RAP ON: Not all Retrieval Practice is Created Equal

About the Author: Emily Burgess is a graduate student in the School of Psychological Science at Oregon State University. Studying in the Engineering Psychology area, her research focuses on working memory and memory for emotional faces. This post is part of our series of Research Advancing Pedagogy (RAP) blogs, designed to share  pedagogical research from across the disciplines in a pragmatic format. 

The optimization of student learning has been studied through an array of lenses, ranging from instructional design, to active learning, to individual study methods. While each of these areas might approach an issue using different techniques, the goals are very much the same: the enhancement of student learning. While such topics are heavily researched, it’s time we put them into practice.

What do we see in a typical college classroom? Lectures, quizzes, frantic note-taking, flashcards, highlighting, rereading notes…. All of these come to mind with just as much ease as it requires to engage in them. Does easy = beneficial?

Let’s start with an example. Think about something you are very familiar with – a hobby, a sport, a subject. Compare what you know about it now to what you knew (or didn’t know) when first introduced to it. You didn’t just continue doing the same basic tasks to get to where you are now. When has just getting by using only the basics ever yielded a significant reward?

To learn, you challenged yourself. Learning became more difficult, but you became better. So when we think about our traditional classroom, do the methods mentioned previously demonstrate increased learning? The likely answer is no.

That’s where retrieval practice comes in. Retrieval practice is a method of learning and studying that requires the effortful recall of information. Instead of reading flashcards or highlighted sentences within a textbook, retrieval practice allows for a more active learning process. While the general study of retrieval practice has been a largely examined topic, the manipulation of retrieval techniques are given less attention.

Pyc and Rawson (2009) tested the retrieval effort hypothesis to assess the effects of retrieval practice differences. The basic assumption of the hypothesis is that a successful retrieval that is more difficult will have increased benefits for memory than a successful retrieval that is easy.

What did they do?

To test the retrieval effort hypothesis, Pyc and Rawson (2009) manipulated both the number of items between practice trials (ISI) and number of items to be correctly recalled before being removed from practice (criterion levels).

After studying word pairs, participants moved to the practice phase, where they were to recall the target word given a specific cue. Once the participant responded to an item a number of times such that the item reached its assigned criterion, the item was dropped from further practice.

To manipulate the number of items between practice trials, one group completed the experiment in a Study-Practice order. After studying List 1, participants then practiced List 1. The same order was followed for Lists 2-10. The other group studied lists 1-5 before practicing them. The remaining five lists were then studied and practiced.

After completing all study and practice trials (and a filler task), participants completed a recall test for all of the items.

What did they find?

As successful retrieval increased in difficulty, test performance also increased. Additionally, the more difficult the retrieval, the longer students took to retrieve the information. Taken together, these results imply that difficult retrieval requires increased cognitive effort, resulting in overall better memory.






What does this mean for instructors (and learners)?

Researchers continue to examine the effects and optimization of retrieval practice (for a review, see Karpicke, 2017), which has important implications for both instructors and learners. First, instructors can venture into the depths of different types of retrieval practice that best suits their students. Instructors can challenge students by implementing questions that require deeper thinking and more effort, as well as explicitly conveying the benefits of this to students. Students, on the other hand, must learn to apply active learning methods when studying… It’s time for students to retire the frantic rereading of notes and start challenging themselves.

Lastly, it is important to note that as with most things, there must be a balance. What works for one student may not apply to their peers to the same degree, if at all. Instructors and students must be reflective about what works best in individual cases, depending on an array of factors.

To sum, memory and learning effects of retrieval practice vary with difficulty levels. Learning, like most rewarding outcomes, may not always come easy… but it will be worth it.


Karpicke, J. D. (2017). Retrieval-based learning: A decade of progress. In J. T. Wixted (Ed.), Cognitive Psychology of Memory, Vol. 2 of Learning and Memory: A Comprehensive Reference (J. H. Byrne, Series Ed., pp. 487-514). Oxford: Academic Press.

Pyc, M. & Rawson, K. A. (2009). Testing the retrieval effort hypothesis: Does greater difficulty correctly recalling information lead to higher levels of memory? Journal of Memory and Language, 60(4), 437-447. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jml.2009.01.004

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