Not all studying strategies are equal. One that has proven itself again and again is Retrieval Practice, sometimes referred to as the Testing Effect. This strategy allows students to move on from disengaged memorisation and instead engage in an active cognitive process, strengthening their memory traces as they do it.
In a nutshell, Retrieval Practice gets students to generate an answer to a question, from memory, based on things that they have already learnt. Practising this recall helps cement information in their long-term memory, and make the links stronger under pressure – a benefit that comes in handy in situations such as exams.
Another great thing about Retrieval Practice is that there are many ways to use it. But this also means that it can be hard to know where to start. So, let’s look at some of the best practical ways to get your students to practise retrieval and harness the Testing Effect:
- Past papers
- Practice tests
- Multiple-choice tests
- Essay answers
- Answering questions aloud
- Testing themselves on flashcards
- Teaching others
7 ways to use Retrieval Practice
- Past papers and practice tests
Past papers are an invaluable resource for Retrieval Practice. They offer a precise preview of the exams students will be taking, moving beyond generic test questions to content directly related to their studies and exams.
Utilising past papers, most of which are readily available online, through your school/college or your personal archive, allows students to engage in Retrieval Practice with exam-specific content. This method aligns revision closely with the final assessments, boosting students' confidence and familiarity with the examination format.
You can also use practice tests that mimic the real thing. However, it’s important to note that Retrieval Practice is best done in a low-stakes environment.
- Classroom quizzes
In addition to helping students learn new information, regular quizzes are also a great way for you to check for your students’ understanding. It may be helpful to frame these to your students as a way for them to monitor their progress. This can ensure they don’t become a source of stress and instead an engaging, effective learning activity.
- Multiple-choice tests
Multiple-choice tests can be particularly beneficial during the initial stages of revision. Here, students don't always need to recall the answer instinctively but must identify the correct response from a set of options.
This approach still constitutes effective Retrieval Practice because students must actively engage with the question and sift through their knowledge to select the right answer. Implementing multiple-choice tests as a stepping stone towards more complex forms of Retrieval Practice can be a strategic move.
However, there are a few useful things to know to make your multiple-choice tests effective as a learning tool – here are some of our favourite tips:
- Prefer clear, simple questions to avoid misunderstandings and guesswork.
- Offer 3-4 potential answers.
- Avoid really easy answers.
- Avoid using “None of the above” options.
- Aim for an 70-80% success rate, to challenge your students without demotivating them.
- Essay answers
Essay answers often feature in past papers, but they also serve as an independent Retrieval Practice method. Crafting essay responses requires students to synthesise various information chunks into coherent prose, often necessitating some level of analysis.
This process goes beyond mere fact recall, promoting deeper understanding and better retention. As research suggests, the more students manipulate information (e.g., weaving it into an argument in an essay), the more likely they are to remember it.
- Answering a question aloud
Answering a spoken question aloud presents another useful form of Retrieval Practice. Verbalising an answer offers a new way for students to process information, helping them make rapid connections under pressure. Studies have found that reading or speaking aloud is may be more beneficial than silent study, as it engages a range of senses and cognitive processes.
This method does more than just reinforce memory; it also helps students develop their communication skills, preparing them for presentations and discussions in their academic and professional lives.
- Testing yourself with flashcards
Flashcards are excellent tools for Retrieval Practice. The questions are directly relevant to students' learning. The key is to not spend too much time writing the question, so as to ensure the majority of time is spent on retrieval.
They are also a great tool for frequently revisiting knowledge, which acts as a form of Spacing. One helpful strategy to help facilitate this is the Leitner System, which gets students to sort their flashcards in a series of boxes that allow them to revisit weaker memories more often than concepts they’re already comfortable with.
- Teaching Others
One of the most potent learning methods is teaching others, also known as the Protégé Effect.By explaining concepts to someone else, students can identify gaps in their knowledge and gain a deeper understanding of the subject matter. They also have to organize and structure their thought process and retrieve information in order to do so. Follow-up questions can further probe their understanding, offering additional opportunities for Retrieval Practice.
This is an especially great way for parents and guardians to get involved in their child’s studying.
Retrieval Practice is more than a revision technique – it's a powerful learning strategy that places students in the best position to succeed and remember as much as possible. By answering questions rather than merely reading or highlighting information, students actively and repetitively engage with the material, reinforcing their memory and understanding.
Incorporating methods such as past papers, essays, multiple-choice tests or flashcards into your students’ learning can have a strong, long-lasting impact on their memory and performance, helping them to unlock their full potential.