Retrieval Practice Improves Learning, but Will it Help ALL of my Students?

Retrieval Practice Improves Learning, but Will it Help ALL of my Students?

By Megan Smith

Research has a lot to offer when it comes to effective ways to learn. As we have discussed before on the blog, we cannot just rely on our own intuitions about what produces learning (see this blog post for more on this topic). Therefore, as a teacher and a researcher, I believe in evidence-based practices.

Copious amounts of research have shown that practicing retrieval - or bringing information to mind - improves learning (see this post to read about how). While most of the research on retrieval practice and learning has been done with college students (1), retrieval practice has been shown to be effective at producing learning with other ages, such as preschoolers (2), elementary-aged children (3, 4, 5, 6), middle school students (7), and high school students (8). This has led to recommendations that teachers implement retrieval practice in the classroom to help students learn. (For blog posts about how retrieval can be used in the classroom, see here and here). 

But, teachers know that students differ in many ways, and all students of the same age are not the same. So, many teachers may still be wondering, if I implement retrieval practice in my classroom, will it help ALL of my students learn?

Answering this question can be complicated, but research on individual differences and learning can help. For research projects like this, a researcher manipulates a learning strategy and measures some characteristic that may affect how well the learning strategies work for individual students. The data can then give us an idea of certain types of learning strategies work best for certain types of students.

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In a paper that is currently in press, Pooja Agarwal and her colleagues (9) did exactly this with retrieval practice and working memory. Agarwal and colleagues argued that the benefits of practicing retrieval may differ based on students’ working memory capacity, or their ability to actively hold information in mind in order to process the information. Working memory is related to reading ability and problem solving, among other important skills. (To learn more about working memory and education, check out this short video.)

The Experiment

To see whether students with varying working memory abilities would differentially benefit from retrieval practice, Agarwal and colleagues ran an experiment with college students. There were four steps:

1. The students all studied a number of small bits of information (e.g., What is the city in which the Baseball Hall of Fame is located? In Cooperstown).

2. Then, three different things happened*:

  • Restudy Condition:

Some of the information was presented to the students again with the answer (the restudy condition)

  • Retrieval Practice with Feedback Condition:

Some of the information was presented as a question (without the answer) and the students needed to answer the question. Then they saw the correct answer (feedback).

  • Retrieval Practice without Feedback Condition:

Some of the information was presented as a question (without the answer) and the students needed to answer the question. No feedback was given.

3. Their working memory capacity was measured

4. The students took a test to see how much they learned, right away or 2 days later.

*Note: another variable was also manipulated during this phase: how many trials occurred between studying the items the first time and either studying them or practicing retrieval of the answer later.

The main findings

1. Retrieval practice produced more learning than restudying. This was true even when there was no feedback.

2. When learning was assessed right away, students with both lower and higher working memory capacity learned more when they practiced retrieval compared to restudying.

3. When learning was assessed after two days, students with lower working memory capacity actually benefited more when they practiced retrieval and received feedback.


It seems that retrieval practice doesn’t just benefit the students who are already more capable. Other research support this finding as well (3), showing that retrieval practice helps 4th-grade students learn regardless of reading comprehension ability and speed of processing.

So, will retrieval practice help ALL of our students learn? Well, of course, we need more research to say for sure. But so far, it seems that the strategy works for a very large number of students at different ages and abilities.


(1) Roediger, H. L., Putnam, A. L., & Smith, M. A. (2011). Ten benefits of testing and their applications to educational practice. Chapter in J. Mester, & B. Ross (Eds.), The Psychology of Learning and Motivation: Cognition in Education. (pp. 1-36). Oxford: Elsevier.

(2) Fritz, C. O., Morris, P. E., Nolan, D., & Singleton, J. (2007). Expanding retrieval practice: An effective aid to preschool children’s learning. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 60, 991-1004.

(3) Karpicke, J. D., Blunt, J. R., & Smith, M. A. (2016). Retrieval-based learning: Positive effects of retrieval practice in elementary school children. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 350: 1-8.

(4) Karpicke, J. D., Blunt, J. R., Smith, M. A., & Karpicke, S. S. (2014). Retrieval-based learning: The need for guided retrieval in elementary school children. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 3, 198-206.

(5) Lipko-Speed, A., Dunlosky, J., & Rawson, K. A. (2014). Does testing with feedback help grade-school children learn key concepts in science? Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 3, 171-176.

(6) Marsh, E. J., Fazio, L. K., & Goswick, A. E. (2012). Memorial consequences of testing school-aged children. Memory, 20, 899-906.

(7) McDaniel, M. A., Thomas, R. C., Agarwal, P. K., McDermott, K. B., & Roediger, H. L. (2013). Quizzing in middle-school science: Successful transfer performance on classroom exams. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 27, 360-372.

(8) McDermott, K. B., Agarwal, P. K., D’Antonio, L., Roediger, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Both multiple-choice and short-answer quizzes enhance later exam performance in middle and high school classes. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 20, 3-21.

(9) Agarwal, P. K., Finley, J. R., Rose, N. S., & Roediger, H. L. (in press). Benefits from retrieval practice are greater for students with lower working memory capacity. Memory.