Studying can be pretty frustrating, especially when you aren’t confident in your process. Should you read (and reread) the chapter? Should you quiz yourself? How about reading over your notes?

An effective way to make the most out of your studying is a method called retrieval practice.

What is retrieval practice?

Retrieval practice is actively trying to recall a memory to mind. After you learn something new – and a bit of time has passed – you bring it back to your mind or retrieve it from your memory.

For example, if you’re studying the Battle of Bunker Hill, you could repeatedly try to retrieve as much information about the battle as possible without looking at any reference material. The first time you try recalling information, you might come up with these facts:

  • Revolutionary War battle
  • The British won
  • In 1775 or 1776
  • In Massachusetts, etc.

Afterward, check your reference materials to see how you did. If you can’t remember key points, make sure to go back over them.

Within the next day or so, try again.

This time, in addition to what you recalled the day before, you might remember more specific details. For example:

  1. Pinpoint the date as June 17, 1775
  2. Although the Americans lost the battle, they inflicted significant damage overall
  3. The battle boosted American confidence

After this, check your sources again, evaluate what you remembered and where your gaps are and try again the next day.

Spacing your studying “across multiple days leads to much higher achievement than studying the same amount of information all in one session” (How to Use Spaced Retrieval Practice to Boost Learning).

Somewhat counterintuitively, in order for retrieval practice to be effective, you must forget some of what you learned – hence the need for some time to pass. Rather than simply reciting memorized information, there must be some difficulty in retrieving the information for it to stick.

We’re all familiar with using immediate repetition to remember something: a phone number. You repeat it over and over again until you actually make the call. Afterward, when the repetition stops, the number is usually forgotten quickly because we’ve stored it in short-term memory.

However, when you space out your studying, you have time to forget some of what you learned. Because you can’t remember everything you learned, you have to dig more deeply to retrieve information. That makes you more likely to remember that information over the long term because your brain forges stronger connections to the encoded information.

Why cramming doesn’t work

When you cram the night before an exam (and we’ve all done it), you may be able to remember what you learned the next morning during the exam, but that information is not going to stick with you – it will live in your short-term memory.

In a nutshell, cramming increases the information in your short-term memory, which is helpful if you need to retain that information for a short period of time. But if you want to remember what you learned for a while, you need to store that information in long-term memory. That’s where retrieval practice comes in.

Retrieval practice may not feel as satisfying or as easy as cramming, but its difficulty is what makes that information stick in your memory.

How does memory retrieval work?

Memories are fluid, not static. Brain cells, or neurons, form memories by connecting with other neurons via synapses. When neurons fire off together, a pattern is formed. When that memory is retrieved, the pattern will light up again, which strengthens the connection.

Since memories are not fixed, retrieval is necessary to give them more permanence and keep building those connections between neurons. Each time you recall a memory, you strengthen its neural patterns and can add additional information to enhance comprehension and connect it to other ideas. This process gives those memories a more permanent home in your long-term memory.

Retrieval practice techniques

Numerous studies have proven that retrieval practice enhances long-term memory. So how can you apply it?

  1. Use practice tests: Whether they’re already created or you make them yourself, practice questions are an effective tool. Try to answer the questions without consulting course materials or the internet for the best results.
  2. Write it down: Without referencing course materials or the internet, write down what you can remember about a topic. Once you’ve exhausted your memory, go back to see what you’ve missed or got wrong. Repeat. Making flashcards is another effective way to do this.
  3. Feynman Technique: This technique builds on “write down what you know” and emphasizes the connection between using simple language and deepened understanding. Here’s how it works:
    1. Choose a topic
    2. Write down what you know using simple language
    3. Describe the topic out loud by pretending to teach it to a group of elementary kids
    4. Revisit concepts you’re unsure of by consulting your notes or textbook

So, next time you have a test coming up or need to remember something, consider using retrieval practice. As the connections in your brain grow stronger, so will your ability to retain information longer than just the next day or two.