eLearn Australia - custom elearning solutions


What works in elearning (2/5):
Learning methods that work: Retrieval Practice

Thursday 16th April, 2020

The focus in learning is usually getting information into the learner’s head, but research suggests that getting information out of the learner’s head is actually one of the most effective learning methods you can use in your elearning.

We continue our series on What Works in Elearning by exploring this learning method: Retrieval practice.

Remembering information while doing an online course

You may recall in our first article in this series, we looked at learning delivery modes – and specifically whether elearning was more effective than classroom learning. (If you haven’t read it then go read it now and come back. We’ll wait for you.)

What has the research found is best delivery mode for effective learning

In answering the above example, you have had to dig into your memory to recall the difference between classroom and elearning and then drag from the depths something you remember reading about it not being about the mode but … the learning method to get to answer d)

What is retrieval practice?

Retrieval practice, also known as the testing effect, prompts learners to retrieve information from memory.

The learner has to recreate the information in their own mind, perhaps even putting it in their own words. 

While we might regard lectures, re-reading, note taking or reviewing as useful ways to learn, retrieval practice has been found to be more effective than these commonly used techniques (Agarwal et al, 2018).

In Thalheimer’s (2017) review of the research on effectiveness of elearning, he concluded that although retrieval practice produces robust learning effects, it is under-utilised in elearning.

What does retrieval practice look like in elearning?

Retrieval practice in elearning can take the form of:

  • quizzes,
  • practice questions,
  • flashcards,
  • writing prompts,
  • brain dumps,
  • reflective questions
  • anything to ‘pull out’ the knowledge from the learner.

Using quizzes as learning rather than assessment

Note that quizzes and other retrieval practices are part of the learning strategies – not the assessment. If you are after learning that lasts – rather than immediate recall - then slow, challenging learning puts you on track.

And although it may be contentious, research suggests that retrieval practice may work best when the information isn’t pulled out immediately after it goes in (in the same session as the learning) but rather a few days to a week later (Thalheimer, 2006).

A real-world example of retrieval practice in elearning

We recently developed suites of elearning modules for domestic violence and elder abuse prevention and response training in Australia.

Retrieval practice was integrated into the learning methods by testing learner’s recall of information regarding indicators, legislation, and case studies within and across modules as they are completed over six weeks.

Family violence prevention and response elearning example Elder abuse prevention and chemical restraint elearning modules for aged care workers

While the inclusion of retrieval practice is important in maximising the effectiveness of your elearning, it isn’t the only strategy that results in lasting learning. In the next instalment in our series on What Works in Elearning, we explore a learning method that complements and builds on retrieval practice, Spaced Repetition.


Argawal, P., Roediger, H., McDaniel, M., & McDermott, K., (2018) How to use retrieval practice to improve learning. Available at retrievalpractice.org

Thalheimer, W. (2006). Spacing Learning Events Over Time: What the Research Says. Available from http://www.work-learning.com/catalog.html

Thalheimer, W. (2017). Does elearning work? What the scientific research says! Available at http://www.work-learning.com/catalog.html