The Basics of Spaced Retrieval Practice

There are many revision and study techniques we can implement to enhance our access to the information tucked away in our brains, however, when reviewed by cognitive psychologists, spaced retrieval practice comes out on top1. Spaced retrieval practice is one learning strategy used within the Mastery Learning Folder process, but what exactly is it?  

First, the research … 

An interesting study on memory and learning was conducted by Hermann Ebbinghaus in 1885He discovered that if he spaced the practice of nonsense syllables over three days instead of one, he could halve the time it took to learn them2Researchers in retrieval practice have identified that practicing the recall of learning, for example using flashcards and quizzing, consistently outperforms traditional study strategies like re-reading3,4. When the strategies of spacing and retrieval are combinedtermed spaced retrieval practice, students may begin to “master material they never thought they could learn”5 . 

Why spaced retrieval works … 

Ebbinghaus is also known for the creation of the forgetting curve which illustrated that immediately after we learn something we begin to forget it! Amazingly, spaced retrieval practice turns our natural tendency to forget into a learning advantage. Let me explainwhen we try hard to remember something it is uncomfortable and we don’t enjoy it. Research has identified that if we keep demanding this thinking effort, the knowledge we are trying to remember is strengthened in our long-term memory6. Spaced retrieval practice creates these desirable difficulties7 for learning. 

Applying spaced retrieval practice … 

Over four years, Nicola Carr-White investigated the alignment of desirable difficulty research with the Mastery Learning Folder tool and process. The culmination of this research was the development of a revised process8 to assist educators across diverse fields and ages to facilitate durable student learning. Nicola’s thesis was examined by Robert Bjork (desirable difficulties), John Sweller (cognitive load theory) and John Hattie (visible learning) and received a pass without amendments from the Edith Cowan University examination board. 

Find out more … 

Across all learning areas from pre-primary to universityMastery Learning Folders provide systematic practice of classroom instruction through the evidence-informed strategies, including spaced retrieval practice. Having just received her results, Nicola is currently creating free online training materials to reflect the revised process which will soon be ready. In the meantime, she welcomes enquiries from school administrators, educators and other service providers to discuss student learning needs. To speak with Nicola, you’re invited to schedule-a-chat. 


Mastery Learning Group Contact Details 

Nicola Carr-White 

ORCID Researcher Profile 




1 Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4-58. 

2 Weinstein, Y., Madan, C. R., & Sumeracki, M. A. (2018). Teaching the science of learning. Cognitive research: Principles and implications, 3(1), 1-17. 

3 Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L., III, & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick: The science of successful learning. The Belknap Press. 

Adesope, O. O., Trevisan, D. A., & Sundararajan, N. (2017). Rethinking the Use of Tests: A Meta-Analysis of Practice Testing. Review of Educational Research, 87(3), 659-701. doi:10.3102/0034654316689306 

5 Dunlosky, J. (2013). Strengthening the student toolbox: Study strategies to boost Learning. American Educator, 37(3), p. 16. 

6 Willingham, D. T. (2009). Why Don’t Students Like School?: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions about How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons. 

7 Bjork, R. A. (1994). Memory and metamemory considerations in the training of human beings. In J. Metcalfe & A. P. Shimamura (Eds.), Metacognition: Knowing about knowing (pp. 185 – 205). MIT Press. 

8 Carr-White, N. (2021). Towards an evidence-informed differentiated learning consolidation process to support classroom instruction.