From retrieval practice to test-enhanced learning
From retrieval practice to test-enhanced learning

From retrieval practice to test-enhanced learning

Co-post on SecEd I hope you enjoy this summary post on retrieval practice and test-enhanced learning – as the fog begins to clear.

Research into the factors that make the use of retrieval practice effective continues apace. From directing attention and boosting motivation to designing curriculum with retrieval in mind, Kristian Still – the author of a new book on test-enhanced learning in the classroom – updates us on the power of test-enhanced learning

Writing in SecEd back in December 2021 I stated – somewhat boldly – that “retrieval practice alone is not enough – we must also consider spaced learning, interleaving, feedback and metacognition” (Still, 2021).

I stand by that statement, however I am now aware that back then I was underplaying the complexities of retrieval practice. (If though I was suggesting that education, that teachers, were over-simplifying it).

That article led to a subsequent nine-article series and two podcasts in SecEd in 2022 focused on the research underpinning retrieval practice and its many elements and practical classroom strategies.

And that series led to a book, published this month – Test-Enhanced Learning: A practical guide to improving academic outcomes for all students.

So after more than two years focused on the research, I would now say – as the name of my book suggests – that “test-enhanced learning” is a better descriptor for this area of practice, just as long as you focus on the learning and understand that the “test” is merely the vehicle. Test as learning rather than testing of learning.

In writing the book, I was forced to expand and extend that 2021 list of ingredients. A chapter on memory, learning, encoding and retrieval set the scene and three new chapters also materialised focusing on things including “successive relearning”, personalisation, helping our students to overcome their “illusions of competence”, and testing, motivation and achievement.

We also added to the list the vital importance of feedback after retrieval practice, as well as the “power of hints” and the “art of elaboration” in our teaching.

While all this work was on-going, this area of cognitive and education research also continued to be a fertile topic for researchers such as Dr Shana Carpenter, Dr Steven Pan, Dr Michelle Rivers, Dr John Dunlosky, Dr Katherine Rawson, Dr Mark McDaniel, Dr Philip Higham, Dr Benjamin Storm, and Dr Veronica Yan – to name just a few. Collectively their work has informed the entirety of the field.

So what has changed over the two years since that first bold statement? Let’s tackle that question from two perspectives. First, what has the most recent research reported and what areas is the research currently investigating? Second, how has test-enhanced learning evolved at the chalkface of my classroom and pedagogy?

Research into test-enhanced learning

Research on the psychology of learning has revealed that spacing and retrieval practice reliably enhance learning. Most recently, research papers and meta-studies continue to uphold these findings.

Regrettably, however, research also continues to report that these strategies are underused by pupils, possibly due to metacognitive factors such as “false beliefs about learning, lack of awareness of effective learning strategies or the counterintuitive nature of these strategies” (Carpenter et al, 2022).

Indeed, Prof Carpenter recently stated: “Probably the number one misconception is that learning has to feel easy in order to be working, and that’s just not true at all.” (ISU, 2022)

Most recently, we have seen interesting lines of research inquiry exploring the potential of “pre-testing” or potentiated learning and the positive (forward) effects of retrieval practice on subsequent learning (encoding).

Pre-testing means simply asking pupils questions related to a topic before you teach them that topic. Doing this has benefits for “memory retention” (Carpenter et al, 2018). It is proposed that pre-testing informs pupils what they know as well as what they do not yet know. It also “primes” pupils to secure missing knowledge and sparks a sense of curiosity at what is to come. Crazy to think that quizzing pupils on what they haven’t learnt or are about to are about learn, enhances learning.

We have also seen interesting findings on the use of hints and the potential for personalisation during retrieval practice.

Constructing questions with the availability of hints certainly appears to be a memorial and motivational benefit, as long as the hints do not make it too easy of course (Vaughn & Kornell, 2019).

And personalisation refers to retrieval practice that is adapted to meet the needs of each learner. Heitmann et al (2021) conclude that the benefits of practice quizzing “in authentic learning contexts are even greater when the quiz questions are adapted to learners’ state of knowledge”.

Test-enhanced learning at the chalkface

My commitment to test-enhanced learning is unwavering. Pupil outcomes and pupil feedback, as well as the positive classroom climate it underwrites, are compelling.

Woven into the fabric of a test-enhanced learning classroom is a KBCP framework (McDaniel & Einstein, 2020):

  • Acquiring knowledge about strategies.
  • Belief that the strategy works.
  • Commitment to using the strategy.
  • Planning of strategy implementation.

Also woven in is successive relearning, self and peer-assessment, and low failure rates.

On this last point I refer back to the researchers at the University of Arizona, who reported “the 85% rule for optimal learning”. They found a success rate of 85% was the “sweet spot in which training is neither too easy nor too hard, and where learning progresses most quickly”. Indeed, they cite “exponential improvements in the rate of learning” (Wilson et al, 2019).

Learning, after all, is emotional and emotions influence adolescents’ achievement, over and above the effects of general cognitive ability and prior accomplishments. Leverage the key ingredients cited above and you can’t go too far wrong, as I discussed in my SecEd series and the subsequent book.

Attention: What has evolved is my view of the importance of attention. It sounds obvious, but nothing sticks without first being attended to.

