Retrieval practice

Have your students test their knowledge and reconstruct what they’ve learned from memory to boost long-term retention.

Retrieval practice can lead to a 49% increase in test scores when compared to restudying (i.e. reviewing one’s notes or rereading articles). (Karpicke & Blunt, 2011). This benefit is called the “Testing Effect”.

Students spend plenty of time putting information into their memory systems but often need more opportunities to practice taking information out of their memory system.

Academic learning is defined as a constructive cognitive activity (Castaneda & Ortega, 2004). From this cognitive perspective, we can place learning activities into two broad categories: encoding activities and retrieval activities. Encoding activities focus more on “putting information into” long-term memory. Retrieval activities focus more on “taking information out” of memory – i.e. practising the extraction of information from our long-term memory.

For example, when students listen to a teacher, read articles, watch videos, or create concept maps or write essays while looking at their notes, they perform encoding activities. In other words, these student actions are completed as part of putting information in memory accurately and elaborating on it – these are ways for students to acquire information and construct their learning.

On the other hand, when students complete practice tests, write learning journals, instruct peers, or create concept maps or write essays from memory (e.g. without referring to their notes), they perform retrieval activities. In other words, these student actions are completed without referring to their notes, students are required to retrieve the information from their memory system – practicing retrieval strengthens memories and makes it easier for students to retrieve the learning in the future.

Empirical studies have found that students need to reconstruct memories to strengthen their ability to retrieval their learning. A mix of encoding and retrieval activities are beneficial. But when comparing the efficacy of encoding versus retrieval types of activities, especially when reviewing material for tests, we see that retrieval activities are much more effective in supporting durable learning.


Karpicke, J. D., & Blunt, J. R. (2011). Retrieval practice produces more learning than elaborative studying with concept mapping. Science, 331(6018), 772-775.

Beardsley, M. 2020. Science of Learning Concepts for Teachers (Project Illuminated) (1st ed.). Retrieved from

Weinstein, Y., Sumeracki, M., & Caviglioli, O. (2018). Understanding how we learn: A visual guide. Routledge.

Bjork, R. A., Dunlosky, J., & Kornell, N. (2013). Self-regulated learning: Beliefs, techniques, and illusions. Annual review of psychology, 64, 417-444.

Roediger III, H. L., & Karpicke, J. D. (2006a). The power of testing memory: Basic research and implications for educational practice. Perspectives on psychological science, 1(3), 181-210.

Roediger III, H. L., & Karpicke, J. D. (2006b). Test-enhanced learning: Taking memory tests improves long-term retention. Psychological science, 17(3), 249-255.