Creating Meaningful EdTech Lessons


Rachel Johnson

Rachel Johnson (
University of Ontario Institute of Technology


For learning to occur, long-term memory needs to be altered. It is important to develop a deep understanding of foundational knowledge since activities requiring higher-order thinking skills, such as inquiry or problem-based learning, are not possible without a strong foundation (Kirschner, Sweller, & Clark, 2006). Transfer of learning, the ability to use current knowledge in new experiences or contexts, is highly dependent on long-term memory. Information must first be easily recalled before it can be used in new ways (Pan & Agrawal, 2018). Retrieval practice is a learning strategy that can be used to support the transfer of learning by facilitating long-term information retention (Roediger & Butler, 2011). Various benefits are evident from retrieval practice; for example, improvements in complex thinking and application, organization of knowledge, transfer of learning, and metacognition skills are all enhanced with retrieval practice (Agrawal, Roediger, McDaniel, & McDermott, 2018). Retrieval practice is most effective when it is repeated with appropriate spacing, interleaved with a variety of question types requiring different problem-solving strategies, and combined with immediate and descriptive feedback (Agrawal et al., 2018; Hopkins, Lyle, Hieb, & Ralston, 2016; Roediger & Butler, 2011). Quizzing applications, such as Kahoot! (Kahoot!, 2018), Quizizz (Quizizz Inc., 2018), and Quizlet (Quizlet, 2018), provide affordances to support retrieval practice effectively and efficiently in the classroom. Retrieval practice by itself is a learning strategy rooted in cognitive science principles; however, the use of retrieval practice in combination with a spiralled curriculum and an inquiry or problem-based learning approach would lead to a truly powerful and balanced learning environment.

Keywords: assessment, cognitive science, feedback, interleaved practice, Kahoot, long-term memory, Quizizz, Quizlet, retrieval practice, spacing, spiralled curriculum, transfer of learning


Learning, in its simplest terms, is defined as a change in long-term memory (Kirschner et al., 2006). Various studies have been conducted previously that have focused on the most effective ways to enhance learning and long-term memory (for example, Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000; Brown, Roediger, & McDaniel, 2014; Roediger & Butler, 2011); retrieval practice is a learning strategy that is deeply based in cognitive science principles to enhance long-term retention of information (Butler, Marsh, Slavinsky, & Baraniuk, 2014). Retrieval practice is the act of recalling facts or concepts from memory and, by doing so, memory for that information is strengthened (Agrawal et al., 2018). Being able to recall information is essential to transfer of learning, where existing knowledge is used in new and different contexts (Pan & Agrawal, 2018). Expertise in a knowledge area is heavily reliant on effective transfer of learning since experts utilize their extensive experiences stored in long-term memory to quickly select and apply the best methodology for solving a problem (Kirschner et al., 2006). Furthermore, “without knowledge you don’t have the foundation for the higher-level skills of analysis, synthesis, and creative problem solving” (Brown et al., 2014, p. 18). Thus, strengthening that foundational knowledge using learning strategies such as retrieval practice is a key step to developing those higher-order thinking skills.

Retention of knowledge is a major challenge that is faced by students in education, especially in subject areas which are cumulative in nature, such as science and mathematics (Hopkins et al., 2016). Success in these subject areas is highly dependent on long-term retention of foundational content knowledge. Furthermore, students who demonstrate proficiency in basic knowledge in these subject areas often still struggle in the application, or transfer, of their knowledge to new contexts (Butler et al., 2014). Retrieval practice is an easily implemented learning strategy that is important in supporting and enhancing long-term retention and promoting the transfer of learning (Butler et al., 2014). If it is used effectively as a learning tool, and not an assessment tool, then retrieval practice can lead to deeper learning and understanding so that knowledge can be easily accessed and transferred to new situations (Roediger & Butler, 2011). Quizzing technologies, such as Kahoot, Quizzizz, and Quizlet, provide ample opportunities to effortlessly and frequently incorporate retrieval practice into the classroom.

