Memory Retrieval Strategies

Memory retrieval refers to the process of reconstructing knowledge by pulling it out of long-term memory. Research shows that by shifting the focus from primarily storing information to actually recalling it (or retrieving it), students greatly improve their ability to learn and they learn more efficiently. This is a very important discovery as popular study habits and teaching methods focus on getting information into our brains, but these results show we should pay just as much attention to getting information out of it.1 The idea is to allow for forgetting to occur, at least in part, so that retrieval practice can be a “desirable difficulty”.2 The extra effort included in retrieving these memories will support active engagement in thinking, rather than rote memorization. 

There are two main types of retrieval strategies, those that focus on when information is retrieved, allowing for an appropriate amount of forgetting to occur, and encouraging desirable difficulties and those that focus on how memories are being retrieved. Although this is not an exhaustive list, here we will go over some of the most useful retrieval strategies.


1. Spacing

Spacing focuses on when information is retrieved and it refers to the strategic use of delays across learning trials. Think of it as the opposite of “cramming”. Spacing works because it requires extra cognitive effort to recall the material. As a result, it creates multiple retrieval routes to aid remembering. This strategy increases the learner’s engagement with materials as well as the likelihood of utilizing concepts between review sessions, which leads to more durable memories that last longer. 

But how can spacing be applied when students learn? For starters, they can use a calendar, planner, or scheduling app to create blocks of time. Second, they can identify 3-4 days a week to devote to spaced practice. Finally, they can commit to a reasonable amount of time for the delay (even if it’s just 5 minutes, this is better than no spaced practice) and they can set a goal of increasing this and eventually working up to 30 minutes over time. 

However, given that many students endorse cramming and believe doing so is effective, they rarely obtain the long-term benefits that arise when spacing practice across multiple sessions.


2. Self-testing

Self-testing refers to the testing effect during which the learner retrieves previously stored information without viewing the material forcing an active approach. A test is a cue to retrieve a memory. When that memory is retrieved, it becomes strengthened and, therefore, more likely to be correctly recalled in the future. 

Self-testing can take many different forms like flashcards, coming up with questions to answer, practice tests, or even writing everything you can remember about a topic without looking at the material. The important thing is that students apply what they have learned by retrieving it from their memory.

This strategy is highly effective because it allows the learner to accurately identify what they have truly learned and also serves to improve metacognition. In addition, self-testing allows the learner to focus on material that needs to be relearned and avoids the passive review, or rereading, of materials.


  1. Cloke, H. (2018, March 30). What is the forgetting curve (and how do you combat it)? eLearning Industry.
  2. Bjork, R. A., & Bjork, E. L. (2020). Desirable difficulties in theory and practice. Journal of Applied research in Memory and Cognition, (4), 475.
  3. Bahrick, H. P. (1979). Maintenance of knowledge: Questions about memory we forgot to ask. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 108(3), 296-308.
  4. Rawson, K. A., & Dunlosky, J. (2011). Optimizing schedules of retrieval practice for durable and efficient learning: How much is enough?. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 140(3), 283-302.
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