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Encouraging Durable Learning with Retrieval Practice

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Retrieval Practice is the "act of calling information to mind rather than simply rereading, re-listening, or passively studying it. The idea is to produce 'an effort from within' to induce better retention" (Roediger and Butler, 2011). 

Historically, teaching and learning have focused on getting information into students’ heads, but studies have shown that helping students pull information out of their heads (retrieval practice) is much more effective for creating durable learning, or learning that is "able to exist for a long time without significant deterioration in quality or value" (Merriam Webster).  

Cossen, et al. (2013) report that “retrieval practice leads to better long-term retention than additional study of course material.” Retrieval practice is most beneficial when it requires effortful processing, occurs multiple times with relatively long intervals between attempts, and is followed by feedback after each attempt (Roediger and Butler, 2011). Cossen also notes that its benefits move beyond simple recall to the ability to "flexibly retrieve and transfer [learning] to different contexts." 

There are many ways you can incorporate retrieval practices into your traditional or online classroom including, but not limited to, intermittent testing/spaced repetition, exit slips, "two things" activities, free recall, prompted recall, and diagramming a concept. For more great ideas, see the Retrieval Practice website

hand with red yarn tied around one finger
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Credit: © vladimirfloyd / Adobe Stock

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See it in Practice

TryIt Python Example

You can use Python coding to solve all sorts of problems. To get started, let's try something simple. In the left half of the window, try to enter the variables and the sum in the correct spaces, and then choose the Run button. A correct answer will return the following result in the right side of the DataCamp window: “The sum of 1.5 and 6.3 is 7.8” 

# This will get executed each time the exercise gets initialized. # Using the variables below, verify that 1.5 plus 6.3 equal 7.8. num1 = num2 = # Add two numbers sum = # Display the sum print('The sum of {0} and {1} is {2}'.format(num1, num2, sum))

Sometimes, students who have received complex or demanding material in class cannot later quite remember the required steps or information necessary to complete assigned homework. Course authors and designers can intentionally help with this sort of situation by promoting “just in time” skill building. Repetitive practice reinforces the learning of a skill or behavior, and instructors can now include an opportunity for practice the moment a concept is presented by embedding DataCamp as a sort of “scratch pad” for students. To work with DataCamp for some just-in-time practice with coding, follow this example: 

  • Offer students an example of a simple problem that can be solved using Python coding.
  • Suggest that students use the DataCamp window that’s embedded in the course to practice writing their own code to solve a similar simple task. 
  • Inform students that they can select the “Run” button at the bottom of the DataCamp window in order to see if their code has been written correctly to solve the problem. 

Note: you can try a simplified version of this practice yourself in the DataCamp window above!

Later, when the learner sits down to attend to homework, the task and process required will be that much more familiar due to prior knowledge and experience at the point when the concept was presented in the lesson.

Students can gain familiarity with Python while receiving instruction in any mode - be it synchronous, asynchronous or via cell phone while attending class in person. While doing homework, students can refer to the code they created previously in DataCamp. During office hours, instructors can reflect with individual students as they refer to content in Canvas and enter code in DataCamp - all in the same window. Repetitive practice builds learning!


DataCamp can be used with several programming languages including Python and R.


blank multiple choice question with 4 blank answers
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Credit: © Vladimir Ivankin /

Asking students to write quiz questions can increase their engagement with and retention of material. If done from memory, it can act as a retrieval practice exercise, requiring students to remember and process information they’ve recently learned and thus, increasing retention. Whether or not performed from memory, this activity requires students to think critically, since they will be asked to carefully analyze the content, identify the important themes, make connections, and draft questions and answers that synthesize what they’ve learned. It also allows students and instructors to identify gaps in knowledge and understanding and make necessary adjustments. The student questions can be edited, adapted, and/or combined by the instructor and offered to other students for practice with the material or could be put to use on future quizzes.


In the following example, the activity is offered for extra credit and is made available to help students prepare for the cumulative final exam. Students are required to provide ten multiple-choice questions, the correct answer, plausible incorrect answers (“distractors”) and feedback for correct and incorrect answers.

This example can be modified to include other types of questions (short answer, essay, etc.) and used as a graded assignment before weekly quizzes, mid-terms, etc.

Set up the exercise

Explain the benefits of this exercise and provide students with guidance on, or resources about how to generate appropriate questions.


For an online class:

  • Review the document about creating effective quiz questions as presented in Canvas.
  • Write a set of ten (10) multiple choice quiz questions that cover at least 4 different units. Each question should include the following:
    • The question
    • The correct answer
    • Two to four (2-4) distractors, or incorrect answers that are plausible.
    • Feedback that students would see after the quiz is submitted and graded. Typically, this feedback should include an explanation for why the correct answer is correct.
  • Submit this as a Word document.

For an In-person class:

Use some class time or assign as homework to produce questions/answers/distractors and then use their questions during a review session. This way, the instructor can monitor the questions asked of the students, can correct any mistakes, or can ask students to help do that. It's all an oral exchange and done live.


