Use it or lose it – Retrieval practice

Basic idea:

Retrieval practice is the name for the simple idea that the more times you are required to get some information out of your memory (by retrieving it), the more secure it will be in your memory! The more often information is accessed, the stronger the memory becomes and the less likely we are to forget it.

This is especially true if the retrieval is spaced out over time (see ‘spaced practice’). A student who gives you a right answer in November will not know that fact forever without practice! By the time they have exams, they will probably have forgotten it, unless they have had to retrieve it again since that time.

Not only that, but practicing the retrieval of old information also makes students more efficient at learning new information! This is likely to be because it is easier to fit new information into a meaningful framework if we are already secure in the information that has gone before (see ‘Levels of processing’ for more on this).

Suggestions for teaching:

  • Provide students with as many opportunities as possible to retrieve previously learned information. For example:
    • Quizzes and tests
    • Doing tasks from memory rather than from instructions
  • Look to set challenges where recently learned material has to be remembered and used to solve a new problem
  • Ask questions which require student retrieval of older as well as recent information

Encourage self-testing over simply studying/re-reading information repeatedly. Retrieval is a learning tool as well as an assessment tool.

Team this idea also with ‘spaced practice’, ‘interleaved practice’ and the ‘testing effect’.

Further reading:

Use it or lose it – Retrieval practice

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