Retrieval practice students

Retrieval practice is only as effective as the tasks you choose

A new research paper has revealed that the type of recall task a teacher chooses can substantially influence the effects of learning by retrieval practice.

It matters how to recall – task differences in retrieval practice (Endres et al, November 2020) explores how 54 university students studied two expository texts, followed by retrieval practice tasks.

It found “short answer tasks led to increased retention of retrieved targeted information, whereas free recall tasks led to better retention.” Indirect effects, short answer tasks improved metacognitive calibration (or measurements) with “free recall tasks increasing self-efficacy.”

The benefits of retrieval theory

In 2009, Carpenter researched The Benefits of Elaborative Retrieval, which revealed that the testing effect rather than re-studying increases the retention:

  1. Recall of specific knowledge base memory traces back to that specific piece of knowledge
  2. Activating memory strengthens the connections between concepts
  3. These connections lead to better retrieval/memory trace
  4. The mental effort invested in recall spreads activation to other pieces of knowledge
  5. This connected knowledge and their associated targeted pieces of knowledge are thereby strengthened.

But in spite of decades of research on the subject, there is still confusion over which types of retrieval practice tasks elicit better retention.

Current literature (Rowland, 2014) suggests that “the use of different types of retrieval tasks makes little difference.” But this research paper seeks to discover if “the type of retrieval task matters, and demonstrates under which circumstance” which task type is best.

A closer look at the research’s approach

It can be a worthwhile exercise for teachers to look at research methodology to not only understand how and why conclusions are made, but also if they’re considering an EdD or PhD.

The paper’s researchers discuss various learning outcomes, especially retrieval practice, and “how it can influence other factors relevant to future learning” such as self-regulation and behaviour.

They confirm the assumption that “task type matters when employing recall tasks for retrieval,” as well as highlighting the relevance of educational objectives when implementing retrieval practice.

“When teachers decide on a task type of retrieval practice, they should also take the nature of the learning contents into account.”


It’s clear that there is limited research on the types of tasks most effective for retrieval practice methods. Although this may be frustrating for teachers given the importance and influence of retrieval practice, the research does provide a few answers.

For example, “the effects of retrieval practice depend on the type of recall task: short answer tasks help us remember” targeted information and foster metacognition. Whereas “free-recall tasks help us remember a broader spectrum” and help motivate students.

The paper concludes: “Overall, the type of recall task in retrieval practice makes a difference in learning. Teachers and instructional designers should be aware of task-specific direct and indirect effects.

“They should choose recall tasks that correspond to their main educational goals in a specific lesson. Matching the type of recall task to corresponding educational goals is necessary with respect to both learning outcomes (direct effects) as well as metacognition and motivation (indirect effects).”

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