Learning is not completed without retrieval practice

Learning is not completed without retrieval practice

I’ve read my textbook twice already, and I still cannot remember anything.

In my role as the founder of an online education company, I hear students asking what they can do to better remember information that they are studying. I often hear, “Claire, I’ve read my textbook twice already, and I still cannot remember anything that I’ve read.

I make flashcards, I’m writing the information down again and again, and I feel like all of my efforts are useless. What is wrong with me?”

The truth is, there is nothing wrong with these students, though they may feel this way. The actual reason that this occurs is that the brain is meant to forget information if we are not continuously practicing how to retrieve it.

Let me share an analogy that will help to better understand what the true problem is.

Picture this: You went grocery shopping recently and you bought tomatoes, kale, pasta, pesto sauce, eggs, paprika, spices, and a whole bunch of other yummy stuff. Next, you return home and put all of your just purchased food in your fridge. A week then goes by and it’s time to grocery shop again.

Since your groceries were put away and out-of-sight, you had forgotten about them and so this time at the grocery store, you purchase the same ingredients again, forgetting that you already had them at home. In the meantime, the groceries you bought last week are starting to look old, maybe going bad, and you now have too much food in your fridge to even use before your next shopping trip, so a bulk now needs to be thrown away without ever being used. 

This is essentially what happens when we keep studying, reading, and learning (buying more groceries). We continuously absorb new information before being able to utilize the existing information, and when we get new and exciting information, our brain forgets about what we learned previously.

Think, would you rather reach for the week-old ingredients to make dinner, or just forget them and use the new, fresh ingredients? I know what I would pick!

Back to the analogy of groceries, I am trying to make a point that groceries (information)  become only useful when they are used, or in this case prepared to a dish that you will enjoy. Otherwise, everything that you have accumulated will go to the trash. 

This may sound a little harsh, but truthfully, this is what we do and exactly why students come to me feeling frustrated and as if nothing they do is working. We try so hard to learn something, then we forget what we learn since we haven’t used it, that information goes to the trash, and then we try to learn it again while also adding more information on top of it. 

When reading, information is not stored properly in the brain. This is where I see students struggle the most, sharing that they feel drained because of the time they have spent reading and re-reading materials with little progress to show for it. 

Of course, a small portion of this information will start to stick to the brain when repeating the act of reading which can cause a false sense that this method is working. Yet, when trying to understand the information you are reading, your brain is working to make sense of it all and is not effectively retaining it for use later. 

The whole process of how memory works is different than that of comprehension. One of the quickest ways to improve memory is to use the very simple principle of retrieval. 

What is Retrieval

Retrieval is the act of trying to recall information without having it in front of you. This is how to prevent what you learn from going to the trash. For example, when you were a child, your teacher used to ask you, “What follows the letter D?”  This simple question is how the child is prompted to bring back information that is already stored in the brain, a.k.a. retrieval.

As you can see, this is not a new concept at all. We have all been doing this since childhood. The current problem is that with the amount of information that is presented to learn and understand comes the grueling task of starting to practice retrieval, and right now we are typically more focused on keeping up our pace of learning even more information.

This leads to the common problem where we just don’t have enough time to even try to retrieve and use the information before new information is presented and required to be learned. In a way, we are simply skipping over a really powerful step that is the key to memory. 

As the research about retrieval is showing, frequent quizzing can be very powerful. When studying, before you jump to the next topic, try a few questions that can help you brush up on what you’ve learned, and apply the information. This is exactly why we have added a new True and False questions section after each small topic within our reviews. For example, when students are finished learning about the most common cancerous oral pathology, there are between 3 and 10 true and false questions. This is tremendously helpful to consolidate information before moving on to the next topic

The research

Agarwal and her colleagues studied the effects of retrieval practice with students in a middle school social studies course (McDaniel, Agarwal, Huelser, McDermott, & Roediger, 2011). Over the course of a year and a half, while the teacher continued teaching as normal, students were regularly quizzed on the material with no-stakes quizzes, meaning they wouldn’t count against their grades. These quizzes only covered about one-third of what was being taught. The teacher left the room for every quiz, so she had no knowledge of what was included in the quizzes.

On end-of-unit exams, students scored a full grade level higher on the material from the quizzes than on any of the other material. The other concepts had been taught and reviewed by the teacher as they normally would; the only difference was that some things also appeared on the no-stakes quizzes, and those were the concepts students retained more fully when tested on the exam.

Whatever you have learned in the past 30 minutes or hour, you should be able to summarize it in a few keywords and key points as possible.

For example, today, I provided a presentation on how our brain works in memory techniques for Kalamazoo School of Dental Hygiene. During the presentation, I kept on repeating in a few keywords, the concept that I had just talked about.

At the 30-minute mark, I asked them to rewind what they’ve learned, providing 4 key points. Right before the ending, we did this again, and this time there were six key points. They were:

  • Block out noise when you are studying
  • After one week, you will forget 90%
  • WakeupMemory™ 1: sandwich method
  • WakeupMemory™ 2: Palace method
  • Identify your weakness
  • Make a study plan

I also asked them to repeat this at the end of the day, before going to sleep, and ideally, they will repeat those six key points again a few days from now, and again another week from now.

This practice gives structure to the memory, and by using the key points, the students will be able to also retrieve the details, and start remembering the details of the presentation again.

The Research

The study by Karpicke & Blunt, 2011, explains that writing down what you’ve learned from memory is very powerful. 

Students studied educational texts about science topics using one of two strategies. In a retrieval practice condition, students read a text, then set it aside and spent time recalling and writing down as much as they could remember from it (Roediger & Karpicke, 2006b). They then reread the text and recalled it a second time. In a second condition, students created concept maps while they read the texts.

Concept maps are node-and-link diagrams that require learners to think about the relational and organizational structure of materials (Novak, 2013). The students spent the same amount of time studying in the two conditions; the difference was whether they created concept maps or practiced actively retrieving while learning.

Figure below shows the results of two different final assessments given one week after the learning session. On one assessment, students answered two types of short-answer questions aimed at measuring meaningful learning: verbatim questions, which assessed concepts stated directly in the texts, and inference questions, which required students to make new connections across concepts.

On another assessment, the final assessment involved creating a concept map, because concept mapping is often used as an assessment of the coherence and integration of students’ knowledge.

On the final verbatim and inference questions and on the final concept map assessment, practicing retrieval during learning produced the best performance, even better than studying the material by making concept maps.

So what if this article were a study session?

  1. Quiz: Try to answer the following questions.

Q. Which of the following methods provide better results?

A. Concept Maps
B. Retrieval practice

Q. When should you use quizzes?

A. After each studying session
B. The week after studying
C. Only at the end of the semester

Summarize the session

  • Students feel frustrated that reading does not help their memory
  • Reading is like grocery shopping
  • Retrieving is like cooking with the groceries
  • If the information is not used it goes to the trash
  • Retrieving is the act of recalling the information
  • Tip #1: quiz frequently
  • Tip #2: Summarize each session from memory


As you can see, it does not have to be difficult to squeeze in a retrieval process to maximize your studying time. As I said earlier, you don’t want to throw away your groceries because you didn’t use them.

I can empathize with those of you who have a massive workload to complete for school. I remember well how there is so much to do with so little time. You may be tempted to read your notes and then immediately close those notes because you’ve had enough, but what if the two minutes you spend summarizing what you’ve just learned, and completing three quick quizzes can help you score full grade intervals higher, like shown in the study above?

I wish I had a better solution other than trying to tell you that taking a few extra minutes can make all the difference. I know you’re already pressed for time, and I wish I could give you those few minutes by slowing down the Earth’s rotation. Unfortunately, I can’t win against the earth and gravity, so we will have to focus on finding some time elsewhere. 

The good news is, once you practice this once or twice, I truly believe that you will see and feel the difference.

  • Your mind will feel more clear
  • You will feel less overwhelmed by information because you have been able to consolidate it neatly in your brain.
  •  You will begin to better understand what you are reading 
  •  You will see better scores!

In the spirit of retrieval, since there is no quiz attached to this, take a moment to practice a recap of what you’ve just learned.

I hope that what I’ve known and found to work through implementing this with our students that I’ve shared something you will find success in as well

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