Why Memory Retrieval Matters in Education

Memory has long been disregarded in education despite the fact that it plays a crucial part in the learning process. Daniel Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, whose research focuses on the application of findings from cognitive science to education, synthesizes his understanding of the architecture of memory into three principles: Memory is the residue of thought, memory is accessible through cues and memory is prone to error.1 In describing memory as the residue of thought, Willingham is emphasizing that we remember that which we pay attention to, wrestle with, and contemplate more deeply. A successful education must allow students to accumulate knowledge that is durable, flexible and reliable. In order to do this, we resort to memory, which is critical to learning since it is a prerequisite to amassing knowledge, which, in turn, is necessary for critical thinking and creative problem-solving.

The second part of Willingham’s framework, that of memory being “accessible through cues” refers to retrieval strategies which make those memories accessible. Memory retrieval refers to pulling a stored memory out of long-term memory and into working memory for continued processing and use; in other words, it is the process of reconstructing knowledge. 

We usually think of tests and exams as the ideal moment where retrieval comes into play, but in actuality retrieval occupies a central role in the learning process. Academic researchers like John Dunlosky, and Henry Roediger2,3 have produced compelling research proving 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 an important discovery that is also a paradigm shift for most students who are accustomed to retrieval practice occurring during a test where they’re graded, rather than as a tool to enhance how effectively they learn. 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. 

Furthermore, studies show that, as time goes by, students forget what they learn. This principle is called the Forgetting Curve
4, 5 and it demonstrates how information decays over time once it has been learned. By forgetting what we learn we limit our ability to understand and learn in the future, particularly in cumulative subjects like math and science. Therefore, it is necessary to interrupt the forgetting curve. We do this with retrieval practice which is essential to a successful education. The idea is to allow for forgetting to occur, at least in part, so that retrieval practice is a “desirable difficulty”.4 The extra effort included in retrieving these memories will support active engagement in thinking, rather than rote memorization. Although students may resist the discomfort that comes with forgetting and difficulty, it is important to discuss with them the benefits of these strategies. They may not feel natural, but research agrees that they can greatly support learning of materials.

Memory strategies are what we use to improve the way we recall or retrieve information. Research suggests we increase the likelihood of being able to remember and apply information when we practice retrieving it rather than doing something passive, like repeating it or rereading it. This is where memory strategies come into play. They are effective for three critical reasons:

  1. They interrupt the process of forgetting.
  2. They force self-assessment of knowing.
  3. They strengthen the connections.

There are many retrieval strategies that students can learn and apply when they study.6 However it is important that they know how to use them properly in order to make the most out of them. As stated above, they shouldn’t shy away from difficulty but actually embrace it.


  1. Willingham, D. T. (2008). Ask the Cognitive Scientist: What Will Improve a Student’s Memory?. American Educator, 32(4), 17- 25.
  2. Dunlosky, J., & Metcalfe, J. (2008). Metacognition. Sage Publications.
  3. Brown, P. C., Roediger III, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Harvard University Press.
  4. Cloke, H. (2018). What is the forgetting curve (and how do you combat it)? eLearning Industry. https://elearningindustry.com/forgetting-curve-combat
  5. Lemov, D. (2021). An annotated forgetting curve. Teach Like a  Champion. https://teachlikeachampion.com/blog/an-annotated-forgetting-curve/
  6. Bjork, R. A., & Bjork, E. L. (2020). Desirable difficulties in theory and practice. Journal of Applied research in Memory and Cognition, (4), 475.
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