Retrieval practice – the act of testing yourself on what you know – is a simple but powerful tool for making learning stick. Well-researched, it’s a strategy everyone is capable of, and few of us intentionally use. Why? It’s like many other good habits – getting enough exercise, avoiding junk food, making those phone calls we need to make. They’re a bit challenging and require some effort that may not feel pleasant, and thus too easy to relegate to tomorrow, or that mythical “some other time.”

The other day I sat on my office floor sorting oId papers and stumbled on a folder from a 2013 conference. In it were handout packets from two half-day workshops I took – one on project management, and one on data visualization. At the time, I had little or no background in either area and was interested in learning the basics. As I flipped through the packets of information from the presenters (both riddled with my handwritten annotations) I realized I was having two very different experiences.

Workshop 1: Easy peasy lemon squeezy

First, I reviewed the packet from the data visualization course. I laughed, realizing that all those years ago I needed to take notes on concepts and strategies I now feel as if I’ve known forever. I was almost hoping to pick up some interesting nugget I had long since forgotten, but that wasn’t the case. There wasn’t one word or phrase in that packet that I don’t know inside out or backwards today. I remember everything! Not one to toss things away, I realized I no longer had a need for these notes. I’ve been regularly using and building on these skills for years. Now THAT’s the mark of a good investment of time and money, right? 

Workshop 2: Stressed depressed lemon zest

Next, I reviewed the packet from the project management course. This time though, I wasn’t laughing. Nothing was familiar. In fact, not only did I not remember any of the principles or concepts, I didn’t even understand the notes I took on them. Page after page after page of unfamiliar content and unintelligible notes. {SIGH} What a waste of time and money that course was. 

WHY the difference?

Was it the instructors? The content? The learning environments? The course activities? I can give you a firm NO to all of these. As a career teacher and professional learner, I can say that both courses were high quality professional learning. Both instructors were excellent. Both created environments conducive to learning. Both courses featured interesting content and relevant interactive activities to support learning.

So, if it wasn’t the course, did it have something to do with… ME? 


The difference lies in what I did with what I learned after the course. 

Retrieval practice… by accident?

After that 2013 conference, I returned to work and immediately put the data visualization strategies I learned in workshop #1 to the test. I was a program evaluator and had reports and presentations to develop based on data I had collected. Applying newly learned skills is an excellent way to engage in retrieval practice. I didn’t need to study my notes from the workshop and THEN go about making graphs and charts. I only needed to look back at them IF and WHEN I stumbled or got stuck. Each new graph I made and inserted into a report keeping in mind fundamental principles of graphic design and visual communication – the content of the workshop – was a self-assessment of what I remembered from the workshop. And each time I did look something up in my notes or other sources, and then immediately applied it to my work it cemented the learning even more. I didn’t need to set aside time to study. I knew and could use the material.

At the time, however, there were no new projects for me to manage, so there was no such opportunity to apply my newly acquired project management knowledge and test out how much I remembered from workshop #2. Needless to say, I did not set aside time to study that material. As a consequence of having NO interaction with the concepts and principles of project management, forgetting naturally took over and what I learned that day in that workshop faded away. With no opportunity to apply the knowledge, and making no effort to test myself in another way (e.g., while reviewing my notes), I not only lost what I thought I had learned that day, but with it went my precious time and the money spent on that workshop. 

Stop the waste!

Professional learning, when well-chosen, often comes with built in retrieval practice opportunities. When work calls for the knowledge and skills you’re learning, it comes naturally. Try out what you think you learned on a current work project and see if you can apply it. If not, look up the parts you forgot, and you’re good to go. Continue to use those skills and concepts and the learning sticks. 

But what happens when we want to learn something we’re NOT doing at our jobs? In my case, it was project management. What should I have done to maintain that learning for a later time? THAT’S when the hard work comes in. Retrieval practice is powerful, but like any exercise, it has to be done to work. I should have sat down with a blank sheet of paper (or screen) and asked myself questions. What do I remember from the course? What IS project management? What are the main components, steps, or elements? What key concepts or vocabulary did I learn? How does what I learned relate to other things I already know and understand?

Every time one of those questions was difficult or impossible to answer would have been my cue to return to my notes and fill in the blanks. AND I should have done that same test every few days until I could answer all the questions. AND I should have retested myself a few weeks, then a few months later to ensure I still retained what I thought I learned. AND I should have continued to do this until an opportunity to use those skills presented itself and I could start applying and stop studying. Hard work? Yes, but much more in the way of mental effort. Retrieval practice doesn’t need to be time consuming. 

Take a retrieval practice challenge!

Think about the last workshop, webinar, or course you took. I’ll bet it wasn’t even that long ago. Take out a blank sheet of paper (or blank screen) and try to answer these questions:

  • What did I learn?
  • What are the main components, elements or steps?
  • What key vocabulary or terminology did I learn? Can I explain what each means?
  • How does what I learned relate to other things I know? 

Let me know how you do.