Strategies for using retrieval

Kasey Lawless

Marketing Coordinator at Atomi


min read

Retrieval is a tried and tested method of revision and in this blog, we go over some helpful strategies to get you started. Although retrieval might take a little bit more effort to use as you study, you will quickly see the rewards compared to just re-reading, highlighting or underlining. 

Remember: effort is an indication that we are learning, not that we are failing at something.

Let's dive right in! 

Delayed note-taking

How to do it

1. Read, listen or watch something you're trying to learn.

2. Wait until a natural pause in the information (the end of a sentence, definition, equation etc.).

3. Write your notes by trying to recall the information from memory.

What are the benefits?

Why delay your note-taking? Often it's tempting to take notes as soon as we read or hear things, writing things down before we’ve understood them. By waiting a couple of moments and then recalling from memory, we can improve our memory and ensure we understand things before we write them down. This ensures that we write things down in our own words rather than regurgitating somebody else's.

Brain drain (pause and retrieve)

How to do it

1. Wait until you have covered a larger chunk of information (a few paragraphs, a couple of minutes of video, halfway through class).

2. Pause your learning (maybe ask your teacher if they can incorporate a minute or two break to do a Brain Drain during class!).

3. Take a new piece of paper (separate to your notes) and write down the key ideas that you have learnt so far - without looking at your notes!

What are the benefits?

Often we can speed through a learning or study session without taking stock of what we have learnt. Pausing to practice retrieval after covering a chunk of material has two key benefits. 

Firstly, we get the memory boosting benefits of retrieval practice by writing down the key ideas from our own memory. Secondly, pausing to retrieve helps us summarise and identify important information. We can extract the main ideas, rather than having to go into unnecessary details that might have been included in our notes.


How to do it

1. Get a box of physical flashcards (also called index cards or system cards) or use computer-based flashcards.

2. Mark important ideas from your notes, books, videos or class time that you need to memorise. For example, definitions, quotations, formulas, diagrams, dates, names etc.

3. On one side of the card write a cue (this is a prompt to tell you what information is on the other side of the card. e.g. ‘Definition of parasite’).

4. On the other side write the information you need to memorise (e.g. ‘An organism that lives in or on another organism (host) and derives its nutrients at the host’s expense’).

5. Test yourself at retrieving the answer before turning the flashcard over to see if you got it correct.6. Review difficult flashcards more often than easy ones.

What are the benefits?

Flashcards help us break down important facts and information we need to know. Instead of having to trawl through our notes looking, we can keep vital knowledge on flashcards for easy and convenient retrieval practice. Test yourself with your flashcards in the car, on the bus, before you go to bed, or anywhere it’s convenient. Just make sure to fully recall the information from your own memory before flipping the card. That way we can get the memory strengthening effects of retrieval. 

Self-quizzing and practice testing

How to do it

1. Collect or write questions that use the information you are trying to learn (e.g. Atomi quizzes, textbook questions, past exam papers, write your own).

2. Test your ability to answer the questions without looking at your notes.

3. Focus on the questions that you have trouble with. Maybe you need to go back and re-learn the material before tackling examples.

What are the benefits?

Self-quizzing and practice testing are great ways to learn and revise content. These kinds of questions are more likely to apply the knowledge you are learning in the same way it's done in assessments. By answering questions (without looking at notes!), we can get the memory benefits of retrieval practice. We can also get a good idea of our progress and where our strengths and weaknesses lie.

And that's it! Remember that retrieval practice requires a little more conscious effort, but the payoffs are huge. By incorporating these strategies into your learning and study, you will improve your memory and keep track of which areas need your attention. Good luck! 


Published on

May 31, 2024

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