Education Endowment Foundation:EEF blog: Not another quiz! Refining retrieval practice

EEF blog: Not another quiz! Refining retrieval practice

Rachael Cattrall
Rachael Cattrall
Content Specialist for Cognitive Science

Rachael Cattrall, our cognitive science specialist, explores some of the core components that can make retrieval practice effective and how they may link to current classroom practices.

Blog •4 minutes •

Retrieval practice is certainly not the new kid on the block’ when it comes to teaching practices. Strategies to help students remember previously taught content have featured in our classrooms for many years. There are still opportunities though to refine and adapt these strategies to best support the long term learning of our students.

In our previous blog, we explored the importance of understanding why retrieval practice benefits our students’ learning, connecting to underlying cognitive science principles.

The next step in effective implementation of retrieval is understanding the core components that make the practice effective. This can help us to avoid the misinterpretation that to be doing retrieval’ we must have prescriptive policies that detail how many retrieval questions are to be asked, when to ask them, and how to give feedback. Policies like this risk missing the required adaptability needed to ensure that retrieval practice works in across differing classrooms, subjects and settings.

Getting to the core

To allow for flex in applying retrieval, it is important to first establish what its core components are and understand why they matter. In doing so, we can ensure retrieval practice is effective by thinking about any adaptations that need to be made based on our contextual expertise.

Core components to consider include:

1. Activities must engage the long term memory.Agarwal et al (2021) demonstrated that it’s the​“process of practicing retrieval (the active attempt) that shapes learning”. For example, if we were to allow students to look at their notes during a retrieval task from the off, we would be denying them the opportunity to engage in the active attempt to remember.

2. Balance challenge with opportunities for success.
Coe (2019) identified that teachers may design questions that are too easy and boost confidence” without the challenge that is likely to be a key ingredient for generating the kind of learning hoped for.”

3. Retrieval should not be a single, separate learning activity.
To improve the retrieval strength of knowledge, it must be recalled repeatedly after a delay. This may vary based on contextual factors like age range or complexity of content.

4. Provide some form of feedback
. Retrieval of incorrect information has the potential to further embed misconceptions. So, it’s key to think carefully about how to provide feedback on retrieval activities to your pupils.

Opportunities hidden in plain sight

Our retrieval activities can and should take a range of forms – but provided that we make sure to reflect the core components, these activities should best serve the needs of differing ages and subjects.

With this in mind, it can be helpful to examine existing teaching practices and appreciate how they can provide retrieval practice opportunities for our students that go beyond the standard quiz.

  • Think Pair Share. This questioning strategy has been utilised for a number of years to encourage whole class participation. As it is important to engage individuals’ long term memories, we can view the think” stage of this strategy as an opportunity to allow for individual recall, and the pair stage as a way of prompting the knowledge pupils struggle to recall.
  • Whole class participation. Noting the importance of feedback, consider how you might use your current strategies (mini whiteboards for example) to capture the retrieval attempts of all students and identify misconceptions to address.

  • Brain dumps. By asking students to record everything they can remember about a topic, we can identify knowledge that is easily recalled compared to knowledge that is not. It can also provide an opportunity for students to recall more complex concepts in addition to factual recall.
  • Questioning. Coe (2019) identified the possible problem that teachers may design tasks that focus solely on factual recall. By considering how we plan probing questions, we can build on initial factual recall to demonstrate depth of conceptual understanding.

With secure understanding of the principles of cognitive science and the core components of retrieval practices, we can revisit existing teaching strategies and design new ones to ensure they are hitting these markers. This means we can make adaptations that best suit the contexts we are applying it to, while also ensuring the effectiveness of the practice.

You may also be interested in reading:

EEF blog: Why bother with retrieval? | EEF (

EEF Blog: Does research on retrieval practice’ translate into… | EEF (

Agarwal, P., Nunes, L. & Blunt, J. (2021). Retrieval Practice Consistently Benefits Student Learning: a Systematic Review of Applied Research in Schools and Classrooms. Educational Psychology Review