How to Use Retrieval Practice Effectively

Amanda Martin
Amanda Martin
Elementary school music teacher; M.A.Ed. In Curriculum and Instruction
A young student practices flashcards with their teacher.

What is Retrieval Practice?

The retrieval practice is a method that helps students retain information. Particularly, it assists students in processing and pulling out knowledge that they have gained without referencing study materials or any other instructional material.

In essence, the retrieval practice challenges students to “dig deep” into the knowledge at-hand to make the learning more relevant and meaningful. The retrieval practice is an excellent tool for students and classrooms of all ages and skill levels as it can be utilized with and beneficial to use when teaching any concept.

Why is Retrieval Practice Effective?

The retrieval method is highly effective, because it requires students to recognize what information they have a firm grasp on and the information in which they do not. This method forces students to rely solely on the knowledge that has been retained so that when they encounter a topic or question, students can identify what they know and do not know to improve their learning. As teachers, we want our students to retain the information from our instruction, and the retrieval method helps students solidify their knowledge and grow upon it.

Retrieval Practice Strategies to Use in the Classroom

There are many retrieval practice examples to use.

Notecards or Flashcards

One of the most popular study strategies is undoubtedly the traditional use of notecards or flashcards. For years, students have jotted down key facts and ideas about topics to better retain that knowledge on assignments and tests.

However, this particular method may not be beneficial to students in the retrieval practice unless used correctly. In order to do this, students must follow some basic steps to better understand and retain the information at hand.

Explain In Your Own Words

First, students should read through the cards while paying careful attention to the details and aspects of each idea. During this first step, it is helpful for them to begin thinking about what is being learned and explain it themselves in their own words (or different words from those listed on the notecard.)

Rely Less and Less on Cards

The second step is to repeat the process of reading through the cards again, but this time, students should rely less on the card and more on the brain to retrieve the information. This is where students can begin to see what they have learned or retained and what needs additional support and practice.

They should continue studying their notecards and flashcards even after they exhibit skills of mastery to keep the information fresh! Also, students should not keep their notecards in the same order each time they read through them to better validate the knowledge. Instead, they should be encouraged to shuffle and mix up the order of their cards.

Partner or Small Group Quizzes

With this strategy for using the retrieval practice in the classroom, students have the opportunity to work with others and practice accessing knowledge. For this activity, students may use their notecards or flashcards, or they may use any teacher-provided study guide to ask one another questions.

Let them know that they may not reference their own instructional or study materials to find answers. They must recall information they have retained from previous instruction and independent work or study. Students may work in small groups or with a partner to complete this activity.

Still, students must understand that the purpose of this activity is to help one another gain any missing knowledge and convert that knowledge into the brain for future retrieval. If a student misses a question or has trouble recalling all of the facts, the other member(s) of the group should share the answer to gain that knowledge for next time.

Advanced KWL Charts

By now, most teachers have heard of KWL charts. This instructional strategy requires students to fill in what they know, want to know, and what they have learned (after an instructional unit) about a particular topic. Rather than complete the simplest form of KWL chart, teachers can help their students retain knowledge with the retrieval practice by implementing an advanced version of the KWL chart.

To do this, teachers would have students create five boxes on a sheet of paper. Each box should be labeled with the following:

  1. What we think…
  2. What we wonder…
  3. What is 100% known…
  4. What is not true…
  5. What have we learned…

This new style of KWL chart will help students process information at an even higher rate as they are being challenged to think about it in additional ways. They must determine which information is known with certainty or relevant to the topic and which information is not.

Graffiti Walls

Graffiti walls or boards are one of the most interactive and exciting instructional teaching strategies around.

Students will need:

  • Sheet of white paper (or a small sheet of poster board if working on a more significant topic)
  • Markers
  • Highlighters
  • Crayons
  • Other various art supplies as desired

The topic that students have been learning should be written in the middle of the “wall.” With the materials, students will be tasked with writing down all of the information they possibly can about the given topic.

Your students should be creative with their displays of knowledge by using contrasting colors, fonts, etc. They may even draw pictures to accompany their graffiti walls if it is appropriate for the topic at hand.

Creative Writing Examples

Another way students can practice retrieving information is to complete a short writing excerpt. Without using notes, textbooks, or any other study reference, students must write a creative story using only the knowledge on the topic from their memory.

  • Why would this be effective?
  • Why would I want to use creative writing in my classroom?  

The answer is simple. Students are forced to pull out their knowledge on the topic at hand in a creative and unique way by completing this activity. Students and teachers can then review the story for any concept elements that may be missing or not fully understood.

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