Home Spotlight on an FLN Member Defining a Pedagogy of Retrieval

Defining a Pedagogy of Retrieval


How can I improve my students’ learning experiences, or more importantly, their experiences with learning? At its center, the design of a flipped classroom necessitates that students engage in active learning before class meetings.  If you think about the cohorts of students you teach, how do you think most of your students experience learning during out-of-class time when they are not with you?


Cognitive science research suggests the dominant learning strategy among students across age groups involves rehearsal or “repeating items over and over” during study sessions (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000, p. 96).  Examples of rehearsal include repeatedly reviewing notes or re-reading materials in a textbook (Karpicke, Butler, & Roediger, 2009).  Despite widespread adoption and use of rehearsal strategies among students, research shows repetitive review is not, in fact, the most effective learning strategy.


A more robust approach recommended by cognitive scientists is known as retrieval. Instead of passively reviewing information repeatedly, students using retrieval actively pull data (knowledge, skill, procedures, etc.) from their long-term memory.  For example, if rehearsing, a student might read and re-read her notes before class.  A student engaging in retrieval, however, would read his notes once and then try to recall all the important points from memory, engaging in self-assessment.  The act of practicing the pulling of information from memory is called “retrieval practice.”

The research literature is clear that when compared to rehearsal strategies retrieval significantly enhances learning (Roediger & Butler, 2011).  Also known as the testing effect, empirical studies on retrieval-enhanced learning theory demonstrate that pulling information from memory significantly increases students’ abilities to retain and subsequently use their learning (Roediger & Butler).  While some students may intuitively use retrieval practice, the majority have never heard of it.  Moreover, learners rarely if ever receive direct instruction on studying using retrieval mechanisms (Karpicke, Butler & Roediger, 2009).  Leaders in cognitive science research, such as Andy Butler, Pooja Agarwal, Jeffrey Karpicke, and Henry Roediger have documented a series of game changing implications for instruction when retrieval is part of routine teaching practice.

The Pedagogy of Retrieval

In this FLT article, I am introducing a new pedagogy I call the Pedagogy of Retrieval. This is the pedagogy I use to try to interrupt the automatic use of lower potential learning strategies in my flipped classrooms at The University of Texas at Austin, and it is built on the collective body of research and efforts of my colleagues mentioned above.

Pedagogies are methods that guide how we practice the art of teaching; pedagogy designers draw on theories about how people learn best or how to deliver particular outcomes for students.  In the Pedagogy of Retrieval, retrieval-enhanced learning theory drives a majority of my instructional decisions.

In the constant quest to improve how students experience learning in flipped classrooms,  I offer the following research-based framework for how to apply a Pedagogy of Retrieval. This method will ensure that students use their out-of-class time more effectively. Adopting this pedagogy will help students remember what they learn and be able use it for the long haul.

STEP 1. Use retrieval practice

First, provide direct instruction to students on what retrieval practice is and the advantages of using it over rehearsal.  ‘This will ensure that students see the rationale for this technique.  Then, design ways to engage students in the active learning process of retrieving knowledge and skills from memory before they come to class.  For example, deliver a self-paced quiz using a learning management system (LMS), a tool such as Socrative, or simply on paper. Address only the most important concepts covered in their pre-class learning activities, in other words, the things you want them to remember.

STEP 2. Repeat the retrieval practice

Repeated retrieval further enhances students’ ability to retain and use what they learn. Engage students in repeated retrieval practice exercises by repeating the testing of the same key concepts and skills over each week.  Again, direct them to your LMS or some other out-of-class mechanism.  Address issues of mere memorization by re-testing the concept or skill using a different question type instead of repeating the exact question (also known as an isomorphic question).

STEP 3. Provide feedback

Feedback that is both corrective and explanatory increases retrieval effects on memory. Flashcards are a great way for students to engage in retrieval practice with feedback out-of-class, although students often rehearse using flashcards by reading the answer instead of retrieving it.  A self-paced quiz with feedback in your LMS, Socrative, or even low-tech tools such as scratch offs, are great ways to engage students in feedback.

STEP 4. Vary the retrieval

Once the students are familiar with retrieval,  begin to vary the kinds of retrieval practice students are exposed to outside of your flipped class to deepen and enhance their learning and keep them engaged.  There are numerous alternatives to the quizzes mentioned earlier; namely, group or online discussions, one-minute papers, collaborative wikipages, among others.  The point is the more variability in how students go about retrieving information from their memory the more effective the pedagogy of retrieval will be.

