Retrieval Practice and Active Study Strategies

Readers of this blog will already know about Spaced Learning Practicewhich tells you when to study. Distribute your time over days and weeks and you’ll not only retain your learning past the exam date, but you’ll have spent less time studying over time.

A major tenant of Spaced Learning Practice is allowing yourself to forget a little and force your brain to work a bit to recall what you’ve learned. If you love to cram, you can still study the day before your exam, but if you want to learn, make sure you’re also reviewing and relearning in the days and weeks leading up to your test. 

Spaced Learning Practice requires planning and is an effective, research-based technique that saves you time and leads to long-term retention. However, while Spaced Learning tells you WHEN to study, it doesn’t tell you HOW to do that. 


What is Retrieval Practice? 

Retrieval Practice is the act of reconstructing and remembering what you’ve already learned. The act of retrieving information from memory tells you what you know (and don’t know), helps you allocate your study time so you’re aware of what you need to review, and it also sets your brain up to learn more. You’re activating your brain and preparing yourself to continue learning a topic. 

For example, imagine you’ve just finished a section of a biology book on cell structures. Close your eyes and visualize what you’ve learned. You see the cell membrane, the cytoplasm, the organelles, the nucleus. Now, open your eyes and check. Oh no! You’ve missed the ribosomes and the lysosomes. Now you know what you need to review. 

Amazingly, research has shown that even if you don’t take steps to study or relearn forgotten information after you’ve recalled what you can, the act of retrieving what you’ve already studied is in itself beneficial to memory. Obviously, if you close your eyes to visualize a cell structure and all you see is a cartoon circle and nothing more, that’s not quite enough, but as long as you can reconstruct some of what you have learned, you’re benefiting your learning.

So how do you review and reteach yourself in a way that won’t bore the heck out of you (and your brain)?


Say hello to your new friends:
Active Study Strategies. 

Here at the Academy, we’re obsessed with active study strategies. Our students want to learn more in a shorter amount of time and they want to enjoy the experience while they’re at it. The best way to bore your brain is to repeat what you’ve already done. Active study strategies are ways of studying the same material that helps you retrieve the information, encode it again in a different way, and will lead to that holy grail of learning: long-term retention

If you’d like to see a blog post we wrote on Active Study Strategies, you can find it HERE

Active Study Strategies activate your brain, lighting it up as you tackle the same material in a different way. You’re always testing yourself, quizzing your memory, and noticing what you can recall or not.


Here are some simple active strategies you can try: 

• Quiz yourself from your notes. Use the Cornell Note Taking method and leave plenty of space in the left-hand column (about a ⅓ of the page). Take notes in class and the next day, create test questions for yourself based on your notes. Put those questions in the left column. A few days later, then a week later, review your test questions without looking at the original notes. 

•Study Guides. If your teacher provides a study guide, use it! Be sure not to use your notes or other supporting material and see how much you can recall without any external supports. If your teacher didn’t give you one, create your own (possibly from your awesome test questions you made in the Cornell notes margin!). 

• Sticky Note Summaries. After reading a section of a textbook or reviewing your class notes, write a summary of what you’ve learned on a sticky note and slap it on your textbook page or your notebook page. You can write sample test questions on one side and answer on the other, or just write a synopsis. 

• Draw a picture. As you know from our blog on Study Sensesstudying using two or more of your study senses leads to better encoding and retention. Mind maps, diagrams, maps, or even cartoon characters acting out a process will help spark your brain. 

• Flashcards. I have to be honest. I never liked flashcards as a student, but mostly because I quickly lost my cards! However, flashcards can be powerful when you learn how to leverage them. Try linking concepts between two or more flashcards (think “6 degrees of separation” for study topics). Sort them into related topic piles. Incorporate information from one flashcard into an example on another. Steal from your Cornell Notes test questions and put them on to flashcards. 


Pacific Learning Academy instructors spend their days teaching difficult concepts 1-on-1 with their students.

Many students who take classes here are exceptionally good students who encounter challenges with one particular subject at school and decide to take a customized credit course where they can get the help they need. From day 1 to the end of their course, both students and their instructors are exploring what it means to learn, how to learn, what to learn, and even why.

Retrieval study and active study strategies are a way to efficiently learn to mastery, and students here find they can finish their courses with much higher learning attention in about one-third the time it would take in a typical classroom.

These strategies work for our students and they can work for you, too! 

Want to hear more about Accredited Middle & High School classes, academic support (Tutoring), The SAT/ACT Diagnostic Comparison Test, or test prep?


Pacific Learning Academy is a one-on-one school offering single courses and dual enrollment, as well as full-time middle and high school. Pacific Learning Academy is Washington State Approved via the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI — see listings HERE) and a nationally Accredited private school via AdvancED/Northwest Accreditation Commission (NWAC). High School coursework is approved by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). We also offer tutoring in all subjects from 6th to 12th grade, including test prep, either in-home or local libraries across the Eastside (Issaquah, Sammamish, etc…).

April 2, 2021
Pacific Learning Academy