Retrieval practice: five new tips to make learning stick

'Retrieval practice' is experiencing a revival in schools. But what are the best ways to make it work for you? Mark Enser shares some ideas

Mark Enser


When I started teaching, we were told that “weighing the pig doesn’t make it grow”; that sitting tests didn’t help pupils to learn anything. This is demonstrably false.

As far back as 1885, the work of German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus showed how testing helps us to retrieve information from our memories and make it easier to recall in the future. And today, we are currently seeing an increasing focus on the idea that pupils should actually retain what they are taught – that there should be a change in long-term memory that allows students to recall previous lessons and apply them to future problems. This has led to an increased interest in "retrieval practice".

What is retrieval practice?

As a result of this revival, more and more teachers are starting their lessons with a quick quiz, with questions drawn from previous lessons and topics. A knowledge quiz is a wonderful way to take advantage of the retrieval effect but it isn’t the only way. Here are five more ideas to get retrieval working in your classroom.

Think back, plan forward

The first suggestion is to adapt the way quizzes are created. Usually people choose questions from previous topics that have no relation to the lesson that is about to be taught. This is missing a trick.

Instead, pick questions from previous topics that help pupils to recall the information they will be applying in this lesson. For example, before teaching a lesson on the impacts of deforestation I might pick questions that link to the nutrient cycle, the water cycle and development. This will help the pupils to see how this lesson connects to what they have learnt before and still take advantage of retrieval practice.

Analyse this

Show pupils an image of something that relates to a previous topic. Give them some prompt questions to consider that rely on them thinking back to what they have previously been taught. These could include questions about chronology ("When would this picture have been taken? Before or after X?") or about processes ("How many things might have shaped this landscape?"). These more open-ended questions require pupils to recall and use a wider range of their accrued knowledge and understanding.

Just a minute

This is a firm favourite based on the long-running BBC Radio 4 game. Ask pupils to speak for one minute on a previous learning topic without hesitation, repetition or deviation.

This is also a useful opportunity for formative assessment. As pupils are engaged in this task, circulate the room and observe what they are able to recall and listen out for any misconceptions that are being shared. These can then be addressed while they are still fresh in people’s minds.

Connect four

Give pupils four seemingly disparate topics. Ask them to find as many links between them as they can. Again, the aim is have them think hard about what they know about these topics to find the links. It also has the advantage of helping them to think like an 'expert' in your subject and to develop the complex web of links that disciplines depend upon. 

Rethink homework 

Rather than setting homework that supports what pupils are currently learning in class, set work that goes back to previous topics. As with my first suggestion, you can kill two birds with one stone and set work that links the current topic with what has come before, but you want pupils to focus on recalling and using what they have already been taught.

One potential pitfall with using homework time in this way is that pupils find themselves reaching for their notes to complete the tasks set. For retrieval practice to work they need to be recalling from memory, not referring to something external. I find that as long as they understand the purpose they quickly get on board.

Mark Enser is head of geography and research lead at Heathfield Community College. His first book, Making Every Geography Lesson Count is out soon with Crown House Publishing. He tweets @EnserMark.

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Mark Enser

Mark Enser

Mark Enser is head of geography and research lead at Heathfield Community College. His latest book The CPD Curriculum is out now. He tweets @EnserMark

Find me on Twitter @EnserMark

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