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Exploring the Effectiveness of Retrieval Practice in the Classroom

By EEF senior associate Professor. Rob Coe.

The Educational Endowment Foundation is conducting a trial with 70 science teachers to compare the impact of starting a lesson with a retrieval quiz or starting with a discussion to engage interest. Although retrieval practice is supported by research, there are still questions about its effectiveness in complex tasks. The trial aims to investigate how teachers make choices and act on evidence, and to learn about potential barriers to implementing retrieval practice in classrooms. The results of the trial will provide insights into whether retrieval practice can improve student learning.

Below follows a summary of Professor Coe's explanation as to why, despite the amount of evidence to support the use of retrieval practice, there is still a question mark about how effectively it can be incorporated by teachers into lessons. You can read the full article in the EEF Blog.

Retrieval practice is backed by over 100 years of research and is one of only two learning techniques rated by Dunlosky et al (2013) as having 'high utility' for classroom practice. It is also growing massively in popularity in England. Indeed, some teachers we spoke to when planning the trial were concerned that we wouldn’t be able to find enough teachers who were not already using retrieval practice in the classroom. So, is it even worth evaluating: surely we already know that retrieval practice works?

Why am I Not Convinced that Promoting Retrieval Practice will Lead to Better Learning?

Although there is an abundance of research to support the use of retrieval practice, cognitive scientists have questioned the effectiveness of retrieval practice in complex tasks. Van Gog and Sweller (2015) argue that "the testing effect decreases as the complexity of learning materials increases", while Rohrer et al (2019) note that "benefits of retrieval practice have yet to be demonstrated for mathematics tasks other than fact learning."

Additionally, there are some outstanding questions about the types of learning best supported by retrieval. Studies of retrieval typically focus on "relatively simple verbal materials, including word lists and paired associates," (Dunlosky et al, 2013, p.32), and some cognitive scientists have questioned whether retrieval improves performance in complex tasks.

Although the majority of studies come from laboratory settings, the effect sizes are similar in both laboratory and classroom settings. These findings suggest that the current enthusiasm for retrieval is well-justified.

Why Might Retrieval Practice Fail to Work as Research Suggests?

If our advice is just to incorporate quizzing without support to build these capabilities, then it may well not work. This requires a mixture of skill, understanding, and commitment. The point is that avoiding these pitfalls requires teachers to judge whether students have originally learned the material, create good questions, and make time to plan the quizzes and keep them going, reducing teaching time to fit them in.

If we can get a boost in student learning by giving teachers some simple guidance and encouraging them to follow it, then our strategy is obvious: find out what works and share it widely. If we don't get such a boost, things are a bit more complicated.

The EEF's programme of work on Teacher Choices is designed to answer questions like these. The trial is designed to learn about the kinds of barriers that might prevent retrieval practice from being effective. These are the details that will determine whether the memories we retrieve from this period of English education are positive or negative.

Further reflections on this subject from Bradford Research School can be accessed by clicking on the links below: Higher order thinking? How hard should it be? A good use of time?

References Adesope, O. O., Trevisan, D. A., & Sundararajan, N. (2017). Rethinking the use of tests: A meta-analysis of practice testing. Review of Educational Research, 87(3), 659 – 701.

Agarwal, P. K. (2019). Retrieval Practice & Bloom’s Taxonomy: Do Students Need Fact Knowledge Before Higher Order Learning? Journal of Educational Psychology, 111(2), pp. 189 – 209.

Carpenter, S. K., Pashler, H., & Cepeda, N. J. (2009). Using tests to enhance 8th grade students’ retention of U.S. history facts. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 23, 760 – 771.

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4 – 58.

Higgins, S.E. (2018). Improving Learning: Meta-analysis of Intervention Research in Education. Cambridge: CUP.

McDaniel, M. A., Agarwal, P. K., Huelser, B. J., McDermott, K. B., & Roediger, H. L., III. (2011). Test-enhanced learning in a middle school science classroom: The effects of quiz frequency and placement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 103, 399 – 414.

Rohrer, D., Dedrick, R. F., Hartwig, M. K., & Cheung, C. N. (2019). A randomized controlled trial of interleaved mathematics practice. Journal of Educational Psychology. Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1037/edu0000367.

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