Background Information

Various studies conducted in recent years are highly supportive of retrieval practice as a learning strategy (Brown et al., 2014; Butler et al., 2014; Roediger & Butler, 2011; Smith & Karpicke, 2014). Learning is deeper and longer-lasting when it requires more effort; retrieval practice feels more challenging and less productive but it results in more durable learning (Brown et al., 2014). There are many affordances to retrieval practice that have been identified in the literature. First, it improves students’ complex thinking and application skills as well as the organization of knowledge (Agrawal et al., 2018). Each time information is recalled, it causes the brain to re-consolidate the memory, strengthening its connections to prior knowledge (Brown et al., 2014; Karpicke & Blunt, 2011). Another affordance of retrieval practice is that it improves metacognition. By actively trying to recall information, the learner is able to identify strengths and weaknesses and focus further study to improve on those areas of weakness (Brown et al., 2014). Finally, retrieval practice can improve students’ transfer of learning, where knowledge is used in new contexts and deductive inferences (Eglington & Kang, 2018).

There are several key factors for successful implementation of retrieval practice in the classroom. Spacing is one such factor; retrieval practice that distributes practice over time was found to be much better for long-term information retention (Butler et al., 2014). It should occur multiple times during the learning process, ideally at least three times after the initial learning and then at least three more times at widely spaced intervals (Rawson & Dunlosky, 2011). Another key factor is the type of practice itself. Interleaved and varied practice were found to be far more effective than massed practice (Brown et al., 2014). Setting up questions that require different problem-solving strategies and varying topics aid to make the learning more effortful and challenging, which results in better long-term learning (Agrawal et al., 2018). In addition, both multiple-choice and short-answer retrieval practice questions were found effective in improving learning and enhancing retention (Smith & Karpicke, 2014). Finally, pairing retrieval practice with feedback provides information to learners to correct their errors and improve understanding (Butler et al., 2014). Immediate feedback provides the greatest benefit (Kulik & Kulik, 1988); however, any type of feedback (post-retrieval, explanatory, or self-paced) is more beneficial than none at all (Roediger & Butler, 2011; Pan & Agrawal, 2018).

As previously described, a solid foundation of knowledge is required to facilitate the development of higher-order skills such as analysis, synthesis, and creative problem-solving (Brown et al., 2014). In order to demonstrate competence in activities such as inquiry or problem-based learning, learners must also be able to “understand facts and ideas in the context of a conceptual framework and organize knowledge in ways that facilitate retrieval and application” (Bransford et al., 2000, p. 12). Furthermore, learners are more successful in inquiry and problem-based authentic learning experiences when they are able to provide their own “internal” guidance; this is only possible if learners have the sufficient prior knowledge required (Kirschner et al., 2006). The use of retrieval practice will build this knowledge, thus lessening the cognitive load on the learner while pursuing inquiry or problem-based learning (Kirschner et al., 2006).


Retrieval practice is a learning strategy that is easily implemented within any curricular area and provides an effective means of increasing long-term memory with only requiring easy and subtle changes to curriculum delivery (Butler et al., 2014). While retrieval practice can be done using no technology, the development of several technologies tools in recent years provides additional affordances. As outlined by the Technology Acceptance Model (TAM) (Davis, 1989), the perceived usefulness and ease of use of a platform are always important considerations when proposing the adoption of a technology tool in the classroom.

Quizzing applications, such as Kahoot (Kahoot!, 2018), Quizizz (Quizizz Inc., 2018), and Quizlet (Quizlet, 2018), are all technological tools that can be perceived as incredibly useful to support retrieval practice in the classroom. Both Kahoot and Quizizz are free games-based quizzing applications. Kahoot is geared towards synchronous use where learners participate in the game in a group setting, although the application does have an option for asynchronous use in the form of challenges (Kahoot!, 2018). Quizizz is a self-paced quizzing application that can be played in either live or homework mode, allowing learners to progress independently (Quizizz Inc., 2018). Quizlet, on the other hand, is a web-based tool that allows for the creation of digital flashcards. Various testing modes, such as learn, write, spell, test, match, and gravity, allow the learner to select the best methodology for their learning purposes (Quizlet, 2018).

