The Double-Edged Sword of Memory Retrieval

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Are there any downsides to retrieval practice?

Retrieving memories can also open a window to errors when erroneous information is retrieved or when new information is encoded during retrieval.

Researchers explore how retrieval practice can influence or inhibit recall in a 13-page research paper, the double-edged sword of memory retrieval (Roediger III + Abel, 2022).

This literature review explores:

  1. The effects of retrieving the information,
  2. The effects of related information
  3. The effects on subsequent encoding and,
  4. The role of context in retrieval.

Going to the grocery store without a shopping list and suddenly remembering to buy artichokes for dinner is an example of successful recall.

4-stage memory process

A fantastic graphic is offered to help teachers understand the process of learning and memory. Personally, this offer teachers a friendly guide to understanding how learning happens.

  1. Encoding = information enters the cognitive system through direct experience
  2. Information, together with context, can be consolidated then saved (stored)
  3. Retrieval is when memories are brought back into conscious awareness.

memory retrieval

The effects of retrieving the information

The research offers an interesting analogy, describing when you have just seen a film at the cinema and then meet a friend who asks you to describe the film.

“The act of accurately retrieving information increases the likelihood that the information will accurately be retrieved at a later point in time.” This phenomenon is known as the testing effect. If spaced (testing) apart, the recall is strengthened.

Modifying memory via retrieval

If I ask you to recall the film E.T., and you are unable to tell me how many fingers the alien had – let’s say you keep getting the answer wrong – the more an error is repeated in overt or covert retrieval, the more it will become part of a memory for this movie.

The effects of related information

People tend to focus on what is most important, meaning often we do not include everything that could be retrieved. For example, if you meet up with a group of friends from university, you’re more likely to remember “pleasant and enjoyable aspects while avoiding embarrassing or stressful details.”

Self-limiting retrieval

Early research suggests there are negative effects on selective retrieval. “Successful recall of one piece of information restricts subsequent recall of related information. In short, retrieval is a self-limiting process.”

Some readers may be familiar with retrieval-induced forgetting – repeated retrieval of subset information can prompt forgetting of related information! Put simply, retrieval of some information is detrimental to and limits the retrieval of related information.

 Self-propagating retrieval

Memory retrieval can propagate itself and is a natural progression of the work on retrieval-induced forgetting. Some research studies examined why selective retrieval practice sometimes creates forgetting and facilitates recall of related materials. Spaced and distributed practice is highlighted here as a source for self-propagating related information.

Test-potentiated learning

Memory tests can increase memory for retrieval but also enhance subsequent new learning. More attempts to retrieve rather than re-study make it easier to learn.

One proposal is that interpolated retrieval might directly influence new encoding. Another, is that interpolated retrieval increases contextual change and thereby results in better contextual segregation of all studied sets of materials.

Test-enhanced suggestibility

Memory retrieval also enhances learning of subsequently presented misinformation. Memory for original content can be altered when new information is encountered.

Test-enhanced suggestibility can be conceptualized as test-potentiated learning of misinformation. E.g. memory distortions that can often are seen in ‘eye-witness statements’ …

The effects on subsequent encoding

Episodic memory is discussed in this research section – the passage of time from the environment, mood and thoughts. “When memories are recalled during retrieval practice, the original episodic context is assumed to be reinstated and updated with the new context present during retrieval.”

The episodic context can also be applied when retrieval practice (semantic knowledge) opens a window for storing additional content.

The role of context in retrieval.

Possibly the most important section of the research is context – when to use retrieval, why and how.

Retrieval practice after studying some information and before studying other information has been suggested to increase contextual change. There is more to read in the research, and I’ve only summarised parts:

“Memory models including context might be of value in solving how exactly the many effects of memory retrieval can be understood as a whole.”


  1. There are positive and negative effects of retrieval on retrieved memories.
  2. If errors are retrieved repeatedly, miss information is inserted or retrieved.
  3. If memories are retrieved accurately, repeated retrieval boost later retention.
  4. If retrieval material is semantically integrated, then one piece of information may provoke retrieval of related information, especially after a delay.
  5. Information is inhibited if the information is not inter-associated and retrieval occurs shortly after.

The researchers suggest several places where more research is needed, and this is where teachers could contribute. First, the study of human memory using reconsolidation on interference and misinformation effects. Second, the effect of schedules of space retrieval on long-term retention.

The research concludes: Our portrayal of memory retrieval as a double-edged sword and characterization of the effects as ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ might ultimately be too simplistic.

Download the paper.

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