Retrieval practice – 12 evidence-based strategies
By Robin Launder, firstname.lastname@example.org
For an explanation of the theory behind retrieval practice, click here. Otherwise, here are the 12 strategies. You’ll be familiar with most of them, but don’t let that familiarity fool you into thinking they’re not powerful, because they are. Very. Here’s the list:
A particularly effective question format is something called a PPPB. It stands for pose, pause, pounce and bounce. You POSE a question. You PAUSE for thinking time. That’s important because students need time to retrieve the information. On average, teachers give 0.7 seconds thinking time when they ask a question – if a student can answer that fast, that’s not retrieval, that’s automaticity. Not only that, once the correct answer has been said out loud, then that’s the end of the retrieval opportunity for all the other students. So, don’t be afraid to wait. Ten, twenty, thirty seconds – or longer if the complexity of the question requires it. Ignore any hands that shoot up. Give the students time to think.
Then you POUNCE – metaphorically, of course. In other words, you choose a student to answer. It doesn’t matter if the student is volunteering or not, because you’ve created a culture in your classroom where every student is expected to answer. It’s called ‘cold calling’ and it’s great for increasing student engagement. You see, because any student can be asked, it makes sense that every student thinks about the answer, just in case it’s them.
Some teachers don’t like cold calling. Their worry is that it will have a negative impact on the student’s self-esteem should the answer be incorrect. But hold on: we want high challenge and low or no stakes. It doesn’t matter if the student gets it wrong. In fact, it is completely fine if they do because getting something wrong is a necessary stage in the process of getting something right. As the great Yoda himself proclaimed, “The greatest teacher, failure is.”
Anyway, even if the student does get it wrong, that’s good because it leverages in something called the hypercorrection effect (Metcalfe 2016). In other words, a student will remember the answer better if they get it wrong than if they guessed it right in the first place – particularly if they were confident in their incorrect answer.
So, what do you do if they get it wrong? Well, you have choices. You could simply give the answer. That’s effective. Or offer some clues so that the answer can be found. Or you can go back a few steps and take the student along the journey to the right answer. Or you can BOUNCE the question to another student to answer. Once the correct answer is given, you then BOUNCE it back to the first student so that he or she can repeat the answer. And praise them for doing so.
In his fine book, Why Don’t Students Like School (2009) Daniel Willingham says that ‘memory is the residue of thought.’ It makes sense, then, that when we ask students questions, we want all of them thinking, all of them retrieving, all of them laying down those memory traces. PPPB makes this more likely.
Retrieval practice is based on something called the testing effect. Keep on testing yourself and retrieval improves. It’s nothing more complicated than that.
Now, tests have a reputation for high challenge (good) but also high stakes (bad). The very idea of a test can bring people out in a cold sweat. It triggers ideas of assessment and judgement – maybe even a wagging finger or a disappointing look. The night before a test can be sleepless; the hours after a test, fraught with worries of how well you’ve done. For many, a ‘test’ is the second nastiest word in the English language – the only one that’s nastier being ‘exam’.
So it’s important that students fully understand that when tests are being used as retrieval practice, there is no assessment or judgement. Yes, the tests are challenging, but they are like that to help them learn, not to access how much they’ve learnt. The goal is low stakes or no stakes. Framed that way, the students are more likely to feel free to get things wrong, and that’s vitally important because making mistakes is a fundamental part of the learning process.
One other thing: let’s not forget that tests are a reality of formal education. Summative tests wait for students at the end of every key stage. So, having lots of testing in your lessons (including questions from past papers) will help students get use to taking tests. Which means that when they get to their SATs or GCSEs or A Level exams, their stress levels will be much more manageable. This point links directly to memory because when we feel stressed, our memory is adversely affected.
Of course, a quick way to sidestep the negative connotations of a ‘test’ is not to call a test a test, but instead to call it a quiz. Students love quizzes. So have lots and lots of quizzes. In fact, make quizzes a part of your daily routine. Frame them positively and inject a bit of fun: “Ok, you lucky, lucky students, it’s time for our morning quiz. What a wonderful way to start the day!”
Include questions on what you did last lesson (that’s very important), but also include questions that loop back to previous lessons and topics. A strategy called ‘sevens’ works well. As you can probably guess, the strategy consists of seven questions. Questions 1, 2 and 3 are about what was covered last lesson; question 4, last week; question 5, last month; question 6, two months ago; and question 7, six months ago. Yep, it’s spaced retrieval. Of course, you can switch to ‘threes’ or ‘fives’ or ‘nines’ or … you get the idea. But whatever you do, have lots of quizzes, have them daily, and keep on looping back to earlier material.
