What is retrieval practice?
Retrieval practice boosts learning by pulling information out of students’ heads, rather than trying to cram information in. We want to decrease the extraneous load on our students working memory by embedding knowledge into their long term memory. If we can increase how often the learner has to retrieve information, “every time that information is retrieved, or an answer is generated, it changes that original memory to make it stronger” (Jones, 2020).
Why should we use it?
The act of retrieving information from your long term memory strengthens the storage of that memory much more effectively than re-reading or reviewing notes.
- It helps them make connections between new and old knowledge;
- It increases the likelihood of knowledge being transferred into their long-term memory (which also makes it easier to learn new things);
- It provides a foundation for future learning if it prompts feedback;
- It is reliable under pressure (which makes it easier to remember information in exam conditions).
If you’ve ever wondered why a student is able to show that they understand something one day, but then look at you with a blank face when you ask them about it a few days later, it’s because the new learning hasn’t transferred into their long-term memory yet.
In the Hidden Lives of Learners, Graham Nuthall also talks about the need to encounter a new concept at least three different times for it to start to sink into long-term memory.
How can we use it?
Retrieval practice should be included as part of a clear and coherent curriculum, not as a stand alone activity. As you will see in the Retrieval Practice Examples section of this website, there are many ways that it can be embedded in the classroom. If too much support is provided, students may be very successful but may not actively reinstate the prior context, and this scenario could harm the effectiveness of retrieval practice. When combined with other cognitive learning approaches such as spacing, interleaving and elaboration, it can be even more powerful!
Tom Sherrington gave these tips in his blog 10 Techniques for Retrieval Practice:
- Involve everyone: Good techniques involve all students checking their knowledge, not just a few and not just one at a time as you might do when questioning.
- Make checking accurate and easy: it should be possible for all students to find out what they got right and wrong, what they know well and where they have gaps. Every technique involves students testing their knowledge and then checking their work for accuracy and completeness. (This is not the same as giving students extended mark schemes to mark longer assessments which, for me goes beyond a simple retrieval practice activity)
- Specify the knowledge: Where appropriate, it’s better if students know the set of knowledge any retrieval will be based on, so they can study, prepare and self-check. It must be possible for students to check their own answers which has implications for the way the knowledge requirements are laid out.
- Keep it generative: students need to explore their memory to check what they know and understand; this means removing cue-cards, prompts, scaffolds and cheat-sheets; it means closing the books and thinking for themselves.
- Make it time efficient: The idea of each technique is that they can be used repeatedly in an efficient manner without dominating whole lessons.
- Make it workload efficient: None of these methods involve the teacher checking the students’ answers, creating unsustainable workload. A teacher might choose to check the occasional test but that’s no use for routine practice.
Making the most of retrieval practice
Spaced practice refers to the amount of time in between learning opportunities. Spreading out times of exposure, rather than “cramming” are more effective. “When information is quickly acquired, it’s often quickly forgotten (Agarwal & Carpenter, 2020).” Yet, we actually want to take advantage of the forgetting phase because this forces students to relearn them next time which actually strengthens their memory. Think of it like weights training, you’re not going to get much benefit from going hard in one session, but if you train consistently over a long period of time, you will get stronger.
Interleaving is when you mix up similar themed topics. This forces students to think about similarities and differences and to think. For example, if they were working on Trigonometry and completing a practice block of the same types of questions, it is very easy for them to go into “auto-pilot” and stop thinking about what they are doing. By interleaving similar questions, it forces them to distinguish between what strategy to use. So, you might have questions asking them to find the angle and then interleave questions asking them to find the length of a side.
Elaboration is about getting students to give answers that go beyond a description. It’s about getting them to explain and make connections as why and how things happen.
Generative is when the learner has to create something rather than just read it. For example, a summary or drawing. Mayer and Fiorella address this in ‘Learning as a Generative Activity’ where they suggest that the learner applies the Selection, Organising and Integrating model. They suggest eight evidence-informed learning strategies: summarising, mapping, drawing, imagining, self-testing, self-explaining, teaching, and enacting.
On the next page, there’s a Retrieval Practice Quiz. To get the full benefits of retrieval practice, it would work best if you added space in time between reading the information on this page and performing the quiz.