Guest Blog: Retrieval practice - A common good or just commonplace?

Jade Pearce is an Economics and Business Studies teacher, as well as an AHT and ‘Evidence lead in Education’ (ELE). She is also a part of the EEF’s Expert Voices Group.

Retrieval practice – the process of recalling previously learnt material from our long-term memory –has become common practice in schools in recent years.

Consistent research has shown that retrieval practice can benefit pupils’ learning. The recently published EEF report (link) on Cognitive Science has examined the evidence underpinning retrieval practice, highlighting its potential to support pupil learning.

Yet it seems that not all retrieval practice strategies are created equal. The report found that there are four key elements which determine its effectiveness of in the classroom.

1. Get the level of difficulty right

Firstly, the level of difficulty has to be appropriate. According to the review, pupils should be able to access the content they are quizzed about. However, in a blog for the EEF, Professor Rob Coe states that if retrieval questions or tasks are too easy, they may not generate the challenge required to improve pupils’ memory and subsequent understanding.

This can be overcome by using questions or tasks of varying difficulty. In order to achieve this, teachers could consider the complexity of the material and the length of time they leave between teaching a certain concept and asking their pupils to recall what they have learnt. The longer the delay between the initial learning and the subsequent recall, the more difficult retrieval is likely to be for children. In my classroom, I view the retrieval task as a starting point, using questioning to extend learning and increase challenge, by asking pupils to explain and expand on their initial answers

2. Pay attention to higher-order thinking

Retrieval practice typically focuses on factual recall more than higher-order thinking- according to the EEF review. Popular methods with a focus on eliciting factual recall include multiple choice questions, short answer fact questions, true/false questions, recitation of quotes and facts, and creating lists.

A recent study by Pooja Agarwal found that if retrieval practice prioritises recalling factual content, it is only pupils’ ability to remember these facts that will be improved. As such, retrieval practice is likely to have less of an impact on outcomes if assessments require pupils to complete more complex tasks such as analysing, evaluating and explaining.

If teachers are keen to improve their pupils’ ability to answer higher-order questions, retrieval practice could include providing factual statements for pupils to expand upon, including questions or tasks that require pupils to explain, analyse and evaluate.

I have also found ‘because, but, so’ questions(where pupils are required to complete three sentences ending in ‘because’, ‘but’ and ‘so’ – borrowed from the popular book, ‘The Writing Revolution’) prompt that deeper thinking to explore and elaborate upon information once they have been able to retrieve it. 

3. Addressing misconceptions

One of the main benefits of retrieval practice is that it can highlight misconceptions or content that has not been committed to pupils’ long-term memories, which can then be addressed by the teacher.

For this to happen, the review highlights the need to deliver feedback which clarifies the correct answers in a way that encourages pupils to fully process and commit them to memory (rather, for example, than correct answers just being displayed on the board). This does not have to be too time consuming – a simple class discussion whilst pupils record correct answers can be effective to this end.

4. Steer self-directed study

Finally, the review suggested that retrieval practice should be used to make pupils aware of gaps in their memory, thereby supporting self-study. This can be achieved through setting tasks that require pupils to assess or rate their own learning as they complete retrieval practice(pupils’ RAG rating their progress is a common example of this).

Pupils can also be asked to identify the knowledge that they found more difficult to retrieve and use this to form the basis of their independent study. I have found that using a simple grid where pupils record the content they have struggled with and later, the independent work they have completed to address this, can work well.

Thanks to emerging evidence of retrieval practice applied in classrooms as synthesised in the EEF review, our understanding of retrieval practice is growing. With some careful engagement with the evidence, we can make sure that this strategy is purposeful in improving outcomes for pupils.