The concept of retrieval practice is exactly as it sounds: the practice of retrieving information. It’s nothing revolutionary, it’s what we do as teachers, and you’re probably already doing it in your classes. It can be one of the most powerful tools in long-term memory retention.
In this article, I’ll walk you through how you can embed retrieval practice within your teaching. I'll also share some easy, ready-to-go activities you can try out. These are super easy to adapt for any subject or year level.
To practise retrieval to boost memory, there are a few key principles to stick to, and a couple things to avoid!
In order for all students to give retrieval practice a crack, we need to remove the fear of being wrong, and the anxieties that can come with assessment. We want everyone participating, and no one frightened (that means no cold-calling).
It’s important to understand that retrieval practice is not (and should not be) assessment! Rather, it’s an opportunity for students to practise recalling what they have learned in the absence of their notes. The challenge of completely relying on memory makes this task difficult, yes, but that’s the point!
Research has shown that the more students get information out of their head, the more likely they are to remember it in the long run. In my own many years of teaching, I found that my students would often have what I called ‘a false sense of knowing’. They believed they could recall information easily and quickly, as one of their main study methods would be to cram. Yikes! This is actually quite an effective strategy to learn things in the short term, but the content would then be easily forgotten.
In my own many years of teaching, I found that my students would often have what I called ‘a false sense of knowing’. They believed they could recall information easily and quickly, as one of their main study methods would be to cram.
The main issue was that students had not practised recalling information on their own (getting it out). This was often because they were too scared of being wrong or conversely, too confident that they already knew something. Funnily enough, it’s actually quite easy to forget something that you feel fluent in, simply because you don’t practise retrieving it enough.
So, the take-ways? Focus on retrieval practice as a learning activity instead of an assessment task. That way, you can get your class making those neural connections AND keeping them.
In the previous section I expressed my contempt towards students learning or revising by cramming. Spaced practice is the opposite of cramming, and involves spreading learning sessions and retrieval over time. Using spaced learning techniques across several days has been linked to improved achievement. By learning something slowly, it’s more likely to be committed to long-term memory.
The good news here is that many schools operate on a spaced timetable, so students may have 3 Maths lessons a week with other classes in-between. Yet, the key is to revisit and spend time on the same topic across that time for spacing to be of any benefit.
Now, you’re probably wondering how you are going to come up with amazing engaging lessons that allow you to cover all the curriculum, when you are spacing one concept over several lessons. Don’t stress- interleaving has you covered.
Interleaved practice is a process in which students learn two or more different but related concepts or skills at the same time. Interleaved practice may mean that you focus on Concept A for part of the lesson and then look at Concept B for the second half. The next day you may choose to look at both Concepts A and B. This incorporates spaced practice but allows learners to compare the similarities and differences between concepts.
Interleaved practice is a process in which students learn two or more different but related concepts or skills at the same time. Interleaved practice may mean that you focus on Concept A for part of the lesson and then look at Concept B for the second half.
After students have completed their retrieval practice activities, it is important for them to get some feedback on their responses. I must reiterate (again) that as retrieval exercises are not assessments, I would steer clear from assigning marks and instead explain common errors (without using a student's work as an example), show processes, worked solutions or model answers OR if time permits give individualised feedback.
There are many different activities you can use to do retrieval practice, some simple and some more challenging. It’s recommended that you use a variety of question types and ensure that the knowledge and skills you’re asking students to ‘retrieve’/mirror those that you would expect them to use in their assessments.
Give students 5 minutes to write/draw/concept-map everything they can remember about a given topic. They will hit a wall at some point, but ask them to power through and work through the brain fog. They’ll be surprised at what comes to them.
An old favourite. Give your class an image, question or prompt and follow the process. Try to make their retrieval more visible by getting their thoughts out, on paper.
Give students questions or practice problems as they enter or leave class. Collect them up and give feedback later. These should be short 5 minute activities.
Tip: For senior students, you might like to give them questions from the Edrolo platform that have been challenging for them and cycle in some easier ones.
Quizzes are so versatile and can be done on paper, with mini whiteboards, or through online platforms such as Kahoot or Blooket. Students never get too old for a healthy sense of competition in a low-stakes environment. Plus- you can give instant feedback.
These are great for looking at cause and effect scenarios and are my particular favourite to use in subjects like History where there may have been several factors that led to an event.
Compare and contrast. Can be made simple, or you may give prompts along with it to make it more challenging.
All Edrolo textbooks from 7-12 have questions that can be used for your retrieval practice. Our junior Science and Humanities resources also have built in activities in the teacher slides.
Progress Checks are essentially Edrolo Quizzes. Get students to complete them and then self-mark to get instant feedback and build their metacognition.
Our junior Maths resources have a ‘Remember this?’ section at the end of each chapter. This helps you with your spaced and interleaved practice.