Nothing new, just a review Part 2: From good to great: How to improve retrieval practice.


A few months ago, I wrote a blog post called “Why I Killed My Starters”, in which I explained my reasons for moving from whizzbangy opening activities to low stakes quizzes which draw on content from previous lessons. The post, which was featured on TeacherTapp (thanks for that!), quickly became one of my most read.

The school and MAT I now work for is, hearteningly, ahead of me; all lessons already begin with short tests. Teachers are skilled at planning these and pupils now accept and appreciate them as helpful and necessary parts of teaching-learning sequences.

Such an approach is of course already very familiar to teachers both today and in the past. Cognitive psychology offers compelling and convincing explanations for why generations of teachers have found retrieval practice effective. Very briefly, we now know that the effortful retrieval of previously covered content re-enforces memories, so building and then strengthening schemas. These strong schemas then make it easier for pupils to learn new material, because we learn by integrating what is new with what we already understand; this is why pupils with an in depth understanding of the French Revolution will almost certainly find it easier to access the 1917 Communist Revolution in Russia than those who’ve never encountered rapid political upheaval before.

Graham Nuthall’s seminal “The Hidden Lives of Learners” offers further support for regular retrieval practice, with his work in New Zealand suggesting that in order for a pupil to have really learned something they need to encounter it a number (he says three) times. Retrieval practice, planned properly and thoughtfully, provides pupils with more opportunities to encounter previously covered material and increases the probability that they will remember what they have been taught.

But, while I’d go as far as to say that any retrieval practice is almost always better than none at all, some examples are more effective than others. As with any teaching technique or strategy, retrieval practise can be done well and it can be done poorly.

In this post I’d like to explain what I think makes retrieval practice most effective in history, and the bear-traps that can limit its impact.

  1. Plan retrieval quizzes to test the most important elements

When I first began planning retrieval quizzes the content I tested was often drawn pretty randomly from the curriculum. This was because while I knew I wanted my pupils to remember what they’d been taught I hadn’t given enough thought to what the most important elements were. This meant that, for example, while the pupils in one of my Y8 classes came out of a unit on the Industrial Revolution with an embedded understanding that railways made fish and chips a popular food in inland cities, they did not remember the reasons national government was largely uninterested in improving working and living conditions in them anywhere near as well. The danger of this scattergun approach is creating gaps in knowledge that then makes the introduction of new material more difficult.

To avoid my mistake it is important to spend time thinking about the curriculum and identifying key elements of knowledge, and then planning quizzes that test and reinforce these. Sometimes this will be obvious and relatively intuitive, but at other times deeper thought is required. A good example of this is the death of Harold at the Battle of Hastings; while popular history and culture may suggest that Harold supposedly being killed by an arrow in the eye is the most important aspect of this story, tempting teachers to test this, in actual fact feigned flight is almost certainly a historically more important piece of knowledge to embed.

Those seeking to go further may even want to keep a record of these key concepts and ideas and when they are taught and revisited through retrieval practise or other tasks in order to ensure that pupils are exposed to them enough times to learn them properly.

  1. Plan retrieval practice to link to the content of the lesson.

Accepting cognitive psychology and the work of thinkers such as D T Willingham and E D Hirsch means accepting that learning happens when new material is incorporated into existing schemata. This means that if we are to use retrieval practise most effectively the quizzes and tasks we plan should be informed by the new material we plan to teach, because this will make the formation of new links more straightforward and obvious. For example, if we are to teach a lesson on the causes of World War Two, it would probably be sensible to write a retrieval quiz that incorporates the causes of previously covered wars rather than, say, symbolism in Tudor portraits.

  1. Test the disciplinary as well as the substantive.

Very often when I’ve planned retrieval practice in the past I think I have not devoted sufficient attention to disciplinary knowledge. There is no reason why, so long as concepts have been modelled and explicitly taught before (as of course they should have been), pupils should not practise beginning an essay, incorporating evidence into an argument or refuting a statement. This might result in a task in which pupils are asked to “write the opening sentence to the following essay question”, or “improve this sentence by introducing evidence that support it.” Such an approach is likely to result in more fluent, confident writing and help move pupils beyond generic and limiting writing frames such as PEE, which I had a good old moan about in this post.

  1. Vary the style of retrieval practice. 

Questions in my early attempts at retrieval practice invariably followed exactly the same structure, being short, closed questions requiring one or two word answers. This approach has, of course, lots of advantages; such tasks are quick to plan and easy for pupils to self-assess. While I still use this form of task more often than any other, influenced by the reading on dual-coding and the advantages of presenting information in more than one style, I’ve now introduced greater variation. Multiple choice questions, labelling of maps and diagrams and even short sketching tasks (e. g quickly draw and label the Tudor Rose) all demand that pupils recall previously covered material and might have the added advantage of further strengthening knowledge because variation may require more effortful retrieval.

  1. Use retrieval practise tasks as prompts for further explanation.

Short observations of and chats with other history teachers have made me pretty sure most of us naturally do this already. Simply barking out answers at the end of a quiz and then moving straight on to the next task is to miss an opportunity. It is far better to provide explanation and context, which gives meaning and significance to retrieved knowledge. For example, rather than just saying “Fish and Chips” when giving an answer to a question on foods that became available in industrial cities, it would be far better to say something along the lines of “The answer is fish and chips, because the new railways were able to move perishable products such as seafood quickly before they went bad. This was especially important as widespread refrigeration and industrialised freezing had not yet been developed.” This approach builds a bridge between assessment and teaching.

I am sure there are good suggestions beyond the five I’ve made here, and I’d really like to hear from anyone who has ideas about making retrieval practice more effective. I really do think it is important we have such discussions if, as has happened so many times before, we are to avoid the sort of checklist thinking that has turned so many great ideas into fossils of themselves.


9 thoughts on “Nothing new, just a review Part 2: From good to great: How to improve retrieval practice.

  1. brian says:

    This is all solid, relaible stuff and it describes what most of us do day in day out.

    I have to disagree with one small part though….and that is your aversion to PEE (or EEP or EPE). I find it immesely useful for learners to understand the structure of knowledge which for me aids the process of autodidaxy. I also think it useful for learners to directly link the nature of English grammar which after all has been developed to describe knowledge of the world.

    PEE for me is a starting point but is always present in some form, a bit like the basic stock when making various types of soups.

    I hope you and your family are doing OK. Keep safe


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