Retrieval Practice and Stress


The Learning Scientists


Retrieval Practice and Stress


Retrieval Practice and Stress


By: Megan Sumeracki

Megan, circa 2015, stuck at an airport. I’m definitely not in airports this spring, but this is reminiscent of how I feel some days in 2020!!

Megan, circa 2015, stuck at an airport. I’m definitely not in airports this spring, but this is reminiscent of how I feel some days in 2020!!

School can be stressful, and 2020 has been a particularly stressful year for many of us. So, for this week’s blog, I thought I would write about retrieval practice and stress. Fortunately, I get to share some good news!

Prior research has shown that acute stress can hinder our ability to retrieve information. Acute stress is stress that comes from a specific event.

(Note: Acute stress is different from chronic stress, where our exposure to stress hormones is repeated and relatively constant. For more information on acute and chronic stress, see this page through the Centre for Studies on Human Stress. I also really like this 3-minute video with Robert Sapolsky on psychology and stress. And, if you really want to commit to learning more about stress and health, Robert Sapolsky has a book called Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: Stress and Health, and a 90-minute lecture on YouTube about the topic. He is extremely knowledgeable, engaging, and funny!)

Acute stress getting in the way of retrieving information can be pretty bad for student learning. If we are experiencing stress before an important test, either due to the test or because of something else, we might be less likely to be able to retrieve what we have learned thus decreasing our performance on the important test!

Fortunately, there is some evidence to suggest that retrieval practice might be able to protect against memory inhibition that we might experience while stressed (1). In a study published in Science, a very high-profile peer-reviewed publication, Amy Smith and colleagues (2016) investigated retrieval practice and stress. They had four groups of participants:

  1. retrieval practice plus not stressful activity

  2. retrieval practice plus a stressful activity

  3. restudying plus a not stressful activity

  4. restudying plus a stressful activity

To start, they had all participants study nouns and images. While these are considered basic materials, they help the researchers determine cause and effect relationships in the lab to classroom model (2). Then, some of the participants engaged in retrieval practice where they recalled as many as they could remember across a couple of trials, while the other participants restudied the items across a couple of trials. (There was some nuance to the way they had participants study and either restudy or practice retrieval, but it is not central to the main point here.) After this learning phase, they left the lab.

Twenty-four hours later, everyone returned. The participants that were assigned to the stressful activity conditions were asked to give speeches and solve math problems in front of two judges and three of their peers. This sounds incredibly stressful to me, and a lot of other research confirms people find this stressful. Smith and colleagues took some physiological measures to confirm that the participants were stressed. The other participants just completed a simple not stressful activity instead. The participants’ memory was tested immediately after the start of activities, and after 25 minutes.

Here are the main takeaways from the results:

  1. Overall, retrieval practice led to greater performance than restudying.

  2. For the group that restudied, stress did reduce memory performance. The acute stress did not affect the participants’ ability to retrieve what they learned instantaneously. However, within 25 minutes their performance declined if they were stressed compared to when they were not stressed.

  3. For the group that practiced retrieval, stress did not reduce memory performance, even 25 minutes later.

Data from Smith, Floerke, & Thomas (2016)

Data from Smith, Floerke, & Thomas (2016)

In other words, acute stress can inhibit our ability to retrieve what we learned, but if we practice retrieval it seems to protect against this effect. This work has practical implications for students taking high-stakes tests that are stressful. Often students may feel stress in the hours before the exam and during the exam. If students are going to take a test or exam that is particularly stressful, then practicing retrieval in preparation for this test should improve their overall learning and help them overcome performance issues related to the stress that they might experience right before and during the exam.

On the flip side, there is some research suggesting that higher levels of performance pressure and anxiety, which could be seen as a form of acute stress, during retrieval practice may reduce the positive benefits of retrieval practice (3). This makes sense; if acute stress harms our ability to retrieve then stress during retrieval practice ought to make retrieval as a learning activity less effective. So, taken together, it seems that low-stakes or no-stakes retrieval practice activities may work best to improve learning, and then subsequently may protect against forgetting that could occur during higher stakes stressful tests, large examinations, or higher stakes situations during which students will need to use their learned information (like in a job interview or job performance).

Of course, as always, the results are likely nuanced. It is possible that different types of stress, or the way students experience stress could alter these findings. There is definitely more work to be done in this area!


(1) Smith, A. M., Floerke, V. A., & Thomas, A. K. (2016). Retrieval practice protects memory against acute stress. Science, 354(6315), 1046-1048.

(2) Weinstein, Y., & Sumeracki, M. A. (2019). Understanding how we learn: A visual guide. David Fulton, Routledge.

(3) Hinze, S. R., & Rapp, D. N. (2014). Retrieval (sometimes) enhances learning: Performance pressure reduces the benefits of retrieval practice. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 28, 597-606.


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