Where and How to Learn Using Retrieval Practice

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Where and How to Learn


Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
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How can teachers improve their students’ long-term retention?

This research recommends students restudy learned material in a new location to enhance subsequent recall…

In a new paper published by Megan Imundo (and Robert Bjork) in September 2020 at the University of California, two experiments were conducted with differing testing conditions to reveal the critical role in interactions between context-variation and retrieval practice effects.

Same time, same place?

Studying at the same time in the same place, may not be the best advice we can give students.

This implies that learning is optimal in a fixed environmental context.

Research demonstrates that varying study contexts yield better recall and has better learning benefits (Smith et al, 1978). Just as “memory processes occur in a variety of different contexts, the “human brain may have evolved to capitalise on the varied cues that are available, for example, when information is encoded in one location but needs to be retrieved and another.”

An example relevant to all teachers is when we ask students to study the material in the classroom and later test them in the school hall. We also sometimes test core subjects in the hall and (due to timetabling constraints) test all other students in non-core subjects in the classrooms.

Is it any wonder students may perform differently?

Retrieval practice in identical versus varied environments

In this study, in experiment one over two sessions separated by two days, participants learned a word list using retrieval practice in the same and different locations. Two days after the second session, memory for the ‘word list’ was assessed.

Locations used vary from a small laboratory testing room, a crowded outdoor patio adjacent to a classroom and a seminar room. Each test occurred at the same time of the day but on a different day of a given week.

The researchers conclude that restudying in varied contexts produced better recall than studying in the same context (location). They also observed that retrieval practice produced long-term retention, but they also observed “circumstances where a combination of retrieval and location effects had on later recall.”

In the second experiment, the researchers used three very different locations with three different testing sessions (p. 12). Testing rather than restudying produce better final test performance. “Additionally, restudying in a new location yield better final test performance than restudying in the same location.”

Find out what works, when

On my travels to schools around the world sharing Mark Plan Teach with teachers, in the Mark (assessment) section of the book we unpick some assessment myths, workload issues and research recommendations. One of the conclusions I raise is that if we are going to ask students to revise and study in a particular location, they should also be tested in the same location.

However, just as the research questions studying in the same place, I wonder if studying and testing in the same location is equally advisable? This is why unpicking research is vital for teachers so that we can all learn.

Only this week, I saw someone question retrieval practice on my timeline, declaring that it was a “posh phrase for testing.” I was dumbstruck that any teacher would dismiss decades of cognitive science research. If teachers want to raise the status of the teaching profession, it is important for all of us to be engaged in the research, not dismiss it, or shout down because we don’t agree with it or do not understand the recommendations.

Something for teachers to consider?

I wonder how school leaders could redesign the revision season in school to enable students to learn in different environments across the school setting? I cannot design your rooming timetable, but this resource can help you reshape how you teach the content.

As I wrote in an earlier blog post, given learning loss during COVID19, it appears that retrieval practice and testing students more, particularly without giving any feedback, is something that all teachers should consider.

This is good news for teacher workload.

Increasing Transfer of Knowledge


The research paper results “support studying in varied environmental contexts—contrary to the recommendation to study in one fixed location—and extend the contextual variation benefit to multi-day intervals.” The research offers two recommendations for students:

  1. Study in more than one environmental setting
  2. When engaging in some type of retrieval practice, either try to create a level of initial learning that will produce a high level of successful retrieval (at a delay) whether back in the setting of initial learning or not, or be sure that, via cooperative learning or some other mechanism, feedback after errors or omissions is available.

The more difficult the act of retrieval, and without feedback, the greater benefit it will have later recall. This is good news for teachers.

Download the full paper: Where and How to Learn 

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