Retrieval practice is one of the most popular, and arguably effective, learning strategies for students. Retrieval practice is any activity that forces you to generate an answer to a question. For example, past papers, quizzes, multiple choice tests or even something as simple as a revision partner asking you a question.
Research has consistently shown retrieval practice to be effective in helping students to learn and remember information. For example, in this study, students who studied information by reading and then retrieval practice, performed at least 30% better in a final exam than students who did two study periods of reading.
But as we dig deeper into learning more about retrieval practice, the question has always been, does it work better for some students more than others? Does it only give an advantage to students who have a lot of grit, who enjoy problem solving and testing, or who have a larger working memory capacity? Fortunately a recent research paper has looked to answer this exact question.
What the Research Says
This interesting study, conducted by a group of researchers in Sweden, sought to answer the question: “Can retrieval practice really benefit everyone?”.
They tested 151 students on 60 pairs of words, the first word being in Swahili and the second in Swedish, the students’ native language. The researchers also measured students’ Working Memory Capacity (the amount of information their brain can work with at any one time), Need For Cognition (their tendency to engage in and enjoy thinking) and Grit (their consistency and perseverance).
To learn the pairs, students first saw each word pair presented briefly on a screen. Then, each student practiced half of the word pairs by re-studying them, and the other half of the word pairs through retrieval practice, where they were given one of the words and had to complete the pair by recalling the other. The students were tested on the word pairs 5 minutes, 1 week and 4 weeks after this practice.
The results? At all three time points, students recalled more of the word pairs they had studied by retrieval practice than those they had simply re-studied. In other words, there was a significant Testing Effect. Most importantly, the results showed that this testing effect was not impacted by students’ Working Memory Capacity, Need For Cognition or Grit.
So, not only does retrieval practice work, but this study suggests it may work for all students, regardless of personality characteristics or ability.
What does this mean?
Although there may be other, un-investigated characteristics that impact the effectiveness of retrieval practice, this research suggests that individual differences between students don’t affect retrieval practice. So, retrieval practice can be used to benefit all students in class AND recommended for all students in revision.
However, research does suggest that individual differences between students may affect how likely they are to use retrieval practice. For example, this study suggests that students who perform highly on cognitive reasoning tasks are more likely to engage with retrieval practice techniques than other students. It may be this kind of effect that’s behind all those students who insist that studying by re-reading and highlighting suits them better, as many students do.
But, what students like or prefer isn’t necessarily what’s best for them. Teachers can now use the evidence to tell their students, with conviction, that retrieval practice will help them learn and remember information, and to persuade them away from other, less effective learning techniques.
This doesn’t mean more information isn’t needed about retrieval practice – there are still many nuances to work out. But the overall principle that having to recall information accelerates learning is built on firm foundations.
What does retrieval practice depend on?
Although it appears that student characteristics don’t play a part, other things have an impact on the effectiveness of retrieval practice. These are important for teachers to be aware of when using it in class, and for students when using it in revision…
If the questions students have to answer in retrieval practice are too hard, or they have to recall too much information, retrieval practice can be less effective. Students may just give up, or find themselves unable to retrieve the information they need to answer the question. On the other hand, easy questions don’t challenge students to think deeply about information to generate answers. To be most effective, retrieval practice questions need to be balanced at the level of difficulty students are working at: with a bit of challenge, but not too hard or too easy.
What’s at stake?
Retrieval practice is most effective when done under low stakes, and students know it is being done to help them learn, rather than to assess them. It’s about low-pressure practice rather than formal assessment. If students feel pressurised in their retrieval practice, it may not work as effectively to enhance their learning.
Retrieval practice potentially offers one of the most effective ways to help students learn. It can help them identify gaps in their knowledge as well as helping transfer information from short term memory to long-term memory. This recent research suggests an added benefit: that it isn’t affected by individual differences between students. And this means that retrieval practice should be helpful, and encouraged, for all students.