Retrieval practice: how to improve memory recall in students

How can teachers help students to consolidate their learning? Discovering how to improve memory recall is one important factor in this; it allows students a better understanding of the subject they’re studying and can also help enhance exam performance. Here we’ll explain how retrieval practice is a particularly effective technique to improve memory recall in students.

Accessing memories through retrieval practice

Imagine you taught a particularly effective lesson last week; pupils were engaged in learning and they understood the concepts you introduced. Fast forward to the present time, and you’re looking to build upon the issues raised last week. Chances are, however effective your lesson was at the time, students will need a recap to remind them of the new information they learned.

That’s just the nature of the human mind; in order to absorb information effectively, whether learning a new language or tackling complicated mathematical concepts, lots of repetition is required. Some forms of repetition can be more effective than others, however. Passively listening to a teacher or reading a book can help, but by actively using the memory to recall knowledge that’s been temporarily forgotten, perhaps by answering quiz questions, we can embed it more deeply in our consciousness.

Retrieval practice is a technique based on active memory recall along these lines. Memory retrieval involves accessing the information we have learned in the past, and bringing it to the forefront of our minds. And retrieval of data makes it more retrievable in the future; by repeatedly using our brains in this way (retrieval practice), it becomes easier for us to ‘pull up’ the information we’re searching our memories for. Therefore it can be an important and effective technique to improve memory recall and consolidate our learning. Retrieval practice can be used for a single subject (useful for exam revision) or as a general brain-training process that can improve memory recall in the longer term, for any topic.

Spaced retrieval

When we learn something new, will we still remember it the next day? How about the following week? Spaced retrieval involves reinforcing the information learnt in a single class, by revisiting it repeatedly over a period of time – not just once at the end of the session, but again after a week, a month, a term. When retrieval practice is spaced out over longer intervals of time (taking more effort to recall information we’re likely to have forgotten) our learning can sink in and become a permanent memory.

The retrieval practice effect is real and significant, especially when spaced out in this way; combining spaced retrieval with regular retrieval practice has been shown to improve students’ memory recall and long-term memory retention by up to 60%.

Built on a similar philosophy, spaced learning can also be an effective way to deliver information. Sometimes called interleaving, this involves addressing topics in small chunks before switching to something new; then revisiting the original topic weeks or months later, to learn more about it. In English lessons, for example, students might read one chapter of Lord of the Flies before moving on to an act from Macbeth, then return to Golding.

How to do it: Retrieval practice examples and techniques

There are many ways to get students involved in retrieval practice. Here are some ideas to help reinforce lessons learned and improve memory recall:

·         Quick quizzes. Scores and outcomes aren’t important in these tests; rather, it’s the process (and practice) of recall that matters here. By taking part in regular short quizzes at the beginning and end of every lesson, students will be encouraged to search their memories for the answers to your quiz questions, which will help to reinforce their knowledge. Students may also enjoy creating their own quizzes for others – making the learning more reciprocal and interactive.

·         Brainstorming. Give students a blank piece of paper and a pen, and ask them to write down everything they know about a topic they were taught about in a previous class.


·         Flipped classroom technique. Using the flipped classroom technique can be a fantastic way to enable retrieval practice and independent, active learning. Students are given a new topic to research at home. Back in the classroom, they recap the topic by summarising and discussing what they have learned and have the opportunity to ask questions.

·         Telling a friend. Invite students to tell a friend about the topic they’ve just studied.

In all of these activities, it’s important to review and check the answers that are produced during retrieval practice.

Teacher training resources from BBC Active

It’s often instructive to observe how a new teaching technique can work in practice. A range of BBC Active teacher training video resources is available on a variety of topics related to retrieval practice. The Classroom Experiment looks at the positive effect a more active approach to learning can have, while The School That Turned Chinese explores the effectiveness of different teaching styles.