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How you can use retrieval practice strategies to study more effectively

Imagine you have just finished reading through your study material. Now, as you sit there with the knowledge fresh in your mind, consider this: How do you ensure it stays with you when you need it most? This blog will argue that the short answer is retrieval practice – the art of actively trying to recall what you’ve learned. But before we delve into retrieval practice, let’s uncover the fundamentals of evidence-based learning strategies.

Effective evidence-based learning strategies

Learning often starts with going to the lectures. When reading the book at a later point in time, you have effectively spaced practice. Spacing your learning sessions is one of the most effective strategies to maximize memorization (Cepeda et al., 2008). (So, you are off to a great start! What now?) There are multiple evidenced-based strategies that can help you learn more effectively.

Over the years, cognitive psychologists have acquired experimental evidence for six major learning strategies (Weinstein, 2018). All of these will be discussed in this blog. We have already started explaining the first strategy, spaced practice. The second strategy is interleaving: Mixing different pieces of your study material (e.g., instead of studying a single chapter, mix the learning of different chapters together). Thirdly, there is elaboration: Asking questions about the topic to create different links with the material (e.g., asking ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions or linking the material to your life). Fourthly, there is dual coding: Using words and visuals to memorize the information. Fifth, there is using concrete examples, which is the strategy employed in this blog, to give you the tools you need to employ the final strategy. The final and perhaps most important study strategy is retrieval practice: Attempting to fetch something from memory that you have previously learned, (e.g. what did you have for breakfast?) 

Using a combination of the aforementioned methods – like interleaving what you retrieve – is allowed and even encouraged. Successfully retrieving something from memory leads to stronger memory formation (Ellis, 1995) for both multiple choice and open ended short answer questions (McDermott et al., 2014; also part 1 of our Flashcard Fundamentals blog-series). Continuing retrieval even after you have successfully memorized and retrieved something once is critical for long-term retention (Karpicke & Roediger, 2008; Karpicke, 2009). Surprisingly, retrieval practice is not listed as the most used study method by students (Karpicke, Butler, & Roediger, 2009). It might seem daunting to test yourself to answer questions you are unsure of knowing just yet. However, it has been shown that retrieval practice can actually protect against the negative effects of test anxiety (Smith, Floerke, & Thomas, 2016). To help you fight test anxiety and study most effectively, this blog will give you practical hands-on examples of retrieval practice and strategies you can employ immediately. As mentioned, using examples is an effective strategy to help you remember this post! Therefore, while writing this blog, I started implementing various retrieval strategies to set out and learn the names of all 197 countries in the world¹.

¹ Some consider there to be more or less than 197 countries in the world, like FIFA, which lists 211 members. While others, like the UN, list 193 member states. I have met somewhere in the middle and added some disputed countries, like Taiwan, Palestine, Kosovo and Vatican City.

How to apply retrieval practice into your own learning?

In order to learn optimally one should strive to spend as much of their learning time in the zone of proximal development. That is, making memory retrieval difficult, but not too difficult. For example, asking what you had for breakfast last sunday instead of one month ago. Accordingly, the study strategies below are listed from relatively easy to progressively harder. If you want to learn more about achieving desirable difficulty, you can read part 2 of Flashcard Fundamentals. To learn all 197 countries I used the following four steps: Free recall, testing myself early on, creating good flashcards, and using a personalized learning algorithm.

Step 1: Write down everything you know about a subject

The first step that you can take immediately is free recall; write down everything that comes to mind about the topic you learned about. Roediger and Karpicke (2006) asked two groups of students to study a topic. The first group was allowed to re-read the material as often as they liked, while the second group was only allowed to read it once. The second group was instructed to write as much as they could about the topic. Initially, the second group thought they would recall less information compared to the first, and the first group agreed, predicting themselves to do better. Guess who recalled more of the material after a while… the second group!

|  Exercise 1: After reading, write down everything you can remember about what you just read 

In short, there are multiple things you can do to employ free recall: Writing, drawing, answering open-ended questions, or creating concept maps (Blunt & Karpicke, 2014). Although a recent study found that concept maps did not yield additional benefit to free recall (O’Day & Karpicke, 2021). I watched multiple videos on facts about every country in the world (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). Then I employed retrieval practice by writing down everything I remembered (figure 1).

