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Retrieval practice

‘Practice is an integral part of effective teaching; ensuring pupils have repeated opportunities to practise, with appropriate guidance and support, increases success’

ITT core content framework and Early career framework, DfE, 2019

Topics on this page:

  • Why use retrieval practice?
  • How to use retrieval practice
  • Building retrieval practice into lessons
  • Forms of retrieval practice
  • Spaced practice and sequencing
  • Reflect on using retrieval practice strategies effectively
  • Reflection activity
  • Reading

Why use retrieval practice?

It is frustrating when students have forgotten what you taught them last week. All teachers have faced this and, therefore, the arrival of a potential solution in the form of retrieval practice became of immediate interest to teachers. 

Retrieval practice consists of strategies that require students to retrieve material previously learned from their long-term memory. It is believed to be effective in helping pupils consolidate material they have learned and to be more effective than simply re-reading material.

Retrieval practice involves students actively retrieving from memory something they have learned in the past; they have to think hard about it. Memory is thought to be strengthened by retrieval practice and this should lead to more effective retention of knowledge and concepts in long-term memory and forgetting is less likely to occur.

The more students practise remembering, the easier it will be and the longer they will recall the information for. The more easily students can retrieve information from their long-term memory, the smaller the load placed on their working memory (see Geographical learning and memory).

Retrieval practice also makes students aware of weaknesses in their memory and gaps in their understanding. This can prevent overconfidence of learning and help metacognition.

How to use retrieval practice

There are different forms of retrieval practice; from simple rehearsal of factual knowledge, to more complex elaboration to explore connections between ideas. Research evidence suggests that retrieval practice techniques work best for simple, factual recall. Recent Education Endowment Foundation evidence is uncertain about how effective it is for supporting higher-order learning (see Perry et al, 2021).

Teachers must think about why they are using retrieval practice; they should not ‘do retrieval practice’ in the hope that students will learn more. A teacher must ask what key knowledge they want students to commit to their long-term memory so they can easily recall and use when learning more complex ideas. This means they should think carefully about the aspects of learning to focus on, bearing in mind that it might be less effective for more complex aspects of geographical thinking.

A common form of retrieval practice is the short test or quiz; this is why retrieval practice is sometimes referred to as the ‘testing effect’. Whether by questions, tests or quizzes, it is the students’ engagement in the process of mental rehearsal to recall the prior learning that is important. 

If using a test, teachers should plan its difficulty carefully so that students are successful in retrieving at least some of the content they are tested on. They need to consider the additional support that is required for students that struggle and those that show misunderstandings.

Although retrieval practice may involve ‘tests’ in some form, it is a learning strategy; it is not an assessment tool. However, it is very important that students get feedback on accuracy either from the teacher or by self-checking. Otherwise, there is a danger they will store misconceptions in their long-term memory and the strategy will have been counterproductive.

Building retrieval practice into lessons

Teachers often use retrieval practice at the start of a lesson when they ask students to recall previous learning. This is often most beneficial when students are expected to retrieve prior learning from the previous weeks or months and the questions are not confined to just learning from the last lesson.

A common approach is to use an episode of short, quick questioning and discussion. Key words could be recorded on the whiteboard to reinforce them. This can be organised as whole class teaching, or students can be first asked to ‘think and share’ answers with a partner.

Having identified the key knowledge/skills that they want students to understand and remember from a lesson, a teacher will use repetition and retrieval repeatedly to help students to understand this. They will include retrieval tasks that give students the opportunity to recall the key knowledge/skills at strategic points throughout the lesson.

Low stakes quizzes are often suggested as an appropriate strategy. Consider what is meant by ‘low stakes’. Do your students perceive them as such? If you collect in the scores this changes the nature of the exercise and can make students less willing to try (in case they fail). You need to find ways to get feedback on how they answered, without taking in the scores, if they are to be genuinely low stakes.

