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Practice is Practice, Right?

Part 2: What’s the difference between distributed practice and retrieval practice?

Like distributed practice, retrieval practice is a strategy. It involves getting students to remember (retrieve) what they’ve learned. Putting forth some effort and really thinking about a concept reinforces it and makes it easier to retrieve in the future.

Think about the kinds of information students must learn or memorize, for example, multiplication facts, the number of feet in a yard, how to find elapsed time, and rules for comparing fractions. These are 3rd grade math skills, yet middle school teachers also teach them. Why? It’s not because their students never learned the skills and concepts—they did, probably in  3rd grade, 4th grade, and 5th grade! But students forget—plain and simple. Without the benefit of ongoing review and practice, students forget even what they have “mastered.”

Retrieval PracticeA More Efficient and Effective Approach

Each year, teachers reteach at least some “old material.” A more efficient and effective approach is to build in a type of practice that guarantees students not only learn, but also remember what they learn.

Flashcards, jeopardy games, multiple choice questions, and short essays are all good for retrieval. The key is to let students think about what they know and put in the effort to retrieve. When they hesitate, allow a pause, time to think, instead of immediately giving them the answer. When students just reread notes or immediately flip over a flashcard to see the answer, they’re not using the strategy. They may learn something but will not retain it.

Retrieving information should take some effort, at least at first. When students ponder a question, and struggle a bit to remember what they’ve learned, they’re reinforcing the neural pathways that make getting that information easier the next time.

Combining distributed practice and retrieval practice works great for all grade levels, all ability levels, and most subject areas.

Begin using retrieval. And distribute the practice.

  • Use a variety of practice items. Mixed review sheets, games, flashcards, short answer questions, and talking about what you know are some of the ways to use retrieval practice.
  • Make distributed practice part of a daily routine. Discourage cramming; instead, students should work in short sessions, but do it every day as classwork and/or homework.
  • Make the practice low-stakes. This is practice for the sake of learning, not for a grade. (When students have practiced beyond the point of mastery, go ahead with an assessment. They’ll not only ace the test, but also retain the learning long afterwards.)
  • Give meaningful feedback in a timely manner. Students need to know right away—or as soon as possible—how they’re doing. Self-checking is great for this. Redirect, correct errors, and clear up misconceptions to prevent erroneous learning or bad habits.
  • Encourage metacognition (thinking about thinking). Explain the strategies. With an understanding of retrieval practice and distributed practice, students are better equipped to take ownership of their learning.


Here is more information about retrieval practice.

About the author

Nancy Tondy

Nancy is a former elementary teacher and gifted intervention specialist. She joined Simple Solutions in 2005 as co-author of the original English Grammar & Writing Mechanics series, and today, she manages our Writing Team. Outside of work, Nancy enjoys cooking, movies, biking, and travel.

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