What Is the Best Item Type and Delivery Method for Retrieval Practice?

That’s a trick question! Numerous item types—multiple choice, matching, fill-in, short answer, and extended response—work well. Furthermore, retrieval practice can be applied in a variety of ways, including flashcards, academic puzzles, games, mixed review sheets (like these), and even graphic organizers. Here are some of my favorite item types.

Tell a three-sentence story.

My friends at Interplay introduced me to this approach. A three-sentence story is a playful and incremental way to begin speaking with others. In the classroom, a three-sentence story can be the answer to an extended response item. The teacher names a topic, and the student tells or writes about it with a little story that’s just three sentences long. The teacher can add some scaffolding by providing relevant vocabulary.

Topic: Garrett Morgan

Tell (or write) what you know in three sentences. Use some of these words:

patent            pedestrian       device              invent

hood               breathe           traffic              crash

The student is neither limited by these words nor required to use them all. Any form of the word counts, so there are countless possible answers. Here’s an example:

Garrett Morgan had many patents. The safety hood was a device that let firefighters breathe inside smoky buildings. He invented a traffic signal to keep cars from crashing or hitting pedestrians.

The word list includes vocabulary that has been introduced (e.g., patent, pedestrian, device). Hence, the student is using retrieval practice to review the terms along with facts about Garrett Morgan.

Keep a running list of questions that review what has been taught.

By keeping these questions handy, you can prompt students to quickly recall (retrieve) what they know. Hold a “lightning round” whenever you have a few idle moments to fill.


  • Give four basic facts whose product is 48.
  • Name three of the world’s major oceans.
  • What is the formula for finding the area of a circle?
  • Why is a gerund or an infinitive called a verbal?

Use a Graphic Organizer.

Give students a list of previously learned vocabulary. Have them sort the words into categories that you supply, or they come up with. Here’s an example:

Study the words and think about how they go together. Sort the words into three categories and list them in the graphic organizer below.

magma                 sugar                     herbivore            producer             sedimentary

igneous                carnivore             oxygen                 decomposer       carbon dioxide

sediments           water                    sunlight                omnivore             metamorphic

Photosynthesis Food Chain Rock Cycle



Link terms and concepts through likenesses and differences.

Some questions can prompt a “memory search,” in which students look for features or characteristics and think critically about a term or concept.


Four of these words have something in common. Which word does not belong?

sum     difference       product            divisor             quotient

Explain why.

A divisor is not an answer. The other four name the answer to a math equation. (Please note: Answers will vary, and there are many correct answers.)


What do these individuals have in common?

John Rankin     Harriet Beecher Stowe      Levi Coffin    John Parker     Sojourner Truth

They are abolitionists who were born in or lived for a time in Ohio. (Again, answers will vary, and there may be other correct answers.)

Find out more about how you can incorporate retrieval, interleaving, and spaced practice into your daily routine. Explore the Simple Solutions Approach.

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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