Each question will be graded on the following criteria:

  • Correct. The questions and answers are correct
  • Viable. The questions make sense

Note: This is a difficult assignment for students. They aren’t typically good at this at first, but getting them to think critically about the content and experience writing questions is good practice. As you grade, consider that this is new to them and grade accordingly.


  • Spend some time in class, or in an announcement, reviewing a subset of the questions. 
  • Allow students to post their questions and answers in a discussion forum, discuss, and learn from each other. 
  • If students are having trouble, consider prompting them with question stems such as “in what way is X related to Y” and “What are the pros and cons of xxx?” 


3 things you learned, 2 things you found interesting, 1 questions
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Credit: © Penn State is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 

The 3-2-1 method is a student-centered formative assessment activity that can be used to gauge student understanding of course material and determine where students might need additional support. Students are asked to consider a lesson, video, lab, etc., and respond by describing three things they learned, two things they found especially interesting, and one question they still have. This method provides students with structure to reflect on their own learning and it encourages critical thinking. Student responses help instructors determine what material may need to be reviewed and where students are feeling engaged. The results can be valuable for instructors to consider when modifying their lesson material for future classes. This strategy can also be used at the start of class to reflect on what was learned in a previous lesson or at the end of a class to consider what was learned that day.


  • It can be helpful to share the questions students have with the entire class and review the answers with everyone.
  • The 3-2-1 activity can also be used as a pre-assessment tool. Ask students to name three things they already know about the topic, two things they find most interesting about the topic, and one question they want to have answered about the topic.
  • This can be used in both face-to-face and online learning.
  • Consider making this a low-stakes activity to encourage participation.


Ask students to close their books and put their notes away. Now ask a broad recall question. Below are some examples. 

  • Use the next 3 minutes to write down everything you remember from the previous lecture/video/activity/page, etc. 
  • Write down 3 things you remember from this lesson. 
  • List one thing you learned, one thing you already knew (or thought you knew and now know you misunderstood), and something you are still confused about. 
  • In 1-2 sentences, how would you describe what you just learned/read/watched to your family at the dinner table?  
  • What are two things you learned in last week’s lesson? 
  • Write down everything you remember about xyz topic that we discussed last week. 
  • In your own words, explain how the xyz reaction behaves. 

This can be done in real-time in a traditional classroom or using technology, such as H5P or a survey, quiz, or discussion board in your LMS in an online class.  

Broad Recall Question

Close your notes and resist the urge to look back at the lesson material, Now take 3 minutes to write down everything you remember from the previous video.

Asking students to close their books, put away their notes and write down what they have learned about a topic is an effective way to help students remember and learn. You can do this at the end of a topic, lecture, video, etc. Repeating similar questions at spaced intervals, such as at the end of a unit, or before or after the next lecture, will increase the retention benefits of the exercise.

Allowing students an opportunity to check their recall is a good idea. This can be done by allowing 2 – 3 minutes for students to look back at their notes or doing a quick Think-Pair-Share activity immediately following the broad recall activity.

There is no need to grade this activity, although attaching a small grade in an online class might increase the student’s engagement with the activity.


This practice can be used online, using interactive tools like H5P, or in your LMS using surveys, quizzes, and discussion forums. It is also effective in resident and hybrid courses. 


Credit: David Babb

Historically, students in Meteo 101: Understanding Weather Forecasting have a difficult time converting local time to Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), an essential skill for forecasting the weather and passing the class. This is taught during the first week of class but is used, and assessed, throughout the semester. Failure of students to master the conversion leads to poor outcomes. 

To help students grasp the material and create durable learning, the faculty use the “testing effect.” They provide several opportunities for students to test their understanding with the low-stakes quiz above. Similar self-checks are interspersed throughout the course and are officially assessed in lesson quizzes and unit labs.  



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One Minute Paper with questions. The questions are included in the text of the page..
Photo Credit

Credit: © Penn State is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 

The one-minute paper is an assessment strategy that can be used to evaluate what students have learned and what they are struggling with. Students are asked two to three questions about a lecture, video, lab, field trip, discussion, or any other activity, and are given one minute to write their response. The questions should encourage students to consider what was most significant, surprising, important, disturbing, or useful, and what was unclear or difficult to understand. This can be done at the start of class to reflect on what was learned in the previous class or at the end of class to consider what was learned that day.

The instructor should read the minute papers to evaluate student progress and identify any gaps in learning and understanding. Information gathered can be used to identify areas that need clarification or review. This activity will also highlight areas the instructor should consider covering more thoroughly in future class periods.

This activity can be done with pencil and paper, or it can be done using technology such as discussion boards, surveys, or low-stakes quizzes in your LMS, etc. One-minute papers can be used in online and face-to-face classes.



  • Brown, P. C., McDaniel, M. A., & Roediger, H. L. (2014). Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
  • Goossens, N. A. M. C., Camp, G., Verkoeijen, P. P. J. L., & Tabbers, H. K. (2013). The Effect of Retrieval Practice in Primary School Vocabulary Learning. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 28(1), 135–142. doi: 10.1002/acp.2956
  • Roediger, H. L., & Butler, A. C. (2010). The critical role of retrieval practice in long-term retention. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 15(1), 20-27. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2010.09.003