Retrieval and Spaced Practice Sound Great, but Are They Just for Memorization?

Retrieval and Spaced Practice Sound Great, but Are They Just for Memorization?

By Megan Smith & Yana Weinstein

We recently received this question at a workshop we ran for K-12 teacher and leaders. After hearing the research on spaced practice and retrieval, one might wonder: What do these strategies do to students’ abilities to make inferences, apply what they know, and think creatively?

Fortunately, retrieval practice does not just enhance memorization, or rote recall of information. Though, students do need to be able to remember facts in order to apply them in new situations. For example, some have wondered:

“Shouldn’t education be about fostering a sense of wonder, discovery, and creativity in children?” (1), p. 243.

And here’s how we might reply to this concern:

“The answer to the question is yes, of course, but we would argue that a strong knowledge base is a prerequisite to being creative in a particular domain. A student is unlikely to make creative discoveries in any subject without a comprehensive set of facts and concepts at his or her command." (1), p. 243.

The good news is that retrieval practice does improve students’ abilities to think more deeply about the content they’ve learned, and to apply the information to situations that they have never experienced before (2). For example, in one of Megan’s studies, described in this post, students learned about the respiratory system. On the assessment, the question asked them to imagine a disease, like Polio, that paralyzes muscles. They were then asked to explain how this type of disease would affect the respiratory system. They had not read about polio or paralysis in the text, but if they had understood the system, they would be able to answer this novel question. The students were also asked about different types of environments, like ones with a lot of dust in the air. In another example, students learned about how energy transfers to the sun. They were then asked to explain why it rarely rains in the desert, where there are no large bodies of water.

Images from Cyron Ray Macey and Pixabay

Images from Cyron Ray Macey and Pixabay

In both cases, students did better on these transfer questions after retrieval practice than after reading and re-reading. In other words, retrieval helps students transfer what they’re learning (3) to these new contexts (see these two posts on retrieval practice and transfer). Thus, it seems that retrieval practice, especially repeated and spaced retrieval, helps students improve their ability to reconstruct and flexibly use information.

Given this, we can make the educated guess that retrieval practice will also encourage students to creatively apply what they’ve learned. Creative ideas are ones that are novel, but also appropriate in the given context (4). There are different levels of creativity: A younger child might come up with something that is new to them, and that might be creative, whereas an expert physicist may need to come up with something extremely novel to be considered a truly creative scientist. Whatever level of creativity you’re going for, spaced practice and retrieval practice could help lay the foundations for the type of knowledge students would need to manipulate in order to come up with creative ideas. However, we do need more research to fully understand the effect of retrieval practice on creativity. This research is still in its infancy: for example, in an unpublished thesis (5), spaced retrieval practice is applied to a creative writing class, to help students improve their composition skills.

If you’re interested in teaching creativity, check out this digest. You can also read about fostering creativity in the classroom in the Top 20 Principles from Psychology to Enhance Pre-K to 12 Teaching and Learning. A similar guide for college and university instructors is forthcoming!


(1) Roediger, H. L., & Pyc, M. A. (2012). Inexpensive techniques to improve education: Applying Cognitive Psychology to enhance educational practice. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 1, 242-248.

(2) Smith, M. A., Blunt, J. R., Whiffen, J. W. & Karpicke, J. D. (2016). Does providing prompts during retrieval practice improve learning? Applied Cognitive Psychology, 30, 544-553.

(3) Butler, A. (2010). Repeated testing produces superior transfer of learning relative to repeated studying. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, & Cognition, 36, 1118-1133.

(4) Kaufman, J. C., & Beghetto, R. A. (2013). In praise of Clark Kent: Creative metacognition and the importance of teaching kids when (not) to be creative. Roeper Review: A Journal on Gifted Education, 35, 155–165.

(5) Channel, A. D. (2014). The testing effect: applications in composition pedagogy (Doctoral dissertation, Humboldt State University).