Figure 1. Listing out all the facts I remembered about countries. I had a list of all countries from A-Z and entered the facts I knew on the left.

Furthermore, Blunt & Karpicke, (2014) showed that drawing images from memory about the material you have studied, without having your study material present, is just as effective a study strategy as testing yourself. The attentive reader might recognise this combination of visual and textual learning as a form of dual coding. To apply this, I attempted to draw the countries of a continent from memory (figure 2). 

Figure 2. Drawing a visual from memory on the countries of South America. (It turned out looking like the footprint of South America.)

|  Exercise 2: After reading, draw a picture from memory about everything you remember from it. The picture does not need to be a Picasso painting. Effortful retrieval turns out to be very effective. So, if you view your Personal-Picasso later and have to apply effort to infer what you drew, that is actually effective studying.

Step 2 Test yourself early on

The testing effect explains that retrieval practice is one of the most effective ways to ensure long-term memory consolidation, more effective than re-reading information and making notes (Rummer et al., 2017). Therefore, I started with an immediate testing session of how many countries I knew, using a quiz app where you can quiz yourself on all the countries. I started out naming 67 out of 197 countries (figure 3). 

Figure 3. The Sporcle quiz where you need to name all countries of the world ²

It might seem like I started testing myself too early, as I only knew 67 countries. However, research has shown that testing yourself without displaying the answer is more effective than studying with the answers, when you have some prior knowledge of the answers (Wilschut, Van der Velde, Sense, Arslan, Van Rijn, 2024). Effortful retrieval results in activity in parts of the brain that are responsible for the relevant information, even during unsuccessful retrieval attempts (Pyc & Rawson, 2009). 

After this, I spaced out my learning over the week, alternating a daily world quiz with similar-styled quizzes separated by continent. I made sure to use interleaving sometimes as well, by trying to answer one country in continent A, followed by a country in continent B, and so on.

² Links to the quizzes can be found here. Two other applications that nicely employ retrieval practice are Travle, where you need to find the route from one country to another, and Neighborle, where you need to name all the neighboring countries of one country.

Step 3: Create and find flashcards to learn with

Using flashcards to do retrieval practice is effective. Contrary to what you might believe, making flashcards is not necessarily the part that makes it most effective. Weinstein, McDermott and Roediger (2010) let three groups study some material. One group practiced self-made flashcards questions, another used the experimenter’s questions, while the third reread the material. Both question-answering groups performed better than the rereading group, but did not differ from each other. Therefore, it is recommended to search for others’ flashcards and find creative ways of learning with and making them.

Instead of making regular notes or summaries, you can write questions about the material. (The elaboration technique discussed earlier.) I made a list of all the questions I could think of for the different countries (Figure 4).

Figure 4. Listing out questions and answers.

|  Exercise 3: Make notes in a column-by-column fashion. On the left hand side of your notes make a question column. On the right make an answer column. While studying cover the right hand side and try to answer the questions on the left. Tip: create how or why questions (Smith & Weinstein, 2016).

You can employ retrieval strategies to answer these questions. The next step will show you how.

Step 4: Retrieval practice using a personalized learning algorithm

After you have written down a list of facts, you should try retrieving them. After listing all the facts I knew, not all countries were in the list yet. So, I asked ChatGPT to come up with facts that describe every single country. As shown in part 3 of our Flashcard Fundamentals series, ChatGPT can be used to create an Excel file that can be directly imported into MemoryLab to practice the facts, which is what I did.

Figure 5.  The MemoryLab lesson on facts about all countries in the world. If you would like to practice the facts yourself, visit this link (EN)

|  Exercise 4: Use a prompt to create a lesson for yourself on a topic you want to learn. The entire process on how to do this is explained in part 3 of Flashcard Fundamentals.

