Retrieval practice, the best way to help your students after lockdown?

Retrieval practice, the best way to help your students after lockdown?

How do we best help our students as they return to schools after this latest round of lockdown?We know from several pieces of evidence, including the Ofsted Covid-19 inspection, and a recent report from the Education Endowment Foundation, that students have, unsurprisingly, fallen behind in their learning. We also know the extent of the impact, with students being at least several months behind where they should be for key learning outcomes.

With schools re-opening soon, the question hanging over the nation and particularly for educators, parents, and students themselves, is how will they ‘catch up’? The government is considering several options to help students make up for this lost time, such as shorter summer holidays and longer school days.

Many have highlighted that we should be focusing on supporting students’ well-being first, by encouraging outdoor time, exercising and spending time with friends as opposed to extra school hours. Here at InnerDrive, we agree that well-being support comes first. Helping students to be happy and healthy after the stresses of the pandemic will be a precursor to enhancing learning.

But when it does come to learning, we believe there is a key strategy to help maximise the learning time that they do have: retrieval practice.

What is retrieval practice?

Retrieval Practice is any activity that gets students to generate answers, from answering questions in class to quizzes or practice papers. It has consistently been proven to improve academic performance. This is because it helps students to remember more information, and to remember it for longer.

Why is retrieval practice effective?

Retrieval practice is so effective in helping students to learn and remember information because it requires them to recall previously learnt knowledge. This creates stronger memory traces and increases the likelihood that the information will be transferred to the long-term memory.

It is most effective in an informal environment. For example, when students know that answering questions or being tested has low stakes and is being used as a learning strategy, rather than as a highly pressurised test.

So, how can retrieval practice help students catch up?

It frees up cognitive load

Retrieval practice helps manage students’ cognitive load. There is no doubt that when returning to school, students will be bombarded with lots of information, alongside navigating social relationships again and facing many other potential stresses. All of this information can clog up their working memory and lead to cognitive overload. This will mean students struggle to learn and remember information.

Thankfully, retrieval practice helps to free up cognitive load through:

  • solidifying knowledge in students’ long-term memory, instead of keeping it in working memory for too long.
  • ensuring students truly know and understand information before moving on, rather than cramming everything in.
  • improving students’ memory during times of stress.
  • preventing irrelevant information from clogging up working memory – also known as the Redundancy Effect.

It improves metacognition

Another way in which retrieval practice can help students at this time is through improving their metacognition. Essentially, this is because retrieval practice gets students into the habit of asking questions. Eventually this will extend to students asking questions about their own learning, identifying what they do and don’t know, helping them to analyse their thought processes, and perhaps prompting them to seek feedback from others.

In turn, metacognition enhances student learning and, perhaps more importantly at this time, helps them to manage their emotions and build their resilience. So, retrieval practice helps students to tap into their metacognitive abilities, and these can play a big part in helping students to cope after lockdown.

It acts as a progress monitor

As we said, retrieval practice is most effective under low-pressure, informal conditions. And although it is not a tool to grade students, it can be used to measure their progress. Using retrieval practice such as quizzes to measure student knowledge and understanding in the months after lockdown can provide a useful guide to identify how students are doing, where their strengths and weaknesses are, if there are any particular areas to focus on, and if they need additional support.

And there’s more…

Of course, retrieval practice is great in that it helps students to learn and improves their memory. But it’s also much more than that. It improves student confidence, reduces nerves, and can help them to cope better with stress. A recent study on the power of retrieval practice found that 92% of students who had studied using this strategy reported that it had helped them learn and 72% of them felt that it had made them less nervous about their upcoming exams.

Many students won’t be facing exams, or at least in the usual sense. But improving their confidence will certainly be an important way of supporting students after months of online learning, and to help them face any pressures of returning to school.



Retrieval practice is an effective and simple to use strategy to help students in their learning after lockdown. It can help them to manage cognitive load, improve metacognition, monitor progress, and boost confidence. Most of all, it maximises the learning time that students do have, leaving time for the all-important getting out and having fun that they’ll need after lockdown.

Want to become a retrieval practice expert? We have an online teacher CPD course just for you.

New call-to-action