Retrieval practice through free recall vs cued recall

A few weeks ago I asked my A level students to complete a retrieval activity on the topic we had just finished, writing down everything they knew without any external cues, before comparing what they had written with their notes and identifying gaps in their knowledge. The identified gaps then become the revision priorities for the coming week. I’ve mentioned (more than once) that they really disliked this. There were even some audible groans. Most said they much preferred the past exam paper questions that we always do at the end of each topic.

I was left wondering (fretting, a little) if this technique was inferior to the past exam paper questions and if, therefore, I was barking up the wrong tree,  or if it was just harder. And if it was harder, was it harder in a good way, or harder in a bad way – I didn’t know. Turns out that while I know about the power of retrieval practice,  I didn’t know about free recall vs cued recall, and the benefits of the former over the latter. I didn’t consciously know that what I had asked them to do was a free recall activity.  Now I think I can say that my students dislike the free recall activity because it is harder, but harder in a good way.

Free recall activity

Free recall activity

Cued recall is retrieval from memory that is triggered by an external cue. This could be a question from a teacher eg  ‘State one advantage of encoding data in a computer system’, or it could be a past exam paper question, a particular word, a sound, a smell or the seat in the class that the student occupies (see David Didau’s post about this).

Free recall is retrieval from memory without external cues – the cues are internal, and the student creates them. In my classroom this would be an absence of direct questioning or the past paper questions my students prefer. It also means a change in the seating arrangements in the class when we are practising retrieval, to mix up the contextual cues that come from environment. Most of all, it means that the student is in charge of retrieving the memory, rather than relying on contextual cues, and will hopefully struggle a bit while they do so.

Free recall is harder than cued recall. It requires a struggle as we search for the information, but in the struggle learning takes place and memories are strengthened. In the most excellent EdX course, The Science of Learning, (thank you to @sineof1 for the recommendation), this process was likened to searching in an dark room, full of boxes, with a torch. You are searching for an item in a particular box. Your torch moves over lots of other boxes in your search, and, thinking some of them might be the box you are looking for, you stop and have a look in a couple, perhaps reorganising the contents before moving on in your search, until you find your box. This is harder and takes longer than if someone else had held the torch for you, or shown you where the box was, but next time you want that box you are more likely to be able to go straight to it. In the struggle, learning takes place.

Deans for Impact’s The Science of Learning has this to say about the importance of teaching students to monitor their own learning, and the dangers of cues that provide a sense of familiarity with the knowledge:

“Teachers can engage students in tasks that will allow them to reliably monitor their own learning (testing, self-testing, and explanation). If not encouraged to use these tasks as a guide, students are likely to make judgements about their own knowledge based on how familiar the situation feels and whether they have partial – or related – information. These cues can be misleading”. Deans for Impact (2015)

This, in turn, draws upon the work of Koriat & Levy-Sadot, who state that a feeling of knowing judgement can rely on the “familiarity of the pointer that serves to cue the target, not on the retrievability of the target itself”. Koriat & Levy-Sadot (2001).

Now that I know more about free recall vs cued recall, I am going to use the following free recall questions and activities more regularly:

  • Tell me two things you have learned today
  • Recall the most important elements of last week’s study
  • List four questions you have about this week’s/today’s topic
  • Summarise the main themes of this week’s/today’s lessons in a few sentences
  • What are the most important ideas that you need to remember for the end of topic test?
  • Complete the topic retrieval template with everything they know about a topic

I will also make sure that errors in knowledge, or gaps, are addressed quickly through feedback, so that incorrect knowledge is not reinforced.

So, I write this in case I am not the only teacher who hasn’t ever thought about free recall vs cued recall and I shall now wander off to find out what else it is that I don’t know.

Free recall


EdX The Science of Learning, What Motivates Students to Learn

Deans for Impact (2015) The Science of Learning. Austin, TX: Deans for Impact

Koriat & Levy-Sadot, The Combined Contributions of the Cue-Familiarity and Accessibility Heuristics to Feelings of Knowing, 2001 retrieved from