The beneficial side-effects of retrieval practice

By Andy Tharby

Over the past three years, many teachers, departments and schools have wholeheartedly adopted the evidence that supports ‘retrieval practice’. Put simply, retrieval practice involves diving into your memory to recall information that you have previously learnt – which, in turn, strengthens the memory and increases the likelihood that you will recall it next time round. Many teachers use quizzes based on prior learning – often at the start of lessons – as a way of ensuring that retrieval practice becomes a regular habit.

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This week’s blog on the Durrington Research School website summarises some useful advice for those trying to implement retrieval practice effectively:

  • There is no need to change teaching style – retrieval practice can be a standalone task.
  • Don’t allow students to look the answer up in their book.
  • It doesn’t need to add extra time to your teaching. Swap ineffective activities for retrieval practice strategies.
  • There is no need to change your curriculum, textbook or resources. Use your classroom materials to support retrieval practice questions.
  • Ensure all students engage with it.
  • Try to do it as much as possible and space it out – make sure you cover material from previous lessons.
  • Retrieval practice can reduce test anxiety in students.
  • The retrieval benefit from short answer vs. multiple choice quizzes appears to be similar.
  • Retrieval practice should remain ‘low-stakes’. It is a learning strategy not an assessment tool.

In this post, we will investigate some of the beneficial side effects of retrieval practice for students and teachers, especially when it is used as regular ‘starter’ or ‘do now’ task at the opening of a lesson. We will also look at a number of alternative ways of providing opportunities for retrieval practice. It need not always be death by quizzing!

Formative assessment. Even though retrieval practice is best used for ‘low-stakes’ testing – i.e. when scores are not shared and grades not awarded – there are many subtle ways that teachers can use quizzing to respond in the moment and adapt their teaching. For example, after a quiz some teachers ask “Which of the five questions was the hardest?”. The resulting feedback offers an immediate chance for the teacher to address a misconception, re-iterate a key fact or re-teach a complex idea. Similarly, it is very easy to scan a room and get a quick picture of which questions many students have not answered or those that have led to incorrect responses. As I say to my groups: “I’m not worried about what you know; I’m worried about what you don’t know.” Quizzing helps us to uncover these hidden knowledge gaps.

A springboard for development. One of my favourite questioning strategies is to ask a closed question and then follow up with a probing question. For instance:

“Do you think a relationship like George and Lennie’s relationship was typical during the Great Depression?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

Questioning like this works so well because it pinpoints an idea, gives a student an instant sense of success and begins the process of drawing out an idea. After students have answered a retrieval quiz, it is always a good idea to probe their thinking and encourage them to make connections. Do the class understand the significance of the fact or idea? Can they link it to the wider ideas of the topic or subject?

Prioritising key concepts. It is important that quizzes are centred around the key ideas or concepts that underpin the subject. For example, a question like “Give an example of foreshadowing from Chapter 1?” is more useful than “What does Lennie have in his pocket?” This is because foreshadowing is a key element of literary structure, a concept that will be returned to again and again in the study of English Literature, whereas the dead mouse in Lennie’s pocket is specific to only one context, the novella Of Mice and Men. If retrieval practice  centres on the  big ideas of your subject, then every time a student walks into your lesson they will be compelled to think about these concepts. Over time, this is bound to shape their thinking.

Mixing it up. There are many different tasks that constitute retrieval practice. If a student is actively using their memory, then it is likely that retrieval practice is occurring in some way. Trigger words, images and key facts can all provide the clue required to spark the act of retrieval. Responses to clues can be written or verbal – or even silent thoughts. Once students have developed a decent knowledge of a topic, they can be expected to take ‘free recall’ tasks – e.g. write down everything you know about Lady Macbeth? This allows the teacher to assess the ‘shape’ of a student’s knowledge as well as the breadth. After all, it is no good knowing lots of stuff unless you can use it and organise it in a beneficial way. This task is even more effective when organisational templates – such as mind maps and flowcharts – have been taught in advance.

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In all, retrieval practice comes with many teaching and learning benefits. It is most effective when it is planned as a door to learning rather than a simple activity to keep the class quiet.

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