Research School Network: Memory, retrieval practice and the ​‘FF’ in Maths Via consistent retrieval practice, students have strengthened their comprehension and confidence in a range of maths concepts.


Memory, retrieval practice and the ​‘FF’ in Maths

Via consistent retrieval practice, students have strengthened their comprehension and confidence in a range of maths concepts.

by Billesley Research School
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Teacher at Billesley Primary School, Emily Atkinson, looks at how retrieval practices in Maths have reified pupil understanding.

One of the fundamental principles of teaching is to support students’ memory retention. This links to success, not just in exams, but through successfully applying taught principles across the curriculum.

The most carefully planned, bespoke lesson will only be impactful if the skills and knowledge taught are retained and retrieved by students in future learning. The retrieval of prior knowledge is not an innate skill but must be supported and developed through a student’s time in education. This is supported by research from the EEF (2021), which states that:

Cognitive science informs us that memory has a strength’, referring both to how easily something can be recalled and how deeply information is embedded. When content is studied and recalled, both types of memory strength increase, meaning that information is more easily accessible and that this accessibility is more durable.

In a similar way to how a muscle is trained through practice, memory and retention can also be trained through rigorous practice. That’s why teaching with retrieval practices already embedded within the lesson’s framework can support student learning without creating unnecessary additional workloads for teachers. An excellent example of these practices embedded in an existing lesson framework is using the Fantastic Four (FF) in maths at Billesley Primary.

FF is an opportunity for students to consistently practise previously taught skills within the mathematics curriculum throughout the week. At the start of each maths lesson, students will complete four questions on four topics they have previously been taught. No new content is introduced within the FF and the questions are divided into three categories, Students are guided on which questions to complete at the start of the year. As the year continues, students can be given the opportunity to self-regulate their choice of questions with scaffolded guidance from their teacher.

One of the benefits of FF is it allows teachers to regularly review which content students will need to revisit from prior topics. For example, many students in my class struggled with the concept of squared numbers’ and often assumed the operation required a multiplication by 2. Including squared number questions in the FF throughout the following term supported continual recall and practice, leading more learners to succeed in answering these questions in the end-of-term assessment. Despite struggling in the original lessons, I was particularly impressed with several of my students’ success on squared number questions, a success I’d credit to their continued practice through the FF’s recall structure.

Another benefit of FF is that it provides opportunities for modelled practice. After students self-mark their answers, I will regularly model one of two questions to the class. This also allows me to model a range of topics, with quick misconception corrections, over the course of the week. Sometimes, one of two extra examples of how to complete a particular question type is all students would need to recall their prior learning.

To summarise:

It is thought that by testing for knowledge of previously learnt content, retrieval practice encourages pupils to strengthen their memory of key concepts.

(EEF, 2021)

Through consistent retrieval practice in mathematics, students in my class have strengthened their comprehension and confidence in a range of mathematical concepts. This use of Fantastic Four is something I will continue to observe in future years, as well as looking to embed a range of other recall practices in my lessons.


EEF (2021): Cognitive science approaches in the classroom: a review of the evidence

Available at:

EEF (2018): Metacognition and Self-regulated Learning

Available at:

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