Retrieval Practice

Retrieval Practice Overview

To study for a big test, many students reread their books and notes.  But even more effective would be to try to remember the material on their own. That’s retrieval practice. It is a kind of active learning that many students don’t make use of.

The key idea is that retrieval can turn passively-absorbed information into true understanding and knowledge. In other words, when students recall what they’ve learned, on a quiz or practice test with the book closed, it improves their knowledge. They’ll do better on a test a week later than the students who just reviewed the material (Karpicke, Roediger III, 2008).

Retrieval Practice Example

Whisk in bowl of melted chocolateHere’s an example. A chef shows a cooking student how to bake a chocolate cake. She wants the student to remember how she made it, so later, as they’re enjoying it, she doesn’t just ask him to reread the recipe in the cookbook. Instead, she asks him to tell her how to make the cake, without looking at the recipe.

At first, he can’t tell her much. He remembers some ingredients involved cups and some involved teaspoons. He definitely remembers the velvety texture and rich chocolate flavor.

So he works hard to retrieve more detail. He remembers how the batter looked and realizes the chocolate was melted before she added it. He remembers the clinking of the measuring spoons and rules out the big tablespoon as an option for the baking powder because that doesn’t make quite the same high pitched noise he recalls. Eventually, like a cascade of dominoes, one detail reminds him of another, and then another, and he is eventually able to reconstruct the recipe.

If the chef asks her student again tomorrow how to bake the cake, he’ll know the answer even more clearly. The more times he recalls the recipe, the better he’ll know it. In the final exam, he’ll know the cake recipe better than if he’d only studied the cookbook.

As a student thinks, recalls, revises, and connects, his brain is building and strengthening its memories. This is what students should do when they study:  retrieve the information, not just to check their learning, but also to strengthen it.

See Also

Close the Book. Recall. Write it Down. David Glenn. Chronicle of Higher Education. Volume 55, Issue 34 (May 1, 2009), Page A1

The Critical Importance of Retrieval for Learning. Jeffrey D. Karpicke and Henry L. Roediger III. Science. New Series, Vol. 319, No. 5865 (15 February 2008), pp. 966-968

Retrieval Practice Produces More Learning than Elaborative Studying with Concept Mapping. Jeffrey D. Karpicke and Janell R. Blunt.  Science. New Series, Vol. 331, No. 6018 (11 February 2011) , pp. 772-775

Retrieval-Based Learning: Active Retrieval Promotes Meaningful Learning. Jeffrey D. Karpicke. Current Directions in Psychological Science. Vol. 21, No. 3 (June 2012) , pp. 157-163