All three of these technology tools provide affordances to support retrieval practice in the classroom. For example, with careful consideration for planning, quizzes can be designed with a variety of questions that require different strategies for problem-solving. Quizizz is interesting in this respect as it randomizes the order of questions asked as well so the learner gets a different “experience” each time the game itself is played (Quizizz Inc., 2018). Variety in terms of game type is introduced in Quizlet, where the learner can select between different options such as matching or flashcards (Quizlet, 2018). Feedback is also built into all three platforms, giving the learner immediate information about their strengths and weaknesses. Quizlet has an interesting mode called “learn” which employs adaptive learning, a data-driven algorithmic approach, to identify and help the learner focus on areas of weakness (Quizlet, 2018). Kahoot and Quizizz are more traditional in nature in regards to feedback; scores are given in terms of awarding points for correct answers and speed (Kahoot!, 2018; Quizizz Inc., 2018). Quizizz has the option of creating meme sets for feedback, which could be utilized to create more specific feedback for the learner (Quizizz Inc., 2018).

The perceived ease of use of a technology tool is also an important factor in the adoption of a technological tool in the classroom (Davis, 1989). Perceptions of ease of use are tightly intertwined with teacher self-efficacy; if teachers feel comfortable with the integration of technology in the classroom, then they are more likely to take risks and try something new (Power, 2018). This requires a good working knowledge of technological pedagogical knowledge (TPK) so that teachers can make pedagogical decisions about the selection and use of a technology tool (Koehler & Mishra, 2006). The CSAM (Collaborative Situated Active Mobile) framework provides guidance for making instructional design decisions (Power, 2013). In terms of the above-mentioned quizzing applications, all three fit within this framework. Kahoot!, Quizizz, and Quizlet are all available as mobile applications, allowing learners to practice retrieval anywhere and at any time. They are all active learning tools, engaging each learner in the process and quizzes can be developed that are situated in appropriate contexts. Collaboration in all three quizzing applications is limited; however, retrieval practice is a learning strategy that is best employed independently and the teacher can ensure collaboration is built into further feedback processes.

Conclusions and Future Recommendations

Retrieval practice is an important learning strategy that can be used to enhance and improve learning and understanding (Karpicke & Blunt, 2011). It provides numerous benefits including improvements in complex thinking and application skills, the organization of knowledge, transfer of learning, and development of metacognition (Agrawal et al., 2018). Various factors, such as question type, spacing, and feedback, are important to consider to successfully integrate retrieval practice in the classroom. Technology tools, such as Kahoot!, Quizizz, and Quizlet, provide many affordances to support retrieval practice.

An important consideration for the future is to facilitate teacher professional development that effectively demonstrates the use of these tools in the context of retrieval practice. Factors such as the type of question, spacing, repetition, and feedback need to be addressed in order to ensure that these tools are being used in ways that fully support retrieval practice as a learning strategy tool. According to the Technology Acceptance Model (TAM), emphasizing both the usefulness as well as the ease of use of the tools in retrieval practice will result in more usage of the technology itself (Davis, 1989). By focusing professional development on pedagogical factors, it will assist in providing teachers with the knowledge necessary to choose the appropriate supportive technology tool.

In more recent years, spiralling curriculum, especially in the areas of mathematics, has become a popular approach (Carpenter, Cepeda, Rohrer, Kang, & Pashler, 2012; Pashler et al., 2007). Spiralling refers to teaching curriculum in a way that revisits topics or themes several times, allowing the learning to be spread out over time rather than concentrated into discrete “units” (Johnston, 2012). The level of complexity is increased each time a topic is revisited, creating connections between new learning and prior knowledge (Johnston, 2012). Retrieval practice by itself is a powerful tool to enhance long-term retention of information; however, combining a spiralled curricular approach with retrieval practice would provide a truly powerful learning environment. Furthermore, this learning environment could be enhanced by integrating opportunities for inquiry or problem-based learning to balance the attainment of foundational knowledge with higher-order skills.


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Technology and the Curriculum: Summer 2018 Copyright © 2018 by Rachel Johnson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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