In my regular conversations with neuroscience expert Sarah Cottingham, we often discuss that what learners attend to – and what learners perceive – is heavily influenced by their prior knowledge. These are themes that emerged during the two SecEd Podcast episodes I have taken part in, especially the latter episode on memory, which also featured Sarah’s expertise and insights.

I would also reference students’ motives and add that “what learners value” influences their attention and commitment to learning. Without directed and conscious attention and the regulation of mind-wandering, learning is significantly inhibited. It is no longer good enough to suggest that students “should be interested” and leave it at that.

Curriculum phases: Another evolution has been my thinking on curriculum and the definition of two distinct phases of learning.

I have become fastidious about what to teach, the weight and sequence of knowledge (including seeking efficiencies arising from cross-curricular teaching and discounting less non-essential knowledge). Equally, I am focused on how the curriculum will be assessed through cumulative assessment. I explicitly define the knowledge to be learned. I teach far less and plan to reteach content lesson to lesson, meso-cycle to meso-cycle, unit to unit, cumulatively. Here successive relearning is the key ingredient. It is no longer good enough to teach something only once.

Adapting my testing: Finally, I adapt my testing/quizzing depending on whether pupils are learning (encoding) or maintaining knowledge (retrieving).

Making knowledge “relatively permanent” is our aim. Learning/encoding then benefits from pre-testing and a combination of repeated exposure, retrieval, rehearsal, explicit practice (directed instruction), guided practice (following instructions), and elaboration, summarising, synthesising, organising and “producing” – as well as various tried and tested learning activities to focus specifically on the “crucial interactions” between working memory and long-term memory (Perry et al, 2021).

When pupils are learning/encoding new information the testing routine narrows the breadth and lightens the weight of information tested, we employ recognition recall, use hints, we lower the failure rates to almost fail-safe, and re-order rather than refresh questions with self-assessment and corrective feedback promoting metacognitive monitoring as part of our classroom culture. Take note: almost all homework is set as personalised spaced retrieval practice.

Testing is distinctly different once we have made knowledge “relatively permanent” and when learning moves to a maintenance phase (see Bahrick, 1979). Knowledge “stored” is retrieved, re-organised and re-synthesised with any newly acquired knowledge.

Here testing as remembering/relearning is more efficient and the cognitive load significantly reduced. And in my classroom, I widen breadth and increase the weight of knowledge tested (in the same allocated time), we move to free recall (without cues), use fewer hints, encourage elaboration and, importantly, maintain low failure rates.

Self-assessment and corrective feedback continues to promote metacognitive monitoring. And again, almost all homework is set as personalised spaced retrieval practice. Remember many pupils are working independently. Their learning resilience is low and their readiness to accept any minor roadblock to down pens. Hence, retrieval practice as flashcards with both diagnostic and target cues that can then be re-tested in the classroom. It is simple to do. Instructive rather than exploratory.


Learning is “a process, not a product” – a process of learning/encoding and retrieval/remembering and successive relearning. It is emotional, success-motives-success, lower failure rates, use success to motivate learners and reduce the need for time-expensive feedback. Always provide confirmatory or corrective feedback.

Why should teachers be interested in test-enhanced learning? I asked Dr Steven Pan that very question. His answer is worth considering.

If teachers become more aware of the research findings from the science of learning, they will be able to implement more successful learning strategies in their classes, plus provide students with evidence-based guidance on effective ways to learn. Improved learning outcomes will surely follow.

Dr Steven Pan
  • Kristian Still is deputy head academic at Boundary Oak School in Southampton. Kristian is the author of Test-enhanced Learning: A practical guide to improving academic outcomes for all students and creator of Visit and find his previous articles for SecEd via

Test-Enhanced Learning: The book

Kristian Still is the author of the new book Test-Enhanced LearningA practical guide to improving academic outcomes for all students, which has been edited by SecEd editor Pete Henshaw and which is published by Crown House Publishing. Visit

Test-Enhanced Learning: The series

During the spring and summer terms of 2022, SecEd published a nine-article series from Kristian Still focused on the elements of test-enhanced learning, including the research behind these approaches and practical advice for using them in the classroom. Find these articles via

The SecEd Podcast


  • Bahrick: Maintenance of knowledge: Questions about memory we forgot to ask, Journal of Experimental Psychology (108),1979.
  • Carpenter, Pan & Butler: The science of effective learning with spacing and retrieval practice, Nature Reviews Psychology (1), August 2022:
  • Carpenter, Rahman & Perkins: The effects of prequestions on classroom learningJournal of Experimental Psychology (24,1)2018.
  • Heitmann et al: Adaptive practice quizzing in a university lecture: A pre-registered field experimentJournal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition (10,4), 2021.
  • Iowa State University (ISU): Forgetting is natural, but learning how to learn can slow it down, October 2022:
  • Still: Why and how we should be using retrieval practice and spaced learning, SecEd, December 2021:
  • McDaniel & Einstein: Training learning strategies to promote self-regulation and transfer: The knowledge, belief, commitment, and planning framework. Perspectives on Psychological Science (15,6)2020.
  • Perry et al: Cognitive science approaches in the classroom, Education Endowment Foundation, July 2021:
  • Vaughn & Kornell: How to activate students’ natural desire to test themselves. Cognition Research (4,35), 2019:
  • Wilson et al: The Eighty Five Percent Rule for optimal learningNature Communications (10), 2019:

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