Reminders versus retrieval practice

Should I remind my students of prior knowledge, or should they have to recall it?

When activating prior knowledge, it can be tempting to remind students of previously studied material. After all, this can be much quicker than asking questions to all members of the class, ensuring full participation, and then providing the correct answers and feedback. There is often a lot of content teachers need to deliver and present in a lesson, in addition to checking for understanding and accuracy before moving onto to the next section or topic. Retrieval practice can be challenging for students and the level of difficulty will depend on a variety of factors (e.g., the complexity of a topic or how long has elapsed since the content was last revisited). Despite these challenges with implementing retrieval practice, teachers need to persevere and focus on retrieval practice instead of providing the class with reminders of prior learning!

The “generation effect” refers to the long-term benefits of generating an answer from memory, compared to being presented with an answer or information. Professor Robert A. Bjork writes, “basically, any time that you, as a learner, look up an answer or have somebody tell or show you something that you could, drawing on current cues and your past knowledge, generate instead, you rob yourself of a powerful  learning opportunity” (2011). In other words, you’re missing out when you’re reminded of something up instead of trying to retrieve it from memory!

Through quizzing and retrieval practice tasks teachers can provide students with lots of powerful learning opportunities. Reminders can replace those learning opportunities. Bjork offers this advice to teachers, “Whatever answer or procedure a teacher can get a student to generate will be far better recalled at a later time than any answer provided or illustrated to the student” (Jones, 2021).

Examples of reminders in the classroom include:

  • Showing a video clip to the class
  • Revisiting and rereading a textbook or knowledge organiser
  • Presenting slides with information about prior learning

Reminders can be helpful, especially during the encoding stage of the learning process where students are consolidating the latest content. However, reminders should not replace a retrieval task.

Examples of retrieval practice in the classroom include:

  • Multiple choice or short answer quizzing
  • Use of mini white boards
  • Answering past examination questions

If students are struggling to recall information from long term memory it can be tempting for the teacher to offer the answer or solution. This significantly reduces the effectiveness of retrieval practice. Providing a cue or prompt can be beneficial—as long as there is still the element of desirable difficulty requiring students to retrieve the correct information from long term memory. Peps McCrea (2017) explains that the less assistance teachers provide students during retrieval, the greater the strengthening effect will be. It may seem counterintuitive, but not immediately reminding a student of the answer may actually have a positive effect on long-term learning!

Dimension 4 of The Model for Great Teaching (2020) focuses on activating hard thinking; after all, learning is the result of thinking hard about something. Learners can achieve this through the “generation effect”; teachers can support it by setting retrieval tasks to elicit evidence of long-term learning. Reminding students of the answer is not cued recall and, as Bjork stated, it is a missed learning opportunity. Reminders might just not be the answer!

To find out more about retrieval practice and other theories from cognitive neuroscience and psychology, you can complete the online Science of Learning Programme, as part of the Great Teaching Toolkit. Click here to sign-up to a free trial of all of the courses featured in the Great Teaching Toolkit.


Bjork, E. L., & Bjork, R. A. (2011). Making things hard on yourself, but in a good way: Creating desirable difficulties to enhance learning. In M. A. Gernsbacher, R. W. Pew, L. M. Hough, & J. R. Pomerantz (Eds.), Psychology and the real world: Essays illustrating fundamental contributions to society (pp. 56–64). Worth Publishers.

Coe, R., Rauch, C. J., Kime, S., & Singleton, D. (2020). Great teaching toolkit: Evidence Review. Evidence Based Education. teaching-toolkit/

Jones, K. (2021). Retrieval Practice 2: Implementing, embedding & reflecting. John Catt Educational.

McCrea, P. (2017) Memorable Teaching: Leveraging memory to build deep and durable learning in the classroom. John Catt.

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