Specific Retrieval Practice questions: What you need to know

Many different forms of Retrieval Practice exist. Knowing which one to use and when depends on what you want your students to gain from retrieval. One popular type of Retrieval Practice takes the shape of specific retrieval questions, which we’ll look at more closely in this blog. Read on to find out:

  • What specific retrieval questions are
  • Their pros and cons
  • What recent research says about them

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What are specific Retrieval Practice questions?

Specific retrieval questions prompt students to target a particular piece of information. They are specific and often quite granular in their nature. They are in contrast to “free recall” questions, which tend to be broader and more open-ended.

For example, asking someone “What can you tell me about coffee?” is an example of free recall, whereas asking them “Which two brewing methods of coffee can you name, and how do they differ?” is an example of specific Retrieval Practice.

The benefits of Specific Retrieval Practice

  1. Reducing the impact of seductive details

Students are exposed to a range of information in your lessons. Some of it is useful and key to their learning – but some of it, although undoubtedly interesting, is irrelevant. The latter type is called a “seductive detail”. This can take many forms, such as excessive PowerPoint animations or irrelevant details. Too many of these can hinder learning.

A recent study, which examined the impact of specific Retrieval Practice questions on seductive details, found that their negative impact was nullified. On the other hand, using a general free recall question instead did cause the seductive details to hinder learning.

Why might this be the case? Because our working memory is so small, we can’t be sure which of the limited information we can hold at one time will transfer to our long-term memory. Specific questions focus this limited attention by signalling which information in the lesson is important. Without these specific questions, your students may think you want them to remember those seductive details.

  1. Better metacognitive judgements

Another interesting benefits of specific retrieval questions is that they can improve students’ metacognitive judgements – the technical term used to describe how accurate students are at estimating what they do and don’t know, which can be the basis and foundation for future learning.

This was confirmed in a recent study. It makes sense that specific retrieval questions would improve metacognitive judgments: with specific questions, there is no hiding from what you don’t know, no chance for self-delusion. This therefore all but guarantees accuracy of knowledge.

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The limitations of specific Retrieval Practice

  1. Retrieval-induced forgetting

A recent study found that retrieving specific information presents an opportunity cost for students. That is to say, although they are more likely to remember the information they retrieve, they are also more likely to forget other information from the same concept.

So, what we can do to avoid this? Well, the same study offers a potential answer. The researchers found that simply re-studying the material prior to the test helped re-jog their memories.


  1. Isolated pockets of knowledge

As brilliantly detailed in Sarah Cottinghatt’s book, Meaningful Learning, we want students to develop rich bodies of knowledge. We want them to make connections.

Although specific retrieval questions may be a good starting point, we need to ensure our students know and understand where this new knowledge fits within the wider context.

Final thoughts

Specific Retrieval Practice questions offers a great path to enhance student learning. They can guard against seductive details as well as enhance Metacognition. As long as we ensure that students study more than just these specific questions and actually connect these facts with their wider knowledge, it should yield very positive outcomes in our classrooms.

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