How to Improve Learning and Memory with Retrieval Practice

April 06, 2020

jarednielsen solution retrieval

This article originally published in my newsletter, The Solution.

How do we learn anything?

How do we remember the things that we learn?

The authors of Make It Stick point out that:

In very short order we lose something like 70 percent of what we’ve just heard or read. After that, forgetting begins to slow, but the lesson is clear: a central challenge to improving the way we learn is finding a way to interrupt the process of forgetting.

How do we interrupt the process of forgetting?


“When you learn something new, connections are formed between neurons in your brain,” writes Julie Dirksen in Design for How People Learn. She continues:

Connections that are reinforced become stronger and more durable. And, like a path that sees dwindling traffic, connections that aren’t reinforced will usually fade or become irretrievable. Repetition and practice are necessary to successfully retain most learning for the long term.

For most of us, through formal education, this meant rote memorization.

“If you repeat something over and over, eventually you will wear a groove into your long-term memory,” but, as Dirksen outlines, there are limitations to this approach:

  • It only makes one association in your memory.

  • You don’t have experience using it in multiple contexts, so it’s more difficult to take that information and transfer it to a variety of situations

  • You likely have sequential rather than random access to the information.

This is the brute force approach to learning.

And as we all know, it’s brutal.

And as we can see, it’s inefficient.

There must be a better way!

It’s called testing.


That’s probably not what you wanted to hear.

This doesn’t necessarily mean taking a formal test.

As lifelong learners, we need to find our own means to test ourselves.

What does this look like?


(See what I did there.)

The authors of Make It Stick write:

Reflection can involve several cognitive activities that lead to stronger learning: retrieving knowledge and earlier training from memory, connecting these to new experiences, and visualizing and mentally rehearsing what you might do differently next time.

The more we practice retrieving knowledge from memory the easier it becomes to do so again in the future.

This is known as the testing effect.

There are two types of retrieval practice:

  • Effortful

  • Repeated

Effortful retrieval “makes for stronger learning and retention. We’re easily seduced into believing that learning is better when it’s easier, but the research shows the opposite: when the mind has to work, learning sticks better.”

Repeated retrieval “not only makes memories more durable but produces knowledge that can be retrieved more readily, in more varied settings, and applied to a weider variety of problems.”

Reflection and retrieval are much more efficient and effective strategies than rote memorization.

And much more fun.

As Robert and Michel Root-Bernstein write in Sparks of Genius:

Making patterns for oneself is a lot more fun than memorizing — and a lot more valuable. Teasing apart one pattern and composing another requires real understanding of the basic elements of phenomena and processes. More, it opens up whole new worlds of knowledge.

Profile picture

Want to level up your problem solving skills? I write a bi-weekly newsletter about programming, problem solving and lifelong learning. Join now