Retrieval practice: 4 tips for finding and filling gaps

Retrieval practice can boost the retention of knowledge, which is more important than ever right now, says Adam Boxer

Adam Boxer

Covid catch-up: How teachers can make the most of retrieval practice

Retrieval practice is everywhere at the moment, particularly as we look to find and fill the gaps in student learning.

Done well, retrieval practice can be a powerful tool in gathering data about student knowledge, as well as in boosting student memory and improving long-term motivation.

We know from decades of research that while the process of forgetting is natural and normal, it can be slowed down by students actively retrieving information from their long-term memories.

How teachers can make the most of retrieval practice

But, as with many other strategies, the prospect of lethal mutations and failed implementations looms large. Here are four simple strategies that will help to boost your effectiveness at delivering retrieval practice:

1. Make it a routine

Retrieval practice doesn’t work if it isn’t done regularly. There are natural points in a lesson for retrieval practice: once a particular topic has been finished, right at the start of a new topic or when you want to connect current learning to prior knowledge.

But after much experimenting, I found that planning my retrieval for those points meant it often didn’t get done – lesson delivery is messy and rarely follows our neat and careful plans. Instead, regardless of what we were going to be doing that day, I shifted to starting every lesson with a short retrieval period.

This might feel less natural in terms of the flow of content over time, but it means that retrieval won’t fall at the wayside.

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2. Don’t reinvent the wheel

Creating good resources for retrieval can take a lot of time. To save on workload, I collaborated with many different teachers to create Retrieval Roulette, a simple tool that comes with thousands of questions from a range of topics.

As teachers, we often feel the need to make our own resources from scratch, and while it may be the case that we can produce a more suitable resource that way, our time is precious and we shouldn’t let perfect be the enemy of good.

3. Look beyond the classroom 

A short retrieval activity at the start of each lesson is only going to make small delays to the process of forgetting. The bulk of the labour has to be done by students in their own time.

All too often, though, students don’t know where to start, and fall back on ineffective revision methods like rereading or highlighting.

Instead, give them a quick and easy tool that will allow them to engage in retrieval practice by themselves. There are a lot of quizzing apps out there, and when choosing which one to use with your class, I'd recommend looking for one that allows complete control over the content of students’ retrieval practice, as well as detailed analytics as to their performance and where gaps are beginning to emerge.

4. Make it a shared culture

Students need to understand how this will help them. Explain to them what retrieval is and why it’s important, as well as the fact that it is difficult and that improvements are only seen over the long term.

When you do this, it increases the chances of them taking it seriously in school and at home, as well as them not becoming demotivated if they perform poorly.

Pointing to students who take retrieval seriously and praising students who are beginning to show improvements normalises a culture of retrieval in your class and will shift a critical mass of students to developing better retrieval habits.

Adam Boxer is head of science at a secondary school in North London

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