Retrieval Practice:
Guiding Principles to Effective Use

By Dr Atherton (Director of Learning and Research, Teacher of English)

11 April 2024

At the most fundamental level, retrieval practice describes any activity that requires students to retrieve information they have previously encountered from long-term memory. Whilst easy to think of in terms of testing, one of the most significant findings from the work of researchers such as Bjork (2011), Dunlovsky (2013), Rosenshine (2012), and Roediger (2006), is that such retrieval practice is not just an assessment of what has been learned, but in and of itself a way to strengthen, cement and improve learning. It is, as Bjork explains, a learning event in its own right and not just a measure of other learning events.

Why include frequent retrieval practice in your lessons?

There are a great many benefits to including regular opportunities for retrieval practice in lessons, but here are just a few:

  • It helps to strengthen student memory, making the retrieved material more deeply embedded in long-term memory and more difficult to forget.
  • As well as strengthening long-term memory, it helps to make such information easier to manipulate and use, as well as making it easier to forge connections between concepts. One of the prevailing ideas of cognitive research is that we can only think with what we know (Willingham 2007), and so it’s not just a matter of recalling information, but also making the use of that information more effective.
  • It helps to reduce and manage exam anxiety, as students are likely to feel more confident with the studied material and less reliant on cramming. They are revising throughout the course and not just at its end.
  • It can improve metacognitive awareness in students as they are exposed on a regular basis to what they do and do not know, hopefully encouraging them to address this gap outside of the lesson.
  • Provides feedback to teachers on a regular basis as to what may need to be retaught or revisited as well as identifying gaps in student learning.

Some guiding principles for effective retrieval practice

  • Any retrieval task or activity should be completed without any access to notes or books. The aim of retrieval practice is to facilitate recalling information from long-term memory, thus strengthening its future retrieval. Using notes would completely defeat its intended purpose.
  • Retrieval ought to be spaced across time in order to tap into the spacing effect. In practice, this means retrieving information not just from the previous lesson, but perhaps also the previous week, month and even topic. As such, the material being retrieved need not always connect to the material currently being studied.
  • Retrieval practice should provide opportunity to revisit the same information multiple times, with each successive attempt helping to embed it into long-term memory.
  • As much as possible, retrieval practice should be low-stakes and the results of these short retrieval activities should not be recorded by the teacher. Retrieval practice of this nature is not designed to be used as formal assessment, but rather a learning event in its own right.
  • Once the retrieval activity or task has been completed, spend some time going through the correct or possible answers. The answers could either be shown on the board and self-marked or explained through questioning and class discussion. Checking for accuracy ought to be easy for teacher and student.
  • It does not just need to be facts that are recalled, but also opportunities to revisit, rehearse, recall and reapply higher-order skills.
  • It should be time-efficient and workload-efficient so that it does not take the teacher a long time to prepare and need not occupy the entire lesson, instead perhaps the first 10 minutes.
  • Whilst opportunities for retrieval practice can be provided at any point during a lesson, they often work well as a discrete 10-minute block at the start of a lesson, but this need not, of course, be every lesson.

Retrieval practice is most effective when it is low stakes, completed without notes, spaced across time, and time and workload efficient.

Retrieval practice can be as simple and straightforward as a quick quiz at the beginning of each lesson. This might work as 10 questions on a single topic covering previously taught material or perhaps a range of topics, to help ensure material is being sufficiently spaced.

The answers could be revealed one by one, all at once, or discussed with the class through cold called questions. The teacher could also go through the responses, with the student reflecting on what they got right or wrong, thus keeping the score to the student and maintaining a low-stakes environment, but also drawing their attention to any gaps in their understanding they may wish to address. Another iteration might see the teacher circulate the class during completion to identify and subsequently address any common misconceptions.

Another example, achieving much the same outcome, could be an activity like this: students are provided with a blank table with a list of questions and are asked to offer five responses to each question, as below:

‘Retrieval Practice: Guiding Principles to Effective Use‘ by Andrew Atherton, published in The Enquiry: Issue 7.

The Enquiry is a staff journal dedicated to reflections on educational research, and teaching and learning at Downe House School. Issue 7 was published in March 2024, looking back at Michaelmas term 2023.

All previous issues can be found here: The Enquiry by downehouseschool Stack – Issuu.

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