Retrieval practice is one of the most researched evidence-based learning strategies we have. It’s so simple to implement, yet can be quite hard work. Think of it like running (please pardon the ableist metaphor). We know how to do it, but it’s pretty hard work to actually do it, isn’t it? But the more we do it, the better we get at it. Well, drawing to mind something you recently learned also sounds easy, but unless you’ve already tried several times to recall the information, or practiced it, it can be very difficult (but worth it!).

Building in time to retrieve or self-test outside of a course can be challenging, but as teachers (instructors, trainers, facilitators…) building it into our courses is not hard at all, and it’s our participants who will reap the benefits down the road. 

Here are more than a dozen ways to build retrieval practice into your professional learning courses. Many are overlapping and related.

A few  important reminders:

  1. Participants should respond without looking at their notes or any text or slides.
  2. Participants should use their own words as much as possible.
  3. The strategies should be low stakes – no judgment, performance assessment, grades, etc. should be associated with participants’ responses.
  4. Participants should be reminded that it’s OK to have incomplete responses. Retrieval practice has two important outcomes – it strengthens what we’ve learned AND helps us identify the gaps – where we need to relearn material. 

Retrieval practice strategies: 

  • Ask questions (especially open-ended ones that require participants to retrieve knowledge)
  • Quiz participants (keep quizzes low stakes, and even private – participants don’t need to reveal their scores)
  • Poll participants (great way to encourage participation and keep responses private)
  • Have participants create flash cards to use during, between, and after sessions (these can be “analog” – handwritten or typed on paper/cards – or created online)
  • Have participants do a brain dump (aka “quick jot” – where participants write down what they know about a particular concept)
  • Have participants summarize what they’ve just learned (they should paraphrase and use their own words to describe)
  • Have participants identify 3 key ideas (ask them to write what they feel is most important to remember)
  • Have participants make associations (ex. What are five things you associate with [material we just learned]…?) 
  • Have participants draw concept maps, diagrams, or other graphic organizers to organize their new knowlege
  • Have participants draw and label a picture related to what they just learned
  • Use a picture prompt and ask participants to write what they know
  • Give participants a problem-based prompt or case study they must respond to using what they’re learned
  • Ask participants to give an impromptu presentation or tell a story about what they’ve learned

Paired or small group retrieval practice activities:

AI generated image of a cat writing in a journal

Image created with DALL-E 2

  • Think-pair-share
  • Jigsaw
  • Teach a peer (one partner explains what was learned as if to teach the other -aka the Feynman Technique)

Don’t forget the feedback!

As an instructor it’s important to offer feedback to participants’ responses. They need to know what they got correct and what they didn’t, so that they can identify gaps in their memory and know where to focus subsequent study. 

Observing your participants engaging in retrieval practice can be a good formative assessment for you as the instructor, helping you identify where reteaching may be needed, but its main purpose is to strengthen participant learning. Ideally, participants should engage in their own forms of retrieval practice after your course as well. 

Are there more retrieval practice strategies? Let me know in the comments! 

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Interested in a talk or workshop on any of the topics I offer? I’d love to chat with you.