Improve students’ long-term retention of learning
Australian Professional Standards for Teachers | Focus Area 1.2 Understand how students learn
Spacing and retrieval practice can improve students’ long-term retention of their learning. Spacing is the practice of sequencing learning so that information is delivered across two or more lessons rather than just one. Retrieval practice is the strategy of getting students to actively recall their learning. When students are asked to bring information that they have previously learnt to the front of their mind to answer a question, rather than looking up the information in a textbook or having the teacher explain it again, it makes the information more retrievable or accessible in the future. Similarly, if a student cannot recall the information, it helps both teacher and student understand where there are learning gaps that can be addressed. Spaced retrieval is the active practice of recalling previous learning at a point in time after the initial lesson. Spaced retrieval practice uses the principles of cognitive science to help students consolidate their learning in long-term memory so they retain the information for longer and are better able to apply their learning in the future.
Evidence-based practices for applying spacing and retrieval practice in the classroom are listed below. Note that some of the examples offered may not apply in all contexts, may be more suitable for primary students than secondary students (and vice versa), and/or may look different in different content areas. Reasonable adjustments must be made where necessary to ensure full access and participation for students with disability.
Spacing learning allows students to remember more in the long term than if they learnt everything at once.
- Space the learning of a particular concept or skill across two or more lessons rather than concentrating all learning into one lesson1. For instance, in a language class, you may space the learning of new vocabulary over a series of lessons so that students learn the basics one lesson, modifiers the next and then in a subsequent lesson they engage in conversation practice where they apply their previous learning.
- The specific length of the time between the initial lesson and asking your students to retrieve information (for instance, one day or one week) is not as important as ensuring that you use spacing in the first place2.
1 Cepeda et al., 2006.
2 Cepeda et al., 2008.
Retrieval practice is more than rote learning; it is about students accessing their learning and transferring it to new tasks and contexts.
- Ask your students to recall information from memory rather than recapping, revising or restudying the information in the same format that it was delivered. Ask conceptual and higher-order thinking questions, alongside fact-based questions, to ensure students access their knowledge and apply it in different ways3. For example, instead of asking students what happened in the previous chapter of their reading, you might ask them why they think a character reacted a certain way to an event. In a chemistry lesson, rather than asking students to recall the position of an element on a periodic table, you could give students a series of ‘true or false’ statements about an element, asking them to elaborate on why each statement is true or false.
- Make sure every student in the class (not just vocal students) are given an opportunity to retrieve knowledge. Do this through structured activities involving all students, such as 'think, pair, share' or students writing answers on a mini whiteboard4.
- Retrieval practice is most effective when students are not being assessed on their recollection and instead are given the opportunity to recall their learning in a high challenge but low risk way5. To maximise effectiveness, ensure the level of challenge of retrieval is appropriate. If it is too easy and students can correctly retrieve all information quickly, then students may mistake ease of retrieval for mastery of learning. If it is too hard, it is unlikely that students will be able to recall and apply information from long-term memory6.
- Correct misconceptions or wrong answers in a timely manner. Misconceptions could be reinforced if errors are not corrected quickly7.
3 Agarwal, 2019.
4 Adesope et al., 2017.
5 Adesope et al., 2017.
6 Roediger and Butler, 2011.
7 Roediger and Butler, 2011.
Be deliberate about how you embed spacing and retrieval practice in your learning programs to boost student learning.
- Plan and sequence your lessons to incorporate spacing and retrieval practice into your teaching time. Aim to embed these practices into your existing approach, rather than add yet another element to your lesson plans. This may mean that you replace some of your existing lesson activities with spacing and retrieval techniques inserted at appropriate points8.
- Create routines that embed retrieval practice as part of lessons so that learning time is maximised. For example, you could use bell ringers, exit tickets or question prompts that all students answer before getting into the day’s lesson9.
- Allow students multiple opportunities across a unit of work to practise spaced retrieval to consolidate their learning. Activities such as self-generated summary tasks or mapping links between the skills or content of the day and of the past lessons can allow students to retrieve their past learning and consolidate it in long-term memory10.
8 Carpenter et al., 2012.
9 Adesope et al., 2017.
10 Carpenter et al., 2012.
11 Carpenter et al., 2012.
Adesope OO, Trevisan DA and Sundararajan N (2017) ‘Rethinking the use of tests: A meta-analysis of practice testing’, Review of Educational Research, 87(3):659-701.
This meta-analysis examines studies where low stakes practice tests were used to encourage retrieval of learning across many levels of education. The authors emphasise that students should be encouraged and taught how to use retrieval practice during self-directed learning activities, and teachers may incorporate retrieval practice into structured classroom activities. The analysis finds that:
- an overwhelming amount of evidence suggests that retrieval practice in the form of low stakes practice testing increases achievement
- the benefits of retrieval practice can be seen in many different educational settings (primary school, high school, tertiary education).
