Retrieval Practices’ Impact on Test Anxiety and Stress

I’m a fan of retrieval practice. When it comes to improving retention of material in the classroom, you’d be hard-pressed to find another strategy that produces better results while also addressing such a diverse set of learners. Here are links to four previous articles I’ve written on this topic:

Retrieval practice in the high school classroom

Inspiring student buy-in with retrieval practice

Promoting metacognition with retrieval practice in 5 steps

Retrieval practice in the collaborative setting

This post will look at retrieval practice from a different perspective…stress and test anxiety. This is actually an aspect of the learning strategy I’ve been keen to study and discuss as it seems the biggest argument against retrieval practice is that it’s more assessment (which isn’t really a bad word). Assessment can create stress and anxiety, which may impair our student’s ability to learn/remember. Being in the profession of educating people…remembering is a big deal. What is the purpose of education and teaching if not to teach kids stuff? My focus in the classroom is chiefly on creating the best conditions for my students to learn. If stress can impede learning, I want to know ways to feasibly combat this hindrance.

Test anxiety is quite common. Students become apprehensive about a quiz, a big chapter test, the SAT, AP exams, the ACT, et cetera. This nervousness can negatively affect student performance on those tests and can even impact their feelings about school and education. Although there are those who question whether we should stop testing altogether, it’s not happening anytime soon.

So, what can help with this test anxiety? Retrieval practice. In an article published in 2014, retrieval practice had quite the positive effect on test anxiety experienced by middle and high school students (1). Data collected from 1408 students between the ages of 11-18 showed 72% of students reported retrieval practice made them less nervous for tests and exams, 22% of students indicated they experienced about the same amount of test anxiety, and 6% said retrieval practice made them more nervous. The pattern was consistent across content areas, gender, and students receiving special services. In addition to these numbers, 81% of students reported they felt the same amount of test anxiety or less in the class that used retrieval practice relative to their other classes.

“This finding suggests that experiencing retrieval practice makes students less anxious regarding upcoming tests and exams for classes in which retrieval practice was implemented.”  

Another study, from 2016, takes a look at retrieval practices’ possible ability to produce ‘stress-resistant memories’ (2). Much research has shown that stress can negatively impact memory retrieval. This study wondered if how the material was encoded affected the memory’s ability to be retrieved. So, they chose retrieval practice because “it had the most potential to create memories that were resilient to stress.” 120 participants studied either 30 concrete nouns or 30 images of nouns. 60 of the participants studied via restudy methods…basically just looking over the items. The other 60 participants studied with retrieval practice…attempts to recall as many items as possible. This procedure was repeated to study the other (either concrete nouns or images of nouns) items that had not been already studied. After a short distractor task, participants were allowed to restudy all 60 items in their method of study. After 24 hours, 30 restudy and 30 retrieval practice participants underwent stress induction while the other 30 restudy and 30 retrieval practice participants completed a time-matched non-stressful task. So, the experiment had 4 groups — 30 restudy with stress, 30 restudy without stress, 30 retrieval practice with stress, 30 retrieval practice without stress. Five minutes into the stress induction or control task, all participants completed test 1, in which they attempted to identify words or images they studied 24 hours prior. Twenty minutes later*, participants repeated the process for test 1, but for the words or images they did not see in test 1. This is indicated as test 2.


SP = restudy group — RP = retrieval group

The study points out three key findings:

  1. On test 2, stressed restudy participants recalled fewer items that non-stressed restudy participants (7.0 to 8.7).  This difference was not evident on test 2 in the retrieval group (10.3 to 11.1). Notice also the stressed retrieval practice group outperformed the non-stressed restudy group (10.3 to 8.7).
  2. There was little to no difference in memory performance for stressed vs. non-stressed participants in test 1. Stress neither impaired nor enhanced memory five minutes after stress induction.**
  3. This study replicates the testing effect. Participants who encoded through retrieval practice recalled significantly more words and images than those who encoded through restudy techniques.

“Our results call into question the growing consensus that stress generally impairs memory retrieval. We did not find this effect when stress acted on strong memory representations or when memory was assessed immediately after the onset of stress. Regarding the former, we showed that using a highly effective learning strategy to strengthen memory at encoding inoculated memory against the deleterious effects of the delayed stress response.”

But why/how does retrieval practice ‘inoculate’ memory retrieval against stress?

“When attempting to recall an item from memory, evidence suggests that associated and/or contextual information accompanies that attempt. More retrieval attempts thus create more distinct routes by which the same item can be accessed. Supporting this, a neuroimaging study found that, relative to study practice, retrieval practice increased hippocampal connectivity with other brain regions. In the case of our study, retrieval practice may have created multiple, contextually distinct retrieval pathways by which to access information. Although cortisol may have disrupted access to information by certain pathways, the robustness of the memory representation created by retrieval practice may have facilitated access to that information by alternate, undisrupted routes.”

Wow. Just wow. So retrieval practice appears to create more distinct routes to the information to be retrieved. Even if cortisol impairs one or more pathway, another may still be viable for retrieval. As a person who focuses mostly on the cognitive psychology side of things, this dip into neuroscience is just fascinating.

I must caution myself (and you) on these findings. There is a very small amount of information directly studying retrieval practice and stress. More work needs to be done in this area. So, proceed with caution. These results are promising, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.***

I’ve made retrieval practice a major focus of my day-to-day routine in the classroom. Whether reviewing information from the last lesson, the last week, the last month (or for initial encoding), this learning strategy has a robust reservoir of evidence to support its use for learning. If you are new to the use of retrieval practice, I highly recommend Retrieval Practice and The Learning Scientists.

How can you best utilize retrieval practice to improve your classroom?

How could you present these findings to your class to discuss stress?

*Why was test 2 administered 25 minutes after stress induction? Cortisol binds to glucocorticoid receptors in the hippocampus, impeding retrieval-related processing. Cortisol’s impact on retrieval of information appears to be at its height around 25 minutes after a stressful situation.

**Stress may not have impacted memory in test 1 due to the release of epinephrine and norepinephrine immediately after stress induction. This hormone may facilitate neural processing, thus explaining why memory may have been unaffected.

***I contacted the lead researcher of the second article, Dr. Amy Smith, via email. She most generously responded with more articles to read on the topic. Researchers/scientists/professors are awesome people. If you like their research, write them an email to say so…they’ll appreciate the love and return the favor with whatever information you want to know.

  1. Agarwal, P. K., D’Antonio, L., Roediger III, H. L., McDermott, K. B., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Classroom-based programs of retrieval practice reduce middle school and high school students’ test anxiety. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 3(3), 131-139.
  2. Smith, A. M., Floerke, V. A., & Thomas, A. K. (2016). Retrieval practice protects memory against acute stress. Science, 354(6315), 1046-1048.

6 thoughts on “Retrieval Practices’ Impact on Test Anxiety and Stress

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  1. Is remembering the same as learning? Retrieval practice is good for facts, but what techniques can be used for solving problems? Or applying known information to new situations?

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