Students can also create their own quizzes. They can self-test or get tested by their peers or parents. Quizzes can be created from their notes, from textbooks, study guides, knowledge organisers – the only criterion is that the original source is factually correct. Students can take a photo of their quiz and send it to their friends to do, and their friends can return the favour. Another photo showing the answers should also be sent – you always need the answers so you can see what it was you remembered and what it was you forgot.
There’s also another reason why you need the answers. We know that people learn from answering quizzes and tests. Now, if that person has given the wrong answer and it hasn’t been corrected, then there’s a good chance that they will encode that wrong answer – in fact, it will be more encoded than if the question hadn’t been asked in the first place. This is true for all types of questions, but particularly so for formats that set up an error option, like true/false questions and multiple choice. If the error option is chosen and it’s not corrected, the error gets stamped into long-term memory. But if it’s corrected right away, then this negative suggestion effect is no longer a problem.
Flashcards, as you know, have a question on one side and the answer on the other. Flashcards are either fact-based or concept-based:
Fact: when did Bucks Fizz win the Eurovision Song Contest?
Concept: music – vocal or instrumental sounds (or both) combined in such a way as to produce beauty of form, harmony and expression of emotion
Students can make the cards themselves or be given the cards. While there is some small encoding benefit to the former, it is so outweighed by the actual use of flashcards as a retrieval activity that it doesn’t really matter if they don’t make them themselves. But, either way, they can add more cards as the weeks go by. In fact, some teachers set aside time every week to do just that. The information on the flashcards can be words or pictures or both (don’t forget the power of dual coding – when you have the same information as both words and images, you have two ways of remembering that information later on).
A word of warning. Flashcards, like all retrieval activities, can hurt your brain a bit. They require mental energy. Finding the answer can be a real strain. And, of course, the answer is on the back of the card. Consequently, students might be tempted to turn over the card too soon. In fact, it turns out that that’s exactly what most (about 70%) do – see here). But they must not. Do that and they’ve retrieved nothing. So you need a rule, either ‘say it before you see it’ or ‘write it before you read it’. If they can’t do that, then they need to put the card to one side and return to it once they’ve gone through all the other cards. If they still can’t do it, then – and only then – can they turn over and take a look. Adding in this delay means that the students are more invested in finding out what the answer is. Which means, in turn, that the information will be more firmly encoded.
Another danger is that students stop testing themselves on the flashcard once they think they know it. And, of course, at that very moment, they do know it. But knowing something is not the same as having that thing encoded into long-term memory – let’s not forget Ebbinghaus’s forgetting curve (pun intended) and the rapidity of forgetfulness. So, students must keep on returning to those flashcards. The six-box strategy can help with this.
Students get six boxes, numbered and labelled like this:
Students put all their flashcards in box 1. They then take out their flashcards and work through them. If they get a card right, it goes into box 2. If they get it wrong, it goes back into box 1. The next day they take out all the cards from box 1 (the everyday box) and go through them. If they get a card right, it goes into box 2, if they get it wrong, it goes back into box 1. Then (because it is still the ‘next’ day) they go through the flashcards in box 2. If they get a card right, it goes into box 3, if they get it wrong, it goes back into box 1. Hence, every time a card is answered correctly, it graduates to the next box; every time it is answered incorrectly, it goes back to box 1, regardless of where it was in the sequence. This, of course, is an example of spaced retrieval.
Flashcards are great for learning factual information. But they can also be used for more conceptual information. Here’s how. Students make a pile of all the flashcards that are concept-based. They then make another pile of cards called ‘instruction cards’.
The instruction cards instruct the students to engage with the concept cards in a particular way. Here are some examples, many of them coming from this blog post:
- Describe a film/television programme or scene that depicts the concept
- Draw this concept (in one minute or less)
- Give a real-life example of this concept
- Pretend to explain this concept to a 5-year-old child
- What is the opposite of this concept?
- How is this concept connected to your life?
- What would happen to the world if this concept was removed?
- Why is knowledge of this concept useful to you?
- Give an argument why everyone in the world should know this concept
- Which groups of people might this concept be most important to?
- Come up with a new name (neologism) for this concept
- If you met someone who didn’t believe in this concept, what would you say to them to convince them that it is true?
One instruction card per concept card works well. Next time you do the activity, shuffle to get a different combination of cards.
One last thing: flashcards make great question cards for quizzes (the previous strategy) and games (the next strategy).
