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Walney School

Retrieval practice

Retrieval practice can also be referred to as revising, remembering, recalling, regurgitating, revisiting, repeating, practising, refining, testing.

Retrieval practice refers to the act of recalling learned information from memory (with little or no support) and every time that information is retrieved, or an answer generated, it changes that original memory to make it stronger. (Jones: Retrieval Practice)

The retrieval process cements the information in the long-term memory, which should enable that information to become easier to retrieve in the future. The aim of retrieval practice is that students repeat their learning to the point of automation, so that the information can easily be retrieved from long-term storage. (Howell: The Revision Revolution)

Testing in this context is for learning purposes, not for assessment purposes. Retrieval practice supports students to get knowledge and vocabulary into their long-term memory – and back out again. The testing effect says that once something has been studied, it is better to keep testing rather than studying (most effective = STUDY, TEST, TEST, TEST). Nuthall says that students need to encounter information at least 3 times before they understand a concept (The Hidden Lives of Learners). This does not mean we need to teach something 3 times, but to give multiple opportunities to encounter the information in tests, drill exercises, reading comprehension, etc.

 This is Rosenshine’s daily review, weekly and monthly review. 

Rosenshine also says that there should be a high success rate. Over time students should be able to see real progress in the amount that they can successfully recall. We should not move onto a new set of information to learn, until a high success rate has been obtained on current learning. We should aim for all students to be getting 80% on their tests by the end of the unit. This shows that students are learning and the material and that they are challenged.

When teaching for mastery, students should be given multiple opportunities to practise, and a high success rate should be achieved. (Myatt: Curriculum: Gallimaufry to Coherence)

Retrieval practice does not always have to be simple facts.  Students need to build on their foundational knowledge, working towards longer and more complex answers once this is secure.

As students make progress through the curriculum, they need practice more complex responses. Start with a factual quiz that includes important knowledge needed to answer the higher order questions.  We want students to be able to make links, connections and provide rich explanations, rather than simply repeat facts, numbers, quotes, or dates. (Jones: Retrieval Practice)

Having students memorise lists of isolated facts is not enriching. It is also true that trying to teach students skills such as analysis or synthesis in the absence of factual knowledge is impossible. (Willingham: Why Don’t Students Like School?)

Examples of classroom practice

  • low stakes quiz – between 5 and 10 questions
  • flashcards
  • self-testing (students testing themselves)
  • one-word answers
  • close books and engage in discussion using key words
  • peer quizzing
  • write own questions
  • multiple choice
  • brain dump on post-its
  • mind map
  • list everything you know
  • cloze procedure
  • labelling diagrams with gradual reduction of information
  • true or false
  • finish the sentence
  • retrieval grids

The key is that all of these must be done with closed books and textbooks. We are pulling information from memory. Students need to think hard, or the process is meaningless.

It is essential to repeat questions that students seem to struggle with or where they might hold misconceptions.

Good training in retrieval practice can reduce stress and increase confidence both in the classroom and when students take exams (Jones: Retrieval Practice). We need to train our students to self-test and to test each other.

Retrieval practice should be varied – don’t always have the same format.

The best person to mark a test is the person who just took it. (Wiliam: Everything works somewhere, nothing works everywhere)

Lecture less – this just shows what YOU know. Retrieve more – this shows what the STUDENTS know. (Christodolou: Making Good Progress)

Students who don’t quiz themselves when they are preparing for an exam tend to overestimate how well they have mastered class material (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel: Make it Stick)

One of the ways that we bring coherence to our curriculum is through meaningful retrieval practice, and that retrieval practice is around creating connections between what has been learnt before and what is going to be learnt later and activating what is required in the current live lesson. (Myatt & Tomsett: HUH)

Our vision is to move students from constant teacher-led instruction to autonomy, where they select their own retrieval methods and know how to learn things effectively when we are not there.