Misunderstanding Retrieval Practice

Recently, on twitter, a kindergarten teacher asked some questions about retrieval practice. She seemed to have a misunderstanding of exactly what it is. She commented that she didn’t understand why her kindergarten students should do something that was ‘brain drain’ and didn’t know how her students could do something that was ‘writing stuff down’, her kinders cannot do that.

The wonderful Patrice Bain jumped in the conversation to discuss just what retrieval practice is and, in a very kind manner, tried to tell this particular kindergarten teacher that she was probably already using retrieval practice with her students. Kudos to Patrice. It appeared to me that there was no changing this teacher’s mind. She’d made her mind up about what retrieval practice is and that it was not something she was interested in learning more about.

That’s a real shame. 

The kindergarten teacher above hits on some major misconceptions about just what retrieval practice is, who can learn using it, why it should be used in any learning environment, and how it is different from what they’ve been doing in the classroom. I’d like to discuss and hopefully clear up some of these misunderstandings below. 

What is retrieval practice?

Retrieval practice is a mental action. It is not a specific type of activity that students do in class. It is all about students retrieving information from their memory. There are many ways this can be done; simply answering questions on a worksheet, discussion in class with peers/teacher…really anything that tasks the student with either recognizing or recalling information from their brain. So, the kindergarten teacher above commenting that it was just ‘writing stuff down’ isn’t quite correct. 

Who can use retrieval practice?

Anyone can use retrieval practice and benefit from its impact. There is no age limit. There is evidence of its effectiveness with elementary aged students, college students, and beyond. Don’t get me wrong, there are certain activities you can use with middle and high school students (essay writing, for example) that will be developmentally inappropriate for kindergarten students. However, many of these more developmentally advanced activities can be modified for elementary students. 

Why should I use retrieval practice?

Because there is a growing body of evidence going back a century that it is more effective for long-term retention of material than many other methods. I highly recommend looking at some, or all, of the articles mentioned at this link. Also, discussing and modeling retrieval practices’ positive impact on learning will help to develop healthier study habits amongst students. Student intuition about what works when studying is often incorrect. They need to hear and see how to study more efficiently and effectively. I’ve recently written an article (Studying 101) that covers some of the basics to get them going on the right track.

How is retrieval practice different from what is already done in the classroom?

As Ms. Bain pointed out to the kindergarten teacher on twitter, you’re probably already doing this in class. I mean, who doesn’t have their students think about and use the information they’re learning in some constructive way? It isn’t altogether different, but there are some ways to possibly do it better: considering whether to provide recognition or recall questions, contemplating when and how many retrieval cues to use, assessing how long to wait between the presentation of material and retrieval (this is called spaced or distributed practice), pondering what to retrieve with your students, et cetera. There are many different ways to use retrieval practice in the classroom, so saying you’ve always done it may be true…but have you been doing it as effectively as possible?

There is one last point I’d like to address that the kindergarten teacher made on twitter. Retrieval practice is certainly not ‘brain drain’. It is quite literally the opposite. It works to fill your brain…with information and knowledge that can be applied and used to learn more complex concepts or create or invent. While just knowing stuff isn’t the end game of education, it is most certainly a necessary step in the process. 

So, I hope I’ve cleared up any misconceptions that may be lingering out there about retrieval practice. What other fallacies have you seen/heard? What other questions do you have about retrieval practice Please feel free to comment below and let’s get a conversation going.

Also, a few teachers and researchers to follow on twitter if you’re really interested in knowing more about retrieval practice:

Retrieval Practice and Dr. Pooja Agarwal

Ms. Patrice Bain

Ace That Test

Ms. Kate Jones

Feature image by Brett Jordan on Unsplash.

4 thoughts on “Misunderstanding Retrieval Practice

Add yours

  1. Thanks for the post and for including the links along the way.

    As you mention, interest in the effects of retrieving information from human memory has prompted a large volume of systematic empirical investigations. It is important however to note that while this research has reported that the effects are frequently positive, it has also reported they are often negative. That is to say commonly the practice of retrieving information (retrieval practice) results in retrieval-induced remembering but it also results in retrieval-induced forgetting.

    Put simply, retrieving information from memory generally causes the forgetting of other information in memory. This has important implications for work in the classroom which means teachers, leaders, researchers and policy makers necessarily require sufficient understanding of the circumstances in which one is likely to observe either of the effects of retrieval practice. Fortunately, the research literature available contains substantial material that explores how and why retrieval-induced forgetting is observed.

  2. Thanks for this article. Since we commonly think of retrieval practice as recalling information from memory, what is its role in practical aspects of subjects such as Art and Music, where the idea of practice is less about recalling information and rather repeatedly trying something until you can physically do it? None of the studies I’ve found on retrieval practice are based on these kinds of subjects and there are very few studies on retrieval of procedural knowledge at all (I only found two on resuscitation skills and one on fine motor skills) Are you aware of any findings I may have missed?

Leave a Reply

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: