William Wadsworth

by William Wadsworth

The Cambridge-educated memory psychologist & study coach on a mission to help YOU ace your exams. Helping half a million students in 175+ countries every year to study smarter, not harder. Supercharge your studies today with our time-saving, grade-boosting “genius” study tips sheet.

Pretty recently – the last decade or so – scientists have reached broad agreement that there is one memorisation technique for exams and tests that, above all others, will solve the age-old question of how to remember what you study.

Before I tell you what the technique is, I was shocked to learn that as few as 7% of college-level students (and possibly even fewer students at high school) say they are using this technique as their main revision strategy.

So what’s the technique?

It’s called “retrieval practice”, and it’s based on the act of trying to pull information out of your memory.

It seems counter-intuitive at first that trying to remember something helps you to learn it, but you’ll be astonished at how powerful this strategy can be for getting information locked away in memory, ready for when you need it.

Read on to discover:

  • how retrieval practice works
  • why it’s so useful
  • and precisely how you should be using retrieval practice memorisation techniques to prepare for exams – including some common mistakes people often make when applying it.

What is “retrieval practice” and how can it help you to remember what you study?

When psychologists talk about “retrieving” something from memory, they mean recalling it, or remembering it. So “retrieval practice” just means practising remembering a piece of information you previously read, heard or saw.

A common misunderstanding – one I held myself for many years when studying for exams in high school – is that testing yourself on what you know only serves to “check” how much you know at that point, i.e. it won’t help you actually learn information.

We now know that’s not true.

A gigantic review of hundreds of studies testing how well various memorisation techniques prepared students for exams or tests concluded that, above all other techniques, retrieval practice (or “practice testing” as the review called it) was the most powerful.

The results from many of these studies were astonishing: students often improved by a whole grade (or more!) when learning using retrieval practice.

Part of the problem is that our own intuitions as students about what learning techniques are working for us are often flawed.

I highly recommend you take a look at a guest post I’ve written for my friends at Titanium Tutors, where I explain a fascinating experiment that beautifully demonstrates how our intuitions often lead to us making bad decisions about how to revise – and what we can do about it.

Benefits of using retrieval practice to learn for exams, and how it helps you to learn information

Retrieval practice works in a number of ways:

  1. Helps you lock information into memory: the very act of pulling a piece of information out of your memory means you can remember it more easily later on.
  2. Helps you find the gaps in your knowledge: by testing yourself, you’ll have a better idea of what you know and where you need to do more work.
  3. Helps you apply information to new contexts: it’s not just about learning the facts, studying using retrieval practice makes it more likely that you will be able to figure out unfamiliar problems based on what you know, make leaps of intuition, and apply knowledge in new ways. These are all skills often demanded by the questions that unlock top marks in exams.

The first of these is probably the most important of these effects, but also the most surprising: it can seem strange at first that simply trying to remember something will strengthen your memory of that information, making it easier to remember it later.

But think of it like this: a big chunk of success in most exams comes down to simply being able to remember the information from your course. In other words, the exam tests your memory of what you learned.

Let me give you an analogy. If you’re training for the Olympics, you’ll train for your chosen sport first and foremost by practising that sport.

For example:

If you’re a long jumper, your most important training will be practising jumping.

If you’re a weightlifter, your most important training will be practising lifting weights.

If you’re a 100m runner, your most important training will be practising sprinting.

You wouldn’t train for a race by just reading a book about running… so don’t train for your exams just by reading your notes! Train by practising remembering and using that information.

So given that, if you’re a student preparing for exams that are largely tests of memory, your most important training should be practising remembering information.

Sure, you’ll need to do other things too – the runner will need to spend time in the gym doing leg exercises, and the student will need to spend time (re-)reading unfamiliar material, or working on their exam technique, or how they structure their essays. But the focus for getting knowledge under your belt and into your memory should be retrieval practice.

I often say to my more sporty students that the moment in which you’re trying to remember a fact is the “rep” (a “rep” is a single component of an exercise that makes you stronger – a single press-up, a single bicep curl, or a single pull-up in a set).

Fascinatingly, whether you succeed in pulling the fact you’re searching for out of your memory or not, you’ll still have done some good!

How to memorise for exams with retrieval practice strategies

So how to apply all of this when studying?

Here are some of my favourite retrieval practice based memorisation techniques for exams and tests you can start using today:

  • Write what you know from memory on a blank sheet: a plain sheet of paper is a very under-rated study tool! Put your books away, then scribble down everything you can remember about a topic. After you’ve squeezed out as much as you can from memory, you might like to go back and add in any missing details in a different coloured pen. Next time you train yourself on this topic, aim to have fewer missing details – until you have none at all come the week before the exam!
  • Draw concept maps from memory: a slightly more sophisticated variant on the “blank sheet” method is drawing concept maps based on what you know of a topic. A concept map links ideas together visually, putting ideas in boxes, and linking them together with arrows to show how they relate.
    Unlike mind maps, they are quick to draw, placing more importance on getting the right information down on the page, with a sensible structure around it, rather than spending too long making the final result sumptuously beautiful (I know it’s fun… but you’re not going to be graded on your artwork at the end of the day! Unless you’re studying Art, of course…)
    Here’s an example of a concept map summarising what you might need to know about rates of reaction in chemistry:
  • Practice questions: Work through exercises from your text book or revision guide. Answer real exam questions. Or even make up your own quiz questions – I know some students who like to revise by first reading through their notes, making a list of their own “quiz questions” they know they will need to be able to answer to prove they know that topic properly. Then they put their notes away, and take the quiz.
  • Train with flash cards: start by making them, and then use them! Flash cards are my favourite way to learn large amounts of information quickly, and through long experience (both my own, and coaching students), there are some very specific steps you need to take to get the most out of studying with flash cards.

Psst… why not grab a free copy of my “science of learning cheat sheet”, which includes a deep-dive “DOs and DONTs” to get the most out of retrieval practice techniques like flash cards:

Whichever of these techniques you’re using, keep your notes away until you’ve had a good try at remembering. Then you can check your notes (or the mark scheme, if you’re doing past exam questions) and give yourself feedback on where you went wrong.

This feedback step, understanding where you missed things or slipped up, is a very important part of the overall learning process, so don’t skimp on it.

If you find you can’t reliably remember a particular aspect of a topic, you’ll know to prioritise giving that issue some extra time until you have it nailed.

Don’t make these mistakes when using retrieval practice

Even the best memory techniques in the world won’t work properly if not applied correctly. Some traps to avoid when you’re using retrieval practice techniques in your studies:

1. Some difficulty is good, but if it’s too hard, make it easier…

If you can barely remember anything in a topic, no matter how hard you try, you probably need to back up a step.

Going back and re-reading your notes at this point is OK, and if you’re struggling to go from re-reading to remembering at least a good chunk of what you’ve just read, you need to break it up into smaller chunks.

Take what you’re trying to learn one segment at a time, get comfortable retrieving each segment on its own, then start to string them together.

Or for tricky memory jobs, try using intermediate prompts as “stepping stones” to jog your memory while also giving it space to do at least some retrieval practice. 

Here are a few fun and creative ideas for how you could use “stepping stones” in practice, to build up gradually to remembering the whole thing from scratch. The video is about remembering English literature quotes (hard!), but some of the ideas here could easily be applied to other subjects, from recalling maths formulas to learning anatomical terms:

2. But if it’s too easy, you need to make it harder

On the other hand, if you break something up so small that it becomes trivial to remember, you’re not giving yourself enough of a memory workout and the benefits will be limited.

Say you’re trying to learn the formula for a chemical compound – you could learn it one atom at a time, and test yourself on each atom in the seconds after looking at it. With such small amounts of information and no delay before trying to remember it, you won’t even break a sweat as you recall each atom perfectly – but what you’ve learned won’t stick in memory for long.

So if it feels too easy, try going for larger chunks of knowledge, or leaving more of a gap between re-reading information and doing retrieval practice on it.

3. Don’t let yourself get away with not fully knowing something!

Let’s say you’re working with flashcards. You might feel like you almost knew it, flip the card, find something familiar, and say “ah yes, I did know that”.

But beware! You didn’t, did you?

Train with discipline: give yourself a good moment to rummage through your brain for the information, and if it’s not there, note it down as a missed effort and come back to it again.

Remember, even failing to remember something is useful memory training as long as you gave it a good try!

Though obviously your goal is to succeed in remembering things, so pay special attention to the things you couldn’t remember at the end of the session, and in your review at the end of the day.

4. Remembering something once doesn’t prove you’ll know it forever

Just because you know it today, doesn’t mean you’ll remember it tomorrow, or next week. Some scientists recommend aiming for at least 3 successful retrieval attempts before deciding you “know” something – though you might need more, depending on how long you’ve got before your exam, and how complex the information is.

5. If you’re trying to remember something complex, write it down

If you’re trying to remember a long formula, big number, quote, list, or diagram, you won’t be able to hold it all in your brain at once.

Say you need to remember a list of 7 factors.

By the time you’re trying to remember the sixth item, you can’t be sure whether you’re remembering a sixth that you hadn’t already thought of, or whether you’re actually just re-listing one of the items you’d already come up with!

So get the component parts out of your head and down on a sheet of paper as you think of them, so your memory is freed up to focus on remembering the missing information, and you can be certain you’ve got it all.

At first, retrieval practice won’t feel like the easiest way to memorise for exams, but stick with it!

You’re in elite study territory now: any student that decides to apply all of this properly will have a massive head-start on their peers when it comes to learning information for their exams.

Retrieval practice is incredibly powerful, but, let’s be honest, trying to pull information out of your brain is going to feel like harder work than just sitting back and re-reading your notes again!

A lot of students feel they prefer other ways to study for your exams: re-reading, highlighting, making notes or summarising are all very popular choices.

But here’s the thing:

Our own intuitions about what study techniques work best are really bad! Studies have repeatedly shown that “feel good” study methods that students like best (probably because they don’t take quite so much effort!) are having relatively small benefits, comparing to slightly more effortful but much more effective memorisation techniques like retrieval practice.

Trust the science, and give it a go: you will be astonished at the results!

Ooooh, and just before you go… don’t leave without your copy of my “Science of Learning Cheat Sheet”: my four all-time fave strategies for studying smarter. Retrieval practice is absolutely on the list – but make sure you check out the other techniques too!

William Wadsworth