The Many Benefits of Retrieval Practice

By: Megan Smith & Yana Weinstein

As you already know if you’ve been reading our blog, quizzing in the classroom helps students learn. For this reason, we have talked a fair amount about giving students frequent quizzes during class in previous blog posts. We discussed how to make quizzing fun in the classroom in two parts (Part 1; Part 2), whether quizzing format (such as multiple choice or short answer) matters when it comes to improving learning, and where the quiz questions should go during a lecture.

Quizzing is beneficial to student learning because it involves retrieval practice, or thinking back to information previously learned and bringing it to mind. Retrieval practice occurs when students take a standard test or quiz, but of course retrieval practice can be implemented in other ways. Students can draw what they know, or produce concept maps from memory (1).

Quizzes help students learn

What we know from cognitive psychology strongly suggests that the act of retrieving information directly helps students learn. This benefit occurs even in the absence of feedback, and in the absence of an opportunity to restudy the information (2). The process of retrieval – bringing the information to mind – actually leads to learning all by itself. What’s more, bringing the information to mind can sometimes improve students’ ability to apply the information in new situations (3).

Quizzes give teachers feedback

Giving frequent quizzes gives the teacher an idea of how well the class as a whole grasps the concepts. In my class, if a couple of students are struggling, I can reach out to them and encourage them to come to my office to ask questions individually. If many students are struggling, this tells me that I need to do something different during class. I can rethink the way I am explaining something, provide additional instruction in the classroom, or create an engaging activity for the class to do together to make sure the content is clear.

In addition to those two key benefits to students and teachers, though, there are some additional less obvious benefits of giving students regular quizzes (4). Here, we’ll describe just 3 of them.

Quizzes increase attendance

This may be more relevant to college, where attendance is less enforced, although in high-school attendance can also be a problem. When in-class quizzes are frequent, students need to be in class in order to take the quizzes. For example, I give pop extra credit quizzes, and my students know that they can only get extra credit from the quizzes if they are present in class. So, by providing random extra credit quizzes I’m hoping to motivate my students to come to class, and to come prepared for class. More frequent attendance and preparation should help them learn.

Picture from Pixabay

Picture from Pixabay

Quizzes promote test expectancy

In addition to coming to class, students may pay closer attention to the material when they are expecting to be quizzed. Yana recently tested this idea by having students learn information in 5 separate segments. In one condition, students were unexpectedly quizzed on the last segment. In the other condition, students were given a warning about the upcoming quiz right before studying that segment. Students who received the warning about the upcoming quiz did better than the group who were not given a warning. But in a third condition, instead of being given a warning, students were simply tested on every one of the 5 segments, which led them to expect a test on the last segment; these students did just as well on that last segment test as those who received the warning (5). This suggests that expecting a test in and of itself can be beneficial to learning, and one way to set up test expectancy is to keep quizzing!

Students sometimes have trouble paying attention, and expecting a quiz may help with this! Picture from Pixabay.

Students sometimes have trouble paying attention, and expecting a quiz may help with this! Picture from Pixabay.

Studying is more efficient after a quiz

Quizzes help students identify what they know and what they don’t know (this is actually the main reason that students mention for doing practice tests on their own). The students then have a better idea of how well they are grasping the material, hopefully motivating them to study more and helping them allocate their study time effectively by focusing on the information that still needs more practice. What’s more, though, in some cases a test can make the next study opportunity more effective (6). Teachers can help students see what topics they are grasping and what topics they are not by providing feedback after quizzes; and that feedback need not be immediate to be most effective (7).


If you liked this post about retrieval practice, check out our retrieval practice concept map and our weekly digest on retrieval practice.

References 

(1) Blunt, J. R., & Karpicke, J. D. (2014). Learning with retrieval-based concept mapping. Journal of Educational Psychology, 106, 849-858.

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

(3) Smith, M. A., Blunt, J. R., Whiffen, J. W., & Karpicke, J. D. (in press). Does providing prompts during retrieval practice improve learning? Applied Cognitive Psychology.

(4) Roediger, H. L., Putnam, A. L., & Smith, M. A. (2011). Ten benefits of testing and their applications to educational practice. In J. Mestre & B. Ross (Eds.), Psychology of learning and motivation: Cognition in education (pp. 1-36). Oxford: Elsevier.

(5) Weinstein. Y., Gilmore, A. W., Szpunar, K. K., & McDermott, K. B. (2014). The role of test expectancy in the build-up of proactive interference in long-term memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 40, 1039-1048. 

(6) Arnold, K. M., & McDermott, K. B. (2013). Test-potentiated learning: Distinguishing between direct and indirect effects of tests. Journal of Experimental Psychology. Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 39, 940-945.

(7) Mullet, H. G., Butler, A. C., Berdin, B., von Borries, R., & Marsh, E. J. (2014). Delaying feedback promotes transfer of knowledge despite student preferences to receive feedback immediately. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 3, 222-229.

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