There are many ways to carry out retrieval practice, which is the act of recalling information from long-term memory, from multiple-choice quizzes to past papers, in order to improve learning. It is a powerful teaching and learning strategy, not a formal assessment strategy.
It is important that classroom teachers have secure knowledge and understanding of cognitive psychology principles, research findings and classroom applications when it comes to retrieval practice. However, it doesn’t stop in the classroom: there are many benefits to helping everyone in the school community to find out more and be aware of what retrieval practice does, and how it works.
What are the benefits of retrieval practice?
Before we dive into practical strategies to get everyone in the school community involved with retrieval practice, we have to remind ourselves: what makes retrieval practice so important?
- Retrieval practice is regarded as one of the most effective study strategies to support learning, for all learners.
- Testing and quizzing helps identify which information a student can recall from memory, as well as gaps in their knowledge.
- Retrieval practice can lead to better transfer and organisation of knowledge.
- Using retrieval practice in lessons can, indirectly, encourage students to prepare for quizzes at home and carry out retrieval practice independently.
- Research has shown that retrieval practice can reduce anxiety and boost confidence when carrying out high stakes assessments.
- Retrieval practice is low cost and high impact, therefore easy and effective for schools to implement.
Retrieval practice for…
Retrieval practice is a staple classroom teaching and learning strategy. It should be taking place in every classroom, with every child.
But this is easier said than done - to do this, teachers need to understand the research and evidence and gain insight into how students learn and how to design and deliver lessons that support this. Teachers also need time to implement and embed retrieval practice in their classroom: the research isn’t one-size fits all, and needs to be adapted to their unique classroom context. Finally, it is important that teachers have time to reflect on how they are using retrieval practice in their lessons — at an individual, departmental/phase or whole school level.
Teaching and Learning Assistants (TLAs)
Support staff in a school environment can play a very important role in the progress of students. It is important that TLAs receive professional development and support to understand the research behind retrieval practice and how this can support the learners they work with. The Education Endowment Foundation published a guidance report recommending that schools:
- Use TAs to help students develop independent learning skills and manage their own learning;
- Ensure TAs are fully prepared for their role in the classroom;
- Use TAs to deliver high quality one-to-one and small group support using structured interventions;
- Adopt evidence-based interventions to support TAs in their small group and one-to-one instruction.
Knowledge of the limitations of working memory and the importance of recalling information from long-term memory can be very helpful for TLAs as they support students with their learning and progress.
To embed retrieval practice within a school’s culture, it must come from the top, supported by leaders at all levels.
Leaders can, as with all aspects of school leadership, lead by example in terms of their attitude towards and awareness of retrieval practice. To do this, leaders can:
- Actively and visibly engage with evidence, and share it with their teams and colleagues;
- Support classroom teachers to learn more about retrieval practice and put guidance in place to promote a consistent classroom routine across the school.
- Review how teachers are implementing and embedding retrieval practice into their classroom planning and practice — however, this should be supportive and developmental, not judgmental.
It is vital that students understand why they are being regularly quizzed in lessons.
This can reduce stress and anxiety as students recognise retrieval practice tasks are a low stakes learning strategy, not a high stakes assessment. It can also help them understand the benefits of retrieval practice.
The ultimate goal is for students to be able to use retrieval practice techniques outside of the classroom to test themselves, find gaps in their knowledge and then close those gaps with further retrieval practice.
Parents can become confused when, after observing their child spending time re-reading and highlighting their notes, their child doesn’t do as well on an assessment as they hoped. What went wrong?
Some study strategies are deemed more effective than others, and it is important that parents understand this. Retrieval practice and spacing are regarded as highly effective in contrast to highlighting, re-reading and underlining. If parents are aware of this, they can intervene and encourage their child to use effective strategies.
Parents can get involved with retrieval practice at home through quizzing and using flashcards with their child. Knowing what retrieval practice and its benefits are will help parents to understand why their child’s teacher regularly quizzes them in lessons. This can also bust some myths and relieve any concerns that parents might have about "drill and kill” high stakes testing.
We know the forms and benefits of retrieval practice. But to use it to its full potential, it needs to become embedded in a school culture and become part of the language of learning across the wider school community.
Sharing and explaining the many benefits of retrieval practice with leaders at all levels, classroom teachers, TLAs, students, parents and families, is the best way to achieve this.
Thank you to Kate Jones for writing this blog. In case you missed the news, Kate is joining InnerDrive as Teaching & Learning Lead in 2022!
- Read our announcement and Kate's statement
- Find out more about what Kate will be working on at InnerDrive