Agarwal P (2019) ‘Retrieval practice & Bloom’s taxonomy: Do students need fact knowledge before higher order learning?’, Journal of Educational Psychology, 111:189–209.
This paper is an individual study that explores the impact of different question types on student higher order learning. Three different experiments with middle school aged and higher education students were conducted to examine the optimal retrieval practice questions for enhancing higher order thinking. In the experiments, the author used a retrieval practice model with quizzing materials that used low order questions (questions that required students to show that they remembered and understood learning) and high order questions (questions that ask students to analyse, evaluate or create). The findings across the experiments show that quizzes comprised of both factual and higher order questions increased performance on higher order tests when compared to purely fact based or purely higher order quizzes.
Carpenter SK, Cepeda NJ, Rohrer D, Kang SHK and Pashler H (2012) ‘Using spacing to enhance diverse forms of learning: Review of recent research and implications for instruction’, Educational Psychology Review, 24(3):369.
This literature review examines the benefits of spaced study. The literature reviewed suggests that to promote long-term retention of knowledge, students should receive spaced re-exposure to previously learned information. The authors make three recommendations for using spaced practice:
- to incorporate a brief review of concepts that were learned several weeks earlier into each lesson
- homework assignments could be used to re-expose students to important information that they have learned previously
- teachers could give exams and quizzes that are cumulative.
These three recommendations are not mutually exclusive, and they are more likely to produce positive learning outcomes when used in conjunction with one another.
Cepeda NJ, Pashler H, Vul E, Wixted JT and Rohrer D (2006) ‘Distributed practice in verbal recall tasks: A review and quantitative synthesis’, Psychological Bulletin, 3:354-380.
This meta-analysis examines 184 studies focused on verbal memory tasks (for example, list recall, fact recall, paragraph recall). To be included in the meta-analysis, the studies needed to have two spaced learning opportunities for the content before testing. The results of the meta-analysis affirms that separating learning of content by at least one day, rather than concentrating all learning into one session, is useful for maximising long-term retention.
Cepeda NJ, Vul E, Rohrer D, Wixted JT and Pashler H (2008) ‘Spacing effects in learning: A temporal ridgeline of optimal retention’, Psychological Science, 19(11):1095-1102.
This seminal paper explores the evidence surrounding the optimal conditions for spacing and retention. The authors state that the timing of learning sessions can have powerful effects on retention, however they also acknowledge that there is no optimal spacing interval. If learning of a single topic is confined to a week, it may lead to high levels of retention during that week (and an assumption that ‘mastery’ has been achieved), but evidence shows that the learning will not be retained over longer periods of time. The authors state that a ‘delayed review’ of learning, where learning is revisited after time, is likely to produce a greater level of retention, even when the length of space between revisiting learning may not seem too long. The authors go on to conclude that any ‘delayed review’ of learning is better than none.
Roediger IHL and Butler AC (2011) ‘The critical role of retrieval practice in long-term retention’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 15(1):20-27.
This literature review provides an overview of the benefits of retrieval practice. It finds that:
- retrieval practice often produces superior long-term retention compared to studying the material in a longer single sitting
- repeated testing is better than taking a single test
- testing with feedback leads to greater benefits than testing without feedback
- testing under conditions that make retrieval easy (for example, memorisation and testing immediately after content is learned) often has little effect and so some lag between learning and test is required for retrieval practice to provide a benefit
- the benefits of retrieval practice are best realised when learners are asked to transfer learning to different contexts rather than simply asked to recall the same learning.
Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) – Linking scientific concepts
This resource provides examples of retrieving knowledge to apply in new contexts.
This video shows a science teacher in a speciality science school in Victoria. The video demonstrates how retrieval practice can be used to have students apply their prior learning to new contexts, in this case retrieving knowledge of motion and Newton’s laws, and designing an experiment with accelerating cars. It was designed for students to make connections to their prior learning in order to solve problems in a different activity, at a different time. The teacher worked with students to help them explain their thinking, monitor and self-correct their learning.
Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) – Around the world with maths
This resource provides an example of a teacher engaging all students in retrieval practice.
This video shows a primary school teacher in New South Wales working with a Year 5 and 6 extension number group. The video demonstrates how to involve all students in retrieval practice while working through a lesson. By assigning roles, all students are involved in recalling prior learning and applying it to the current problem that they are solving. The teacher encourages students to recall information through informal prompting, saying things such as “this is similar to the domino windows we did, but not the same”, encouraging students to transfer their learning into the new context.
Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) – Linking theory and practice
This resource provides an example of ‘deliberately structuring’ lessons around retrieval practice.
This video was filmed in a Tasmanian high school science class. In the video, the teacher explains how she structures her lessons to include deliberate recall of information learned in previous sessions. She regularly begins her lessons by reviewing the information learned in the previous lesson, for example by using questioning or a physical activity where students need to act out a concept. She then builds on the knowledge through different practical and theory-based activities. In doing this, she uses spacing and highlights that this helps her students learn.
Keywords: lesson planning, student learning, practice implementation