To study a list of facts like this, should you use open-ended or multiple-choice questions? In Flashcard Fundamentals part 2, recognition was shown to be the most efficient way to learn facts where spelling was not important (Nakata, 2016). Therefore, I decided on the multiple choice format. However, when learning capital cities of all these countries, which more frequently have complicated spellings, I would choose open-ended questions³. The next decision was whether to come up with my own multiple choices or use random selection. Making choices more similar to each other (e.g., only asking low-income countries queried for the country with the lowest GDP per capita⁴) can help with learning due to the contrasting effect (Baxter et al., 2021; also, our blog on creating optimal multiple choice distractors). I opted for multiple choice questions that use random countries instead. All countries have similarities, therefore random selection causes you to compare and contrast different countries each time you need to answer.

In summary, you can apply retrieval practice in a multitude of creative ways. To achieve the most benefit, aim to study at your optimal level of effortful but manageable difficulty. As discussed you could start by freely recalling what you learned, then test yourself by creating, finding and sharing flashcards, or building lessons in MemoryLab. Try to implement retrieval practice in your studies soon, and you too might know where to find Tuvalu, Gabon and Cameroon.

³ The interested reader can learn the capitals with this quiz list on Sporcle

⁴ South Sudan is the country with the lowest GDP per capita, it is also the youngest country in the world.

Figure 6.  My progress on naming all countries.
PS: Do not forget to keep revising and enjoy the learning process.

References

Blunt, J. R., & Karpicke, J. D. (2014). Learning with retrieval-based concept mapping. Journal of Educational Psychology, 106, 849-858. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0035934

Baxter, P., Droop, M., Van Den Hurk, M., Bekkering, H., Dijkstra, T., & Leoné, F. (2021). Contrasting similar words facilitates second language vocabulary learning in children by sharpening lexical representations. Frontiers in Psychology, 12, 688160. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.688160 

Cepeda, N. J., Vul, E., Rohrer, D., Wixted, J. T., & Pashler, H. (2008). Spacing effects in learning: A temporal ridgeline of optimal retention. Psychological science, 19(11), 1095-1102.

Ellis, N. C. 1995. The psychology of foreign language vocabulary acquisition: Implications for CALL. Computer Assisted Language Learning, 8. 103–128. https://doi.org/10.1080/0958822940080202 

Karpicke, J. D., & Roediger, H. L. (2008). The critical importance of retrieval for learning. Science, 319, 966-968. https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.1152408

Karpicke, J. D. (2009). Metacognitive control and strategy selection: Deciding to practice retrieval during learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 138, 469-486. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0017341

Karpicke, J. D., Butler, A. C., & Roediger, H. L. (2009). Metacognitive strategies in student learning: Do students practice retrieval when they study on their own? Memory, 17, 471-479. https://doi.org/10.1080/09658210802647009

Smith, M., & Weinstein, Y. (2016, July 7). Learn how to study using… elaboration. The Learning Scientists. https://www.learningscientists.org/blog/2016/7/7-1

Nakata, T. (2016). Effects of retrieval formats on Second language vocabulary learning. International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching, 54(3), 257–289. https://doi.org/10.1515/iral-2015-0022 

O’Day, G. M., & Karpicke, J. D. (2021). Comparing and combining retrieval practice and concept mapping. Journal of Educational Psychology, 113(5), 986–997. https://doi.org/10.1037/edu0000486

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

Roediger, H. L., & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). Test-Enhanced Learning: Taking Memory Tests Improves Long-Term Retention. Psychological Science, 17(3), 249-255. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2006.01693.x

Rummer, R., Schweppe, J., Gerst, K., & Wagner, S. (2017). Is testing a more effective learning strategy than note-taking?. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 23(3), 293. https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fxap0000134

Smith, A. M., Floerke, V. A., & Thomas, A. K. (2016). Retrieval practice protects memory against acute stress. Science, 354, 1046-1048. https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.aah5067 

Weinstein, Y., McDermott, K. B., & Roediger, H. L. (2010). A comparison of study strategies for passages: Re-reading, answering questions, and generating questions. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 16, 308-316. https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fa0020992 

Weinstein, Y., Sumeracki, M., Caviglioli O. (2018) Understanding how we learn: a visual guide: Routledge. Link 

Wilschut, T. J., Van der Velde, M., Sense, F., Arslan, B., Van Rijn, H. (2024). Attempted Retrieval Benefits are Limited in Realistic Learning Settings, Unless Used for Prior-Knowledge Based Personalisation [Unpublished manuscript].

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