There’s no reason why games shouldn’t be used for retrieval practice. There are lots of familiar formats out there that can be used in this way. For instance:
Taboo – in this game a student has to guess a fact or concept. However, the person giving the clues is prohibited from using certain words – hence the game’s name, Taboo. Flashcards are perfect for this. The definition on the reverse of the flashcard becomes the taboo words (grammatical words like ‘and’ and ‘the’ are permitted). The game is difficult and fun in equal measure.
Just a Minute – like the Radio 4 game, students have to speak for one minute without hesitation, repetition or deviation on a given topic. A fourth criterion is that what they say must be factually correct. If the student fails in any of those areas, another student can challenge and then they take over and carry on speaking for the remainder of the minute.
Bingo – the bingo card is a sheet with boxes (3×3, 4×4, 5×5). The students number the boxes themselves (small, in the corner) so that each sheet is random. The teacher asks the questions and at the end of the game goes through the answers. The team that gets the first straight line across the whole card (horizontal, vertical or diagonal) wins. The second winner is the team that gets most answers right.
Snakes & Ladders – to go up the ladder the student has to get a question right, to stop going down the snake they have to get three questions right.
Pictionary – students draw the information and other students have to guess it. Pictionary also has dual coding benefits.
The Generation Game – students are shown items on a ‘conveyor belt’ (which in a classroom can be images or information on a PowerPoint slide). They then have 45 seconds to remember as many of those items as possible. For nostalgia sake, throw in an image of a cuddly toy.
One last thing about games. As with all activities, you want a high ratio of student engagement, so be careful about team sizes. Some of the games work best as a whole class activity but with students working on their own (e.g. The Generation Game). Some work best as pairs (e.g. Snakes & Ladders). And some work best as small groups (e.g. Just a Minute). As a rule, the smaller the team size, the better because that means there’s more opportunity for everyone to get involved. For Pictionary, you can have small groups or you can divide the class into two big teams.
On a blank piece of paper students list everything that they can remember about a lesson or a topic in, say, 3 minutes. They then compare their list with their partner’s list to see what they remembered and what they forgot. Pairs can then share with a second pair or the students can refer to their own notes or source material. Or the teacher goes through the list. You can start your lesson with this activity, and then repeat the activity at the end of the lesson, for yet more retrieval practice.
The list activity can be scaffolded if necessary (e.g. clues and trigger questions); over time, the scaffold can be removed to increase challenge.
Lists can be in list form (a column of information) or they can be incorporated into a graphic organiser.
7. Graphic organisers
A graphic organiser is way of organising information graphically, that is, using words and images to show relationships. So, for instance, instead of getting the students to list, say, the factors that led to the start of the First World War, you get them to retrieve that information and put it into a timeline:
Other graphic organisers include mind maps, cause and effect sequences, continuums, cross-continuums and Venn-diagrams. Graphic organisers can also incorporate arrows, bracketing devices, colours, diagrams and line drawings. By using graphic organisers, students are not only retrieving information, they are also finding connections and relationships within the information. So both retention and understanding are enhanced.
You can pick up a fantastic and free graphic organiser poster here (and lots of other great resources), all from the wonderful Oliver Caviglioli.
8. Knowledge organisers
A knowledge organiser sets out the key facts and information about a topic on a single page, typically A4 or A3. Here’s one on apartheid in South Africa:
A knowledge organiser is not something that students create or do, but rather something that is given to them by the teacher, ideally right at the beginning of the topic. While it’s not a retrieval activity in itself, it’s a great resource for retrieval because it’s got all the key details. Hence, it’s great for tests – self-tests, or tests from peers, parents or the teacher.
Knowledge organisers can also be used with the next retrieval activity: look, cover, write, check.
9. Look, cover, write, check
This strategy has been around for years. It’s frequently used to help students learn their spelings spelllings sppelings spellings. The student looks at the word (i.e. studies it); covers the word so they can’t see it; writes it down (i.e. retrieves it); and then checks to see if they’ve got it right. If they’ve got it wrong, they do it again until they’ve got it right.
It’s neat and simple. It’s also versatile because it can be used for all information, not just spellings, and that includes the information in a knowledge organiser. For example, the students study a section of the knowledge organiser. They then cover that section with a bit of paper. They then write down exactly – exactly! – what’s written under the paper. Finally, they check to see what they’ve remembered and what they’ve forgotten. Over time, the ‘look’ and ‘cover’ stages can be skipped, so the students just write and check.
