Why Students Do (or Do Not) Choose Retrieval Practice?

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Why do the students choose to re-study rather than retrieve?

… learners across different age groups are less inclined to use retrieval practice as a strategy (Dirkx et al, 2019)

In a new Retrieval Practice34-page research paper, Why Students Do (or Do Not) Choose Retrieval Practice: Their Perceptions of Mental Effort During Task Performance Matter, published by Maastricht University (Hui, 2022), research questions why students tend to re-study rather than use retrieval practice as an effective learning strategy.

The research design sought to evaluate participant mental effort and learning from memorising, choosing either retrieval or re-study for each task. An interesting question is proposed: how do students make learning strategy decisions for new tasks and understand how students judge their task-based learning.

As teachers, we are aware that retrieval practice has the greatest impact, but it is still a big issue in terms of educating our students and families as a learning strategy.


Participants (n=50) from a Dutch university studied image-name pairs using retrieval practice and restudy, rating strategy-based perceived mental effort and strategy-based perceived learning. Then after initial learning of new pairs, they rated task-based mental effort and task-based perceived learning and chose either one of the strategies to further study for each pair.

56 image-name pairs of human anatomical structures were drawn from a website for medical students. These were organised into pairs of 14, containing names between 4 to 10 letters.

Four hypotheses were tested:

  1. Learning with retrieval practice outperforms learning with re-study
  2. Strategy based perceived learning is rated higher after re-study than after retrieval practice
  3. When students receive feedback about the strategy, those who benefited from retrieval use it more
  4. Task-based perceive learning plays a mediating role between perceived effort and decision

Conclusions and recommendations

Each hypothesis is discussed in detail. The results suggested that higher task-based perceive mental effort was directly related to reduced retrieval practice choice. Meaning, students perceived the mental effort was greater in retrieval compared to re-study.

The research concludes that perceptions at the learning strategy level can be important cues that students use to make strategic decisions in certain situations, and misconceptions about learning could hinder the uptake of effective strategies. Emphasising again, the importance of teaching critical thinking.

Students take a data-driven perspective, interpreting effort arising from the intrinsic or extraneous load of a task at hand. Perceptions of a task play an important role in making strategy decisions…

Do read the full paper.

3 thoughts on “Why Students Do (or Do Not) Choose Retrieval Practice?

  1. I find that with some of my students, retrieval practices and relearning short parts of a larger topics a while after it has been taught is the best way to retain the content.

  2. Yes they try to avoid it because it makes them uncomfortable. They don’t like to think hard and they don’t like it when they don’t know. They prefer the busy work of rereading/highlighting/rewriting which doesn’t take much effort but looks like they have done lots of work (particularly to parents). Getting them to understand the difference and then feel the benefit is key. I recently presented to our y11 cohort and their parents in this. Fingers crossed that it went in!

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