Last updated: 11.03.20

Amy Brann | Effort and Retrieval Practice

Effort and Retrieval Practice - Why They Really Matter.

We've partnered with Amy Brann author, keynote speaker & expert in the application of neuroscience to bring you a series of learning content designed to encourage you to think about your learning experience and how you can enhance it.

If there is one thing that research has shown us over the past decades, it is that there is more to learning that just encoding - than just trying to embed or cram the information inside your head. In fact, what seems to matter more is quite the opposite.

What matters is retrieval - the act of practicing recalling or retrieving the information that you have learned.


But before we get into retrieval practice, let’s start with talking about effort. Because in this fast paced world where we needed everything yesterday, we are all looking for shortcuts and quick wins. But there is no denying the fact that when it comes to learning, more effort equals deeper learning. Learning that’s easy is like writing in the sand - here today gone tomorrow.

So when you have to learn something, get ready to put in the work, and choose the harder option. Don’t just cram, test yourself, don’t use prompts unless essential, but try and remember from scratch. It will all help to make your learning deeper and more durable. 

What is retrieval practice?

So let’s now move on to retrieval practice. Retrieval practice is exactly as it sounds. You are practicing to retrieve the information from your memory. The idea being that when you actually have to retrieve the information in a meeting or for some task, then it more easily comes to the front of your mind.

In other words, learning is a two stage process and simply trying to encode the information into your head isn’t enough, you also need to practice extracting that information from your head. 

So why is retrieval practice so important?

Well evidence suggests that it is a more effective strategy, than reviewing information simply by re-reading it. When you re-read something, you are reinforcing the encoding, but not practicing the retrieval.

Retrieval practice helps to prevent forgetting because each time you recall the information you are reconsolidating the memory, strengthening the connections in your brain and making it easier for you to recall the information in the future. It also tells you what you know and what you don’t know so that you can work out what you need to work on and supports a process of continual improvement.

In a practical sense, retrieval practice means self-quizzing, or getting someone else to ask you questions about what you have just learned. And although this sounds like more effort than just re-reading, it is because it is. But more effort equals deeper learning, so you will reap the rewards in the longer term. 

How do you start retrieval practice?

There are two key elements to retrieval practice that make it work more effectively. The first is Spacing. The second is interleaving.

Spacing is all about leaving gaps between when you learn the information, and when you practice retrieving it. This is because, if you space out these two elements then your memory of the content becomes a bit weaker, and it therefore takes more effort to remember - and more effort equals deeper learning. So rather than testing yourself immediately after learning something, wait a bit, and then see what you know, and what you don't know.

Interleaving is when you are trying to learn two things at once. Rather than working on one topic, and then the other, you interleave, or shuffle them up. You work a bit on one topic, then on the other, then return to the first. This makes the task more difficult in terms of remembering the information, but more effort = deeper learning.

It’s also worth remembering that both spacing and interleaving can make you feel frustrated as you think you aren’t learning anything, that it would just be easier and quicker to re-read the information. But this just gives you an illusion of knowing it. In contrast, retrieval practice with spacing and interleaving feels less productive, but actually leads to better retention of the information. 

4 reasons why you shouldn’t just re-read the information:

  1. Only short term gains.
  2. Time consuming but highly ineffective.
  3. Doesn’t result in durable memory.
  4. Creates an illusion of familiarity with the information which isn’t equivalent to having learnt it.

5 Quick Learning Tips:

  1. Taking the more effortful route leads to deeper learning. 
  2. Self test yourself, or get someone else to quiz you, rather than just re-reading.
  3. Space out your practice sessions to allow you some time to “forget”.
  4. Interleave your practice sessions across different but related topics or skills.
  5. Try to solve a problem before being taught the solution to make your learning more durable.

So how does retrieval practice work in the brain? Well each time you repeatedly recall the memory, it helps to consolidate the representation of that memory in the brain.

Research shows that the mere act of retrieving a memory changes the memory, making it easier to retrieve again in the future. This is because focused and effortful recall of information from long-term memory results in the memory being made pliable again.

When this happens, the most salient aspects become relearned and re-consolidated, helping to update and reinforce your memories, strengthening your brain connections, and bolstering retrieval routes for when you next have to recall the information. 

About Amy Brann

How do you build a better brain? That’s the question Amy Brann is helping leaders and organisations answer. Amy is a renowned keynote speaker and neuroscience expert who has worked with organisations around the world to help them understand how they can apply key ideas from the latest research and transform their workplace. Amy’s step by step approach makes this is entirely achievable.

Click here to find out more about Amy’s work.