10. Fill in the blanks
A cloze exercise is an example of ‘fill in the blanks’. Or, to put it another way, ‘A _________ exercise is an example of ‘fill in the blanks’.
It’s another neat, simple and versatile activity. Again, it can be used with knowledge organisers. For example, parts of a knowledge organiser are left blank (four examples below). The students fill in the blanks and then they check to see how well they’ve done.
Eventually – and just think for a moment about the power of this! – the students could be given an entirely blank knowledge organiser to fill in. Now, if they can do that, then they definitely know the material.
You ask the students a question. The students think about their answer. They then turn to their partner and explain their answer. For example:
Write down as many things as you can remember about Lady Macbeth from yesterday’s lesson. Support your answer with retrieved references from the text. Two minutes. As always, no talking. Start … now!
Writing helps the students to focus. It also helps you see who’s working and who’s not working. A time element is useful because it creates a sense of urgency, a need to get the work done. It also communicates that time in your lesson is a precious commodity that needs to be used to the full.
At the end of the allotted thinking time (and be an exact timekeeper) students share their responses. If only one answer is required (say, the students have to explain a mathematical process), don’t tell students who’ll be doing the explaining. That way, they’ll both engage with the initial retrieval and thinking.
One way to designate who’s who in the pairs is to use As and Bs. A better way, though, is an idea that Doug Lemov details in his wonderful book, Teach Like a Champion 2.0. One of the students will be sitting closer to the window than the wall. So you say, “window to wall … go” and the one sitting nearer to the window does the explaining. Or you say “wall to window” and the student sitting nearer to the wall does the explaining. Or wall to door. Or door to wall. You get the idea. The student not doing the explanation listens carefully to see if they can spot any missed information or steps.
12. Use an App
A great app for learning your times table is Times Table Rock Stars (often shortened to TT Rock Stars) – in fact, the UK’s very own Secondary of State for Education, The Right Honourable Damian Hinds MP, says his own three children use it. And my own nephew, Isaac, is also a regular user and, frankly, he’s embarrassingly good. Here’s a fabulous twitter clip of a Year 4 boy who’s not even the best in the school – WOW!
Ankiapp is a flashcard app. You can use it to make your own flashcards, or you can download one of 80+ million pre-made flashcards. It’s a great teacher and student resource, though it takes a while to get your head around what to do.
A completely free app is Name the Nations. My wife and I now know the name and location of every country in the world. And we’re not competitive about it, either. No, hasn’t caused any arguments. Not one.
Apps are fun. You always have them with you. They’re great for filling in a few spare minutes: back of the bus, waiting for a friend, during a boring programme on TV, and, um, on the loo. And they give you instant feedback. You either get it right or you get it wrong, and you find out right away. Apps also show you how well you’re doing over time – that’s good because increased mastery is motivational. They also tell you what you need to do to achieve the next level/cup/medal/ribbon/award/tick/star – and that’s also motivational.
They’re also good for another reason. The app, not the user, takes control of the scheduling. We often overestimate our own abilities. We think we know something when we don’t and that we’ll remember something when we won’t. Consequently, we tend not to test ourselves enough. The app doesn’t share our ego biases or metacognition deficits, so is much more objective (and consequently much more helpful) in its scheduling.
Ok, so I now know what I should do. Any strategies to avoid?
As this study shows, re-reading and highlighting have low utility. In other words, they’re a bit rubbish. Highlighting is fine if you want to find something again, but other than it’s not worth bothering with. In fact, it might even contribute to the illusion of learning. All those highlighted words give the impression that you’ve done an enormous amount of work, but learning takes a lot more effort than a quick stroke of a pen – even if that pen gives a beautiful shade of pink/yellow/purple/green/sky blue.
Any other strategies to avoid?
Yes, study groups. Now, I don’t have any research evidence for this one. This is personal anecdote, from my own experience as a teacher. The problem with study groups, as I see it, is that often they’ve got nothing to do with studying. Study groups are, in fact, social groups. As social groups, they work brilliantly, but as a way of getting information firmly encoded into long-term memory, they’re awful. If a student really, really, really, really, really wants to be a part of a study group, then the first thing that needs to happen is a name change. Stop calling them study groups, instead call them testing groups. At least then there’s a chance, slim maybe, that some retrieval practice will take place. And if not, well, it’s good to socialise.
So, there you have. Twelve retrieval practices and a couple to avoid. Feel free to share.
The above 12 strategies are taken from another blog post that I wrote. If you thought this one was long, the other one is even longer. It contains the 12 strategies and gives an explanation of the theory behind retrieval practice. You can find it here. It also contains all the references.