Research School Network: Retrieval Practice: a Good Use of Time? Is there an opportunity cost to retrieval practice?


Retrieval Practice: a Good Use of Time?

Is there an opportunity cost to retrieval practice?

by Bradford Research School
on the

Mark Miller is Director of Bradford Research School

Professor Rob Coe poses 3 possible challenges to the effectiveness of retrieval practice in this EEF blog.

  • Teachers might generate retrieval questions that focus solely on factual recall (these questions are easier to generate) rather than requiring any higher-order thinking. 
  • Questions might be too easy and boost confidence without providing real challenge, which is likely to be a key ingredient for generating the kind of learning hoped for.
  • Teachers might allocate too much time to the quizzes, effectively losing the time they need to cover new material.

We’ve previously covered higher-order thinking and challenge. In this blog, we’ll look at the final proposition, and ask: is retrieval practice a good use of time?

Retrieval is learning

Retrieval might be perceived as an alternative to covering new material, but it should be seen as an important part of the process. If we don’t retrieve, we will likely forget a portion of what has been learnt. Therefore there is an argument that learning time has been wasted if we never revisit that knowledge. And what is the point of covering’ new material if it is destined to be forgotten?

Second, connecting new knowledge to prior knowledge is the best way to make it stick. Without that prior knowledge, we don’t have what Daniel Willingham would call a toehold’ on understanding the new material. In the first blog of this series, we explained the way we can elaborate on material as part of retrieval. When we do this, we are building schemas, those webs of interconnected knowledge.

Because a student’s schema of any subject or topic will grow and change over time, when we revisit any knowledge that we have previously encountered, we revisit it in an entirely different context. We know many more things, our schemas are far more developed, and we have far more connections to make with other knowledge. Not only do all of these new connections provide a more fertile ground for the material we revisit to stick, but they also fundamentally change that knowledge, because it can connect to more recently learnt information in different ways.

So when we design a curriculum well, we are not merely retrieving things we have learnt in the past, but we are building on them, making links, understanding them in ever deeper and richer ways.

Retrieval happens in different ways at different times

Another way to reframe the time question of retrieval versus instruction is to avoid this idea that retrieval should only happen at a certain time in a lesson. For example, a retrieval Do Now, as you find in many schools, can be a simple, routine way to start lessons. But if we are not careful, this can send the signal that retrieval practice should only happen then. We’ve done retrieval – now on to the learning.’ Retrieval can take lots of different forms in the classroom beyond a quiz at the start of the lesson. And time outside of lessons can be used to focus on retrieval.

As the EEF say in their Cognitive Science Approaches in the Classroom evidence review, It should be noted that quizzing has other potential benefits beyond encouraging students to retrieve information. For example, testing might identify gaps in knowledge and where students erroneously retrieve wrong answers, feedback might be used to support learning and help students overcome misconceptions.’ So retrieval can become a formative assessment strategy too.

And finally, retrieval isn’t the only way to revisit information. On balance, retrieval is most effective, but not always most appropriate. Teachers can elaborate and connect to previous content in lots of different ways, they can reteach it, students can re-read it. These are not ineffective strategies.

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