Sunday, October 03, 2021

Roediger and Karpicke - Retrieval practice and effortful learning

Henry L. Roediger (Washington University in St. Louis) and Jeffrey D. Karpicke (Purdue University) have been at the forefront of the research on retrieval practice. For centuries memories were seen as objects to be retrieved but neutral for learning. Few saw that act of retrieval as a learning experience in itself, something that produced learning. They can be said to have put retrieval practice, as a learning strategy, on the map by confirming the efficacy of free recall over rereading, stimulating research in the area.

Testing Effect (Retrieval Practice Effect)

In their Testing-enhanced learning (2006) paper they showed that repeated tests substantially increased retention relative to learners who simply restudied the prose material. Restudying had a better short-term effect but retrieval practice, 2 days and 1 week later showed a significant difference. Roediger et al. (2011) then did a study on text material covering Egypt, Mesopotamia, India and China, in the real context of real classes in a real school, a Middle School in Columbia, Illinois. Retrieval tests, only a few minutes long, produced a full grade-level increase on the material that had been subject to retrieval.

The first solid research on the Testing effect was by Abbot (1909), then Gates (1917), who tested children aged 8-16 on short biographies. Some simply re-read the material several times, others were told to look up and silently recite what they had read. The latter, who actively retrieved knowledge, showed better recall. Spitzer (1939) made over 3000 11-12 year olds read 600 word articles then tested students at periods over 2 months. The greater the gap between testing and the original exposure or test, the greater the forgetting. The tests themselves seemed to halt forgetting. 

Tulving (1967) took this further with lists of 36 words, with repeated testing and retrieval. The retrieval led to as much learning as the original act of studying. This shifted the focus away from testing as just assessment to testing as retrieval, as an act of learning in itself and Karpicke and Roedegir’s work in 2006 and 2009. McDaniel (2011) did a further study on science subjects, with 16 year olds, on genetics, evolution and anatomy. Students who used retrieval quizzes scored 92% (A-) compared to 79% for those who did not. More than this, the effect of retrieval lasted longer, when the students were tested eight months later. 

Karpicke and Blunt (2011) also showed that retrieval practice is superior to concept or mind-mapping. Spaced, retrieval practice is even better (Karpicke & Bauernschmidt, 2011). It has been shown to be effective at all levels in education; elementary, middle-school, Universities and in adult medical education.

The work by Kornell (2009) also shows that even unsuccessful testing is better. Retrieval testing gives you better internal feedback and works even when you get few or no correct answers. Testing, even before you have access to the material, as a learning experience, also helps learning. Once again, Huestler and Metcalfe (2012) asked learners what worked best and they were largely wrong.

Illusions of competence

In their 2006 research, Karpicke and Roediger used rereading as the control, as that is what most learners do, see Karpicke, Butler and Roediger (2009), and in doing so uncovered a fascinating supplementary finding. In a survey of 117 students they asked them to list their study strategies, then also choose from a list of set strategies. The majority chose rereading as a strategy with relatively few using self-testing or free recall. They christened this the ‘illusion of competence’. Just as Bjork had done in asking students about practice techniques, they found that students think they will do better by repeated study and not free recall practice, yet the evidence shows the students were wrong. This lack of metacognitive awareness severely limits the ability of learners to learn.

Make It Stick

Make It Stick (2014) by Brown, Roediger and McDaniel takes a wider view. It is the result of over ten years of focused research on 'Applying Cognitive Psychology to Enhance Educational Practice'. It is practical and gives plenty of advice on both how to teach and how to learn, the point being that knowing how to learn is a necessary condition for good teaching.

Researchers like Bjork, Karpicke, Rodeiger and McDaniel claim that most good learning theory is counterintuitive. Most students are misled by teachers and institutions into the wrong strategies for studying; reading, highlighting, underlining and rereading. This feels productive but the evidence suggests it is a largely ineffective strategy for learning. It turns out that we are very poor judges of our own learning. The optimal strategies for learning are in the 'doing' and some of that doing is counterintuitive. We think we are mastering something but this is an illusion of mastery. It is easy to think you’re learning when the going is easy – re-reading, underlining and repetition but it doesn’t work. To learn effectively, you must make the going harder. They also explain why the research is not about rote learning, the charge that is usually levelled against them.

The real force behind successful learning is effortful learning. By effort they mostly mean retrieval practice. Practically, they recommend regular, low-stakes testing for teachers and learners, not ‘teaching to the test’ as summative assessment but regular formative exercises, where recall is stimulated and encouraged. Test little and often – that is what makes effortful learning stick.This is not testing as assessment, it is testing to learn. Interesting research is also presented for the idea that having a go at retrieval, even when you make mistakes and errors, is better than simply getting the exposition. 

They also recommend spaced practice, especially spaced retrieval practice and interleaving and delayed feedback.


It is not that retrieval practice doesn;t work only that it only works for limited types of learning, such as factual recall, and that the effect fades, even disappears for more complex material. Many of the trials are on verbal information, word-pairs and so on. An associated problem is the difficulty in designing retrieval practice and transferring it to the classroom or online environment. It is ebay to design low-level practice.


Their work has gathered a great deal of attention, especially in schools and stimulated other research on different audiences with different types of material and in different contexts. Movements such as ResearchED have promoted the research and its spread in recent books on teaching practice, and online, has been significant.


Brown, P.C., 2014. Make it stick. Harvard University Press.

Abbott, E. E. (1909). On the analysis of the factors of recall in the learning process. Psychological Monographs, 11, 159–177.

Gates, A. I. (1917). Recitation as a factor in memorizing. Archives of Psychology, No. 40, 1-104. 

Spitzer, H. F. (1939). Studies in retention. Journal of Educational Psychology, 30, 641-656. 

Tulving, E. (1967). The effects of presentation and recall of material in free-recall learning. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 6, 175􏰀184.

Huelser, B.J. and Metcalfe, J., 2012. Making related errors facilitates learning, but learners do not know it. Memory & cognition, 40(4), pp.514-527.

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

Karpicke, J.D., & Bauernschmidt, A. 2011. Spaced retrieval: Absolute spacing enhances learning regardless of relative spacing. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 37(5), 1250-1257. 

Karpicke, J.D. and Blunt, J.R., 2011. Retrieval practice produces more learning than elaborative studying with concept mapping. Science, 331(6018), pp.772-775.

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