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Why you need to know about retrieval practice

Why you need to know about retrieval practice

When it comes to revision, there are numerous ways in which students can revise. However, recent research has shown that not all revision techniques are equal and that some of students’ most favoured are actually really ineffective.

So, what revision techniques should students be avoiding, and which are most effective?

Book Retrieval Practice CPD

What Revision Techniques Should Students Avoid?


Recent research reported that 84% of students use re-reading their notes as a revision technique, whilst 55% of students stated that it was their number one strategy. However, despite its popularity, re-reading has been proven by countless studies to be an ineffective technique. This is because, in many cases, students end up just skim-reading the text, which means they fail to process or carefully consider the content; hence the information does not become embedded in their long-term memory.


Another ineffective revision technique which is often used is highlighting. Whilst highlighting itself is not a bad technique, the way in which students use it makes it ineffective. Students often excessively highlight pages in a way that is akin to colouring, rather than being selective and picking out the most important concepts and ideas that are essential for their exam. Highlighting is often carried out on autopilot, meaning that students do not consider the text and enhance their memory through making inferences or connections with previously learnt information.


What Revision Technique Should Students Use?

Retrieval practice

Retrieval practice, which requires students to generate an answer to a question, has been proven to be the most effective revision strategy, and thus a technique that students should be looking to employ. Retrieval practice can take many forms and may comprise of answering past papers, quizzes and multiple-choice tests.


Why is Retrieval Practice Effective?

Retrieval practice is such an effective revision technique because it requires students to recall previously learnt knowledge, which creates stronger memory traces and increases the likelihood that the information will be transferred to the long-term memory. However, students appear to be unaware of the effectiveness of this technique. Recent research demonstrated this: when students who used retrieval practice were questioned as to why they used it, many stated that it was because it allowed them to generate feedback or knowledge about the status of their learning, rather than because they had an understanding that the technique enhanced memory.

Furthermore, many students prefer to use re-reading over retrieval practice, despite the fact that this technique fails to facilitate long-term retention. This dependence on re-reading can be somewhat attributed to the illusion of confidence it creates. If students constantly re-read a passage, this increases the ease or fluency with which it is read and can lead to the student believing they have mastered its content - when really all they have done is familiarise themselves with the text and the ordering of the words.


Are There Any Alternatives to Retrieval Practice?


Spacing, which is the opposite to cramming, involves students carrying out a little revision over a number of days rather than a lot all at once; it is effective because it gives students time to forget information and re-learn it, hence cementing the material in the long-term memory.


Interleaving is another successful revision technique that students can use. Interleaving is the process of mixing up revision, where students switch between subjects/topics rather than spending hours revising the same subject/topic. This is a good revision technique as it stops students from recalling information on autopilot.


Final Thought

Retrieval practice has consistently been proven to be the most effective revision strategy such that getting students to recall previously learnt information leads to stronger memory traces being created, hence making it more likely that the information is transferred to the long-term memory.

However, despite its effectiveness, many students seem to be unaware of the technique or in some cases unwilling to use it. Therefore, we put the challenge to teachers to inform and demonstrate to their students just how beneficial retrieval practice can be.

For more information about evidence-based revision techniques, check out our handy guide page.

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