Retrieval Practice: A reason to assess more!

Retrieval practice is an important learning strategy that is both taught by and used in the Assessment Lead Programme. With this in mind, we have included multiple-choice questions of the type that support retrieval in the lessons of the Assessment Lead Programme (we always try to practise what we preach!). What follows is an explanation of what retrieval practice is and suggestions about some further reading resources.


What is retrieval practice?

Retrieval practice (also called the ‘testing effect’ in some of the literature) involves recalling information from the memory ‘periodically’ which enables the person to maintain access to that knowledge (Bjork, 1988; Little, Bjork, Bjork, & Angello, 2012).

It has also been found that the act of retrieving information from memory can have greater benefits for learning than the act of presenting the same information (Kornell, Bjork & Garcia, 2011). Students can enhance their later ability to recall to-be-learned information by recalling that information, rather than re-studying that information; when retrieving fails, however, feedback needs to be provided. According to Kornell et al. (2011), retrieval without feedback reinforces in the memory the items that have already been recalled, but it does not improve the items that were not retrieved in the first place.

In practice, this means that your students can benefit from retrieving previously learnt information more than being given the opportunity to restudy that information. Setting questions that force students to recall information can be a learning experience in and of itself and, as a result, it suggests that we should actually assess more, not less! However, I talked to Learning Scientist Yana Weinstein and she clarified that if retrieval practice is a part of an assessment, then it is important to ensure that the stakes are low.

Nevertheless, retrieval practice should not be perceived as a single teaching technique that can be used in the classroom. Retrieving can be an element of different strategies. Bae et al (2018), for example, mention four different practices: free recall, practice quizzing, test-generation and keyword usage. Practice quizzes, for example, can form a simple classroom activity; test generation engages students in creating their own questions based on studied material. Finally, the keyword technique involves recalling with cues and mnemonic techniques.


Retrieval Practice Research

Cognitive psychologists have already showed great interest in this area with UCLA Profs Elizabeth and Robert Bjork leading this research field. While most of the research into retrieval practice has taken place with students in a university setting (Karpicke et al., 2016), there is evidence which suggest that retrieval practice is an effective learning technique for students of other ages. For example, Karpicke et al. (2016) examined the effect of retrieval practice compared to restudying with primary school students and found that retrieval practice to be more effective than restudying.

However, Van Gog and Sweller (2015) argue in their literature review that the testing effect decreases as the complexity of the learning material increases. Nevertheless, Karpicke and Aue (2015) responded to this by explaining that the researchers omitted literature from the literature review which supported the opposite finding. To summarise this debate, it is important to note that, even if the effect of retrieval practice decreases as the complexity of the material increases, it remains a powerful technique.



If you would like to find out more about retrieval practice, visit the Bjork Learning and Forgetting Lab website, and listen to the Evidence Based Education’s podcast with Profs Elizabeth and Robert Bjork here. Furthermore, you could visit the Learning Scientists website (I contacted Yana Weinstein and she recommended the Retrieval Practice website). Also, I contacted Bob Bjork who is on EBE’s Advisory Board to identify a freely available resource for teachers; he recommended the Lasting Learning website.

If you would like to find out more about the Retrieval Practice and learn advanced techniques to use assessment to support your students’ learning, you can register for the Assessment Lead Programme here.



Bae, C. L., Therriault, D. J., & Redifer, J. L. (2018). Investigating the testing effect: Retrieval as a characteristic of effective study strategies. Learning and Instruction.

Bjork, R. (1988). Retrieval Practice and the Maintenance of Knowledge. Practical aspects of memory: Current research and issues, 1, 396-401.

Karpicke, J. D., & Aue, W. R. (2015). The testing effect is alive and well with complex materials. Educational Psychology Review, 27(2), 317-326.

Karpicke, J. D., Blunt, J. R., & Smith, M. A. (2016). Retrieval-based learning: positive effects of retrieval practice in elementary school children. Frontiers in psychology7, 350.Available online at : (accessed: 16th July 2018)

Kornell, N., Bjork, R. A., & Garcia, M. A. (2011). Why tests appear to prevent forgetting: A distribution-based bifurcation model. Journal of Memory and Language, 65(2), 85-97.

Little, J. L., Bjork, E. L., Bjork, R. A., & Angello, G. (2012). Multiple-choice tests exonerated, at least of some charges: Fostering test-induced learning and avoiding test-induced forgetting.  Psychological Science, 23, 1337-1344.

Van Gog, T. & Sweller, J. (2015). Not new, but nearly forgotten: the testing effect decreases or even disappears as the complexity of learning materials increases. Educational Psychology Review, 27(2), 247-264.

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