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. 

Posted by Nicola in Research

Trial 2 Results

After reviewing the first trial both the classroom teacher and I felt that the students were not yet reaching their learning potential – most students learnt a similar amount of sight words and we would had expected a greater variation. We wondered if the higher achievers were being held back by an insufficient amount of learning content. So for Trial 2, the Store pocket was topped up with new remediation content weekly, rather than fortnightly. This meant that as flashcards reached the Test pocket, students always had new material to transfer into the Hive.

The results below showed that almost all of the students were capable of learning at a faster pace and there was a significant increase in the number of sight words learnt during the 6 week trial.

Changing the Learning Load Process -page-001

Posted by Nicola in Research

Phonics, principals put schools ahead

From The West Australian 9/12/15

Once again the research indicates that a structured synthetic phonics program produces excellent student results …

The article:

“A focus on teaching phonics and good leadership are key to improving school results, an Education Department report reveals.

The department commissioned former University of WA education dean and deputy vice-chancellor Bill Louden to investigate teaching practices at nine public primary schools which showed consistent improvement on national literacy and numeracy test results.

The report found three characteristics common to all nine schools.

They included reading programs based on explicit teaching of phonics — the relationship between letters and sounds — in the early years, well-developed school improvement plans and stable, long-term leadership with principals averaging 12 years in their school.

“All of the schools were using synthetic phonics and 10 years ago that wouldn’t have been the case,” Emeritus Professor Louden toldThe West Australian .

“I think there is a lot more phonics taught these days than there was before but from my point of view, there is no excuse not to begin with synthetic phonics with small children, otherwise you’re just waiting for them to fail.”

The report said most of the schools in the study had developed school-wide plans on what and how to teach, instead of leaving those decisions to individual teachers.

Almost all the schools had implemented explicit instruction methods for teaching reading, spelling and maths.

Many were using tightly-scripted direct instruction programs using text books and other supplied materials so that teachers could focus on their teaching instead of lesson planning.

Many of the schools had also made significant investments in teachers’ professional development.

Statewide services executive director Lindsay Hale said the project was designed to give the department a better understanding of the conditions in place at high-achieving schools and provide case studies for other schools to examine.

Mr Hale said director-general Sharyn O’Neill had long called for teachers to use explicit teaching approaches and for phonics to have a key place in students’ literacy learning in the early years.

“This report shows those methods are working well among the schools which Professor Louden investigated,” he said.”

The West Australian

Posted by Nicola in News, Research

Teachers Urged to Adopt Targeted Teaching

Dr Goss with Nicola Carr-White

Schools are urged to embrace “targeted teaching” to improve student knowledge according to the findings of the latest education report from the Grattan Institute “Targeted Teaching: How Better Use of Data can Improve Student Learning” by Dr P. Goss & J. Hunter.

What a pleasure to discuss the new Mastery Learning Folder strategy with Dr Goss recently. The strategy  provides a safety net for students through individual remediation of foundational classroom learning whilst providing an organizational format that facilitates a tailored learning load and pace of learning. As a homework tool, the folders enables all students to receive targeted remediation through harnessing the power of parents – see their feedback below.

I welcome further discussion – please get in touch or a add a comment below!

Lunch with Dr Pete Goss

Related Articles:

Video: What are Mastery Learning Folders?

Teachers urged to adopy target teaching to address curriculum – The West Australian

Teaching the Digital Natives – Australian Financial Review

“… our daughter LOVES her Mastery Learning Folder and is always eager to retrieve it to practise her words every night. We’ve been pleasantly surprised with how well her reading has come along since using the  folder and would definitely recommend it to others. Thanks for letting us be a part of your trial and good luck with what has proven to be a great program :)” Christine, Parent

“We absolutely love the folders that you have created. The children and the parents are finding them most useful for the kid’s flashcards. What we also find very helpful is that the pockets are wider and the design of them is brilliant  especially the hard back cover so that no spills can soak through to the work and also because you can see where the children are up to and what they have achieved with the pockets being labeled and the children can also see what they have achieved.” Lisa, Parent

“The learning experience was very enjoyable. My daughter enjoyed moving the words along in the folder and could see her progress. Also she loved the stickers on completion of each day.” Lorena, Parent

“We did the big test on the girls’ words today and they both got 100% for the first time. Happy days!!!  Thanks for creating such a great tool.” Leanne, Homeschooling Mum

Further Feedback

Posted by Nicola in News, Research

Dr Pete Goss Grattan Institute

Today I had a wonderful lunch at the Riverbank Estate, Swan Valley, with Dr Pete Goss, researcher and leading authority on targeted teaching (see article links below). I am very pleased to share that he recognised my new Mastery Learning Folder strategy as a valid remediation intervention for foundational learning concepts.
I went through my history of using the strategy from starting with the same content for each child in the old manilla folders through to the modified strategy of differentiated content, learning load and learning time facilitated by the new mastery learning folder design. I also shared the results of the first pilot school study being conducted this year. He suggested several avenues to pursue for research opportunities and kindly offered his support in this process – very happy with that!


Dr Goss with Nicola Carr-White

Recent articles related to Dr Goss:

“Targeted Teaching: How Better Use of Data can Improve Student Learning” by Dr P. Goss & J. Hunter.

Targeted Teaching in the news:

The West Australian
Newspaper Clipping
Online Version

Australian Financial Review
Online Version

Posted by Nicola in Endorsements, News, Research