Retrieval Practice for Better Learning

Finally, utilize self-testing and practicing drawing information out of your brain instead of trying to stuff information into it. This may be counterintuitive, but the more we can engage in mini tests, the better we memorize and learn. This is known as retrieval practice, as you are retrieving information. Though this is mostly done through the context of flashcards, the overarching lesson is that we must be active in our efforts. The bigger the struggle, the deeper the learning and memorization. When you force yourself to learn, well, you will learn. There is no real shortcut.

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Pooja Agarwal researched pupils taking middle school social studies over the course of a year and a half, ending in 2011. The study aimed to determine how regularly scheduled, uncounted quizzes—basically, retrieval practice exercises—benefitted the ability to learn and retain.

The class teacher didn’t alter their study plan and simply instructed as normal. The students were given regular quizzes—developed by the research team—on class material with the understanding that the results would not count against their grades.

These quizzes only covered about a third of the material covered by the teacher, who also had to leave the room while the quiz was being taken by the students. This was so the teacher had no knowledge of what subjects the quizzes covered. During class, the teacher taught and reviewed the class as usual, without knowing which parts of the instruction were being asked on the quizzes.

The results of this study were measured during end-of-unit exams and were dramatic. Students scored one full grade level higher on the material the quizzes covered—the one-third of what the whole class covered—than the questions not covered on the no-stakes quizzes. The mere act of being occasionally tested, with no pressure to get all the answers right to boost their overall grades, actually helped students learn better.

Agarwal’s study provided insight on what kind of questions helped the most. Questions that required the student to actually recall the information from scratch yielded more success than multiple-choice questions, in which the answer could be recognized from a list, or true/false questions. The active mental effort to remember the answer, with no verbal or visual prompt, improved the students’ learning and retention.

The principal benefit of retrieval practice is that it encourages an active exertion of effort rather than the passive seepage of external information.

If we pull concepts out of our brain, it’s more effective than just continually trying to put concepts in. The learning comes from taking what’s been added to our knowledge and bringing it out at a later time. We mentioned flashcards earlier and how they’re an offshoot of retrieval practice. But flashcards are not, in and of themselves, the strategy: you can use them and still not be conducting true retrieval practice.

Many students use flashcards inactively: they see the prompt, answer it in their heads, tell themselves they know it, flip over to see the answer, and then move on to the next one. Turning this into practice, however, would be taking a few seconds to actually recall the answer and, at best, to say the answer out loud before flipping the card over. The difference seems slight and subtle, but it’s important. Students will get more advantages from flashcards by actually retrieving and vocalizing the answer before moving on. Forcing yourself into situations like using flashcards and practice tests is what makes you remember at your best.

In real-world situations—where there’s usually not an outside teacher, premade flashcards, or other assistance—how can we repurpose what we learn for retrieval practice? One good way is to expand flashcards to make them more “interactive.”

The flashcards in our grade-school experiences, for the most part, were very one-note. You can adapt the methodology of flashcards for more complex, real-world applications or self-learning by taking a new approach to what’s on the back of the cards.

When you’re studying material for work or class, make flashcards with concepts on the front and definitions on the back. After completing this task, make another set of cards that give “instructions” on how to reprocess the concept for a creative or real-life situation. Here’s an example:

• “Rewrite this concept in only one sentence.”

• “Write a movie or novel plot that demonstrates this concept.”

• “Use this concept to describe a real-life event.”

• “Describe the opposite of this concept.”

The possibilities are, as they say, limitless in how you can seek retrieval. Remember, your goal is to require yourself to reach into your memory, display the information, and only then put it back.

In order to make the best use of your flashcards, commit to making two sets. The first set will contain mere definitions and single concepts: one-word prompts for one-word or one-sentence answers.

The second set of flashcards will contain as much information about a single concept as possible so you will be forced to recall all of that with the prompt of a single word. This is also known as chunking information, where it’s advantageous to your short-term memory (which can only hold on average seven items) to remember information as a large chunk rather than as smaller, individual components. This means that when you put more information on each flashcard, that set of information becomes one item versus five items.

When you go through your flashcards, put the cards you got wrong back into the middle or front of your stack so you see them sooner and more frequently. This helps you work through your mistakes and commit them to memory more quickly.

Using these exercises extracts more information about the concept that you produce yourself. Placing them in context of a creative narrative or expression will help you understand them when they come up in real life. Retrieval practice is simple enough with flashcards and essentially testing yourself. When you make your brain sweat a little to dig the information out of your memory and practice retrieval, you’ll find that information sticks in your head extremely well. Get fancy with flashcards and prompt for information that will test the limits of your understanding and knowledge. What’s important is to keep drawing the information out, and your memory will greatly improve.

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Peter Hollins is a bestselling author, human psychology researcher, and a dedicated student of the human condition. Visit to pick up your FREE human nature cheat sheet: 7 surprising psychology studies that will change the way you think.

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