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Research School Network: Retrieval Practice – some messages from the research This article explores the key messages from the research around retrieval practice, from the Washington University in St Louis


Retrieval Practice – some messages from the research

This article explores the key messages from the research around retrieval practice, from the Washington University in St Louis

by Durrington Research School
on the

There is a great deal of very strong evidence that retrieval practice is an essential part of the learning process. Retrieval practice is the process of calling information to mind that you have been previously exposed to. By doing this, our memory for that information is strengthened and forgetting is less likely to occur. Not only is retrieval practice highly effective, but it’s also very easy for teachers to implement – without the need for a huge amount of planning time, class time, financial cost or technology. With this in mind, it needs to be an established part of our day to day teaching.

In 2013 Washington University in St. Louis published a very useful paper, How to Use Retrieval Practice to Improve Learning’ (Agarwai, Roediger, McDaniel & McDermott) – available here. This highly readable paper pulls out some of the key messages from the research about retrieval practice, that are essential in order to ensure it’s successful implementation. This article picks out some of these messages.

- Teachers don’t need to change their teaching style. Retrieval practice can be completely separate from your teaching, meaning that retrieval practice can be a stand alone activity e.g. start the lesson with three questions from last lesson, three from last week and three from last month.

- The more difficult the retrieval practice, the better it is for long term learning. So retrieval will be far less effective if students are allowed to look the answer up in their book.

- It doesn’t need to add extra time to your teaching. Swap less effective activities with retrieval practice strategies.

- You don’t need to change your curriculum, textbook or resources. Use your classroom materials to support retrieval practice questions.

- Retrieval practice is most effective when all students are expected to engage with it – not just the individual students you direct questions at.

- Don’t get hung up on the best time in a lesson to do retrieval practice, or how often to do it. Try