STEP 5. Introduce challenges

Once the students have mastered this more robust use of their individual space, begin to increase the difficulty of the retrieval practice.  Retrieval works best when there is an element of “desirable difficulty” involved in pulling data from memory.  That is, when students have to generate some effort to retrieve the information that hard work will pay off by better strengthening their memory. There are at least two research-based ways to create desirable difficulty through retrieval practice:


Create delays or spaces between retrieval events.  Instead of repeating the same retrieval question three times in quick succession, ask it three times but over a longer time stretch. There is no solid consensus on how large the space needs to be; the concept is that spaces make it harder to retrieve the information.  Once the retrieval is successful through such hard work, memory pertaining to the data or skill being retrieved will be even stronger.


Braid or “interleave” concepts or skills. Students usually study related sets of concepts altogether in blocks or masses.  For example, a study session might include reviewing everything from Chapter 1 all at the same time, then moving on to Chapter 2.  To make retrieval more difficult, build your out-of-class exercises to engage students in retrieval practice that mixes up the concepts instead of massing them.  Again, this makes the retrieval harder, which is more desirable in terms of learning. As an aside, interleaving creates a natural “spacing” effect between groups of concepts (see above).

My favorite way to engage my students in retrieval before class is through Just-in-Time Teaching, using the Pedagogy of Retrieval. Here’s a short example of how I go about it.

I design a first exposure experience by selecting a pre-class reading, video, or audio lessons.  I instruct students to read/watch/listen and to identify the key terms, concepts, or procedures we are working on.  I teach students how to create and use flashcards, do memory dumps (write down everything you remember about what you read), or create their own quizzes. Before class, I post a self-paced quiz using the Canvas LMS.  I encourage them to study using retrieval before they take the quiz.  I build in immediate feedback on correctness (the LMS tells them if they have answered correctly or not) and when I have time, I build in explanations as to why specific answers are correct or why they are wrong.  I vary the retrieval by asking multiple-choice questions, short-answer, and even essay length questions.  I also braid and space the retrieval throughout the course by including previously covered concepts or skill tests.

Call to action

Think about a concept or skill that causes a difficult learning experience for your students.  The large majority of students aren’t going to study or engage in learning of that concept in the most efficient or effective ways unless they are taught directly how to do so.  However, by adopting a Pedagogy of Retrieval you can help students learn better and excel.  This article, Flipping learning by design: How to use cognitive research to design flipped classrooms that help people learn best, is a great starting point for going deeper into the Pedagogy of Retrieval and also includes discussion of how to use retrieval during in-class time.  Feel free to contact me and let me know if you decide to go this way.  I would be happy to share ideas about the Pedagogy of Retrieval and how to make it a reality in your teaching.


Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (Eds.). (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school: Expanded edition. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/9853.

Karpicke, J. D., Butler, A. C., & Roediger, H. L. (2009). Metacognitive strategies in student learning: Do students practise retrieval when they study on their own? Memory, 17(4), 471–479. doi: 10.1080/09658210802647009

Roediger, H. L., & Butler, A. C. (2011). The critical role of retrieval practice in long-term retention. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 15(1), 20–27.

Schell, J. (2012, September). How one professor motivated students to read before a flipped class, and measured their effort. Turn to Your Neighbor: The Official Peer Instruction Blog. Retrieved from https://blog.peerinstruction.net/2012/09/04/how-one-professor-motivated-students-to-read-before-a-flipped-class-and-measured-their-effort/

Schell, J. (2016, October). Flipping learning by design: How to use cognitive science research to design flipped classrooms that help people learn best. Turn to Your Neighbor: The Official Peer Instruction Blog. Retrieved from https://blog.peerinstruction.net/2016/10/31/flipping-learning-by-design-how-to-use-cognitive-science-research-to-design-flipped-classrooms-that-help-people-learn-best/



Julie Schell
JULIE SCHELL, a leading expert in learning and pedagogical innovation in higher education, is the Director of OnRamps and Strategic Initiatives in the Office of Strategy and Policy and Clinical Assistant Professor of Higher Education Leadership at The University of Texas at Austin. Her current work focuses on the scaling and uptake of innovations that radically improve student and educator learning experiences. Julie holds a doctorate in Higher and Postsecondary Education from Teachers College, Columbia University and was awarded the Dissertation of the Year from the American Educational Research Association, Postsecondary Education Division in 2010. She completed a postdoctoral fellowship, including research on Peer Instruction, under Eric Mazur at Harvard University and is a former board member of the Flipped Learning Network.


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