Mini-whiteboards used with erasable pens are a good way to see answers from all the class. They allow students to record and share their thinking, and teachers can instantly check for understanding. Teachers can ask for a range of response formats – words, numbers, diagrams and maps. Often mini whiteboards are used individually, but you could use them for a pair of students to collaborate on an answer.

Forms of retrieval practice

There are many ways to help students ‘practise remembering’, for example; multiple-choice questioning; labelling diagrams; self-testing; student-student questioning; making notes from memory; ‘closed-book’ tasks; group discussion; writing an essay.

Some common activities in geography classrooms that are ways to engage students in retrieval practice, include:

  • Various forms of short quizzes; quick-fire quiz, silent quiz, paired quiz etc.
  • Card sorting activities, including odd one out and most likely to
  • Drawing diagrams, sketching maps or analysing images
  • Brainstorming, bubble and spider diagrams, mind maps (see activities to foster explaining)
  • Asking students to explain or demonstrate a process or technique, or summarise or ‘speak like an expert’
  • Concept mapping
  • Taboo – a guessing game to get students to think about definitions
  • Maps from memory
  • Mind movies.

Flashcards are useful for retrieval practice. A card has a question on one side (it can include an image or diagram) and answers on the other side. Students work through the stack, alone or in pairs. If they get it wrong it stays in the stack. This indicates the areas they need to work on.

Story-boarding is a good activity to help students recall and explain a process involving a sequence. Students work in pairs, or small groups, and are asked to add 8 or 10 words to a diagram or picture in a sequence or chain of events. This activity helps students to focus on recalling the accurate terms and using accurate vocabulary to describe and explain the process. 

By limiting the number of words to use, they must focus on what is most important. Storyboards are useful to help students organise the ideas that they are recalling from memory and the storyboard can have a similar role to a writing frame by asking students to continue and write in prose to explain the process.

Speak like an expert requires students to speak about a topic for up to two minutes, without hesitation or repletion. The teacher can provide some key vocabulary they want students to use.

The power paragraph requires students to write a ‘power paragraph’ on a topic in a time limit – say three minutes. Students peer-mark using criteria provided by the teacher.

Elaborative interrogation is where students are asked to describe and explain in detail to others – a partner or a group – a topic they have learned. In order to give an explanation, they must use their memory and experiences. The other students then ask How? and Why? questions. 

This requires the first student to make connections between ideas or explaining them, i.e. they are exploring their schema. The type of questions to ask in geography are: Why does that happen? How does it work? Why does it work? Why do you think that? Why is that the most important reason? How do you know?

  • Refer to Sherrington (2019) for a range of successful and practical retrieval practice strategies.
  • Refer to Teaching Geography articles or books such as Enser (2019) Harris (2017) and Rogers (2017) for activities used by geography teachers.

Spaced practice and sequencing

Teachers should consider how to sequence learning so that students acquire basic concepts before encountering more complex ideas in a lesson or a sequence of lessons.

Spaced practice is when opportunities to review and practise material are distributed over time. This gives students the time to form connections between the ideas and concepts so that it is embedded in long-term memory. By allowing a memory to be almost forgotten, teachers may be able to improve learning retention (see Geographical learning and memory). The Education Endowment Foundation (2021) reports that there are a significant number of studies showing that spacing across days and lessons can have a small positive impact on learning outcomes.

Therefore, teachers should plan their curriculum to give opportunities for spaced practice and think about the amount of time between each practice. This is in contrast to ‘blocking’, where material is visited in large blocks that are not repeated.

Reflect on using retrieval practice strategies effectively

When you have been using retrieval practice regularly in lessons, take time to consider whether you are using these strategies as effectively as you can. Limbada (2020) provides good advice:

‘These strategies should not be shoe-horned into every lesson, but rather they should be kept at the forefront of your mind and used when the time is right. Each strategy should help to improve the retention or understanding of taught material and should only be used when you feel that it is appropriate to do so.’

Think again about the Ebbinghaus’ ‘forgetting curve’ and its sharp decline soon after learning (see Geographical learning and memory). Make use of this knowledge by interfering with the forgetting process by recapping and asking students to recall the new material during a lesson to give them a better chance of embedding the new knowledge. 

The most successful ‘remembering’ activities are thought to occur a while after a topic has been initially taught. Do you force students to think back to geography topics from last term or last year? Geographical thinking involves seeing connections between different aspects of the subject, so this type of retrieval practice is easy to apply in geography and reinforces thinking ‘like a geographer’ by applying prior learning to a different context.

In order to plan retrieval practice effectively, do you use a progression map of the geography curriculum to know what has been previously taught? As a new teacher you will need to rely on the department’s paperwork and discussions with other teachers for this. Do you identify regular ‘spaced’ opportunities to revisit knowledge and learning so as to methodically interrupt ‘forgetting’? 

A good geography example to think about is how you tackle OS map skills. These need to be refreshed often if students are to become proficient, and there are opportunities in numerous geography topics where OS map activities can be used to do this.

When you use a quiz or test, do you always choose the questions carefully? You want a quick quiz that does not waste valuable teaching time, but you want students to dig deep in their memories. You also want to focus on significant geographical knowledge – ideas and concepts, vocabulary and place knowledge – so avoid trivia and superfluous facts. 

If they are retrieving geographical processes, give them the different elements and ask them to put them in the correct order, or supply a verbal description or image and ask them for the correct geographical names. Experienced geography teachers can do this on the spur of the moment, but for effective questioning as a new teacher you might find it best to prepare such questions in advance as part of your lesson planning.

Do you ensure that students must think hard for a retrieval practice test or quiz? They need to do this if it is to work effectively. Make sure that all prompts and worksheets are removed and that books are closed and the internet is unavailable. Give students instant feedback on accuracy. Otherwise, the activity is pointless! Consider ways to do this easily.

The most time- efficient way is probably to prepare answer sheets or display answers on an interactive whiteboard so students can self-check their answers. Students can then identify gaps in learning for themselves and become aware of what they do and do not understand. Quizzes for retrieval practice are more about metacognition than competition with other students. See Sherrington (2019) for different ways to manage quizzes in the classroom.

Refer to Coe (2020), which takes a look at underlying research and why retrieval practice might not always work as it should. Coe emphasises that to use retrieval practice effectively the teacher must draw on their:

  • skill to judge whether students have originally learnt the material and to create good questions
  • understanding that gains are greatest when recall is hard
  • commitment, taking time to plan the quizzes and manage them well in lessons.

Coe gives some possible reasons why retrieval practice might not work as it should, which are incorporated into this reflection activity.

Think about your own practice, on your own or with your mentor. How well do you avoid these pitfalls indicated by Coe?

  • Questions that focus solely on factual recall. Do you always look for some higher-order thinking?
  • Questions that are easy to boost confidence but do not provide real challenge. Are you setting your expectations high enough to achieve significant learning?
  • Spending too much time on quizzes, rather than teaching. Do you balance in your lessons?

Review strategies

When students are taught how to use retrieval practice as a study skill it is generally referred to as a review strategy. This approach helps students to become autonomous learners.

Teachers should explain to students how retrieval practice helps to improve their memory and how techniques such as self-quizzing and elaboration are more effective for exam revision than ‘going over notes’ or ‘highlighting’. Also, students should be encouraged to link abstract ideas to concrete examples for better long-term memory. Cramming before an exam means that knowledge may be retained for a short while, but is likely to be lost later.

Review strategies for students should incorporate techniques such as:

  • Taking a few minutes to review new information as soon as they learn it by going through the material and adding notes
  • Rehearsing key points out loud to themselves
  • Revisiting their learning at regular intervals, i.e. spacing it out
  • Including some self-testing, e.g. cover up the original material and see how much of it they can speak out loud from memory
  • Rewriting notes as a mind map or diagram or table.

For further strategies see Limbada (2020).

Reading