: Enhancing the quality of student learning using distributed practice. In The Cambridge Handbook of Cognition and Education (Dunlosky & Rawson, eds), Cambridge University Press, 2019.
- Yang et al: Testing (quizzing) boosts classroom learning: A systematic and meta-analytic review, Psychological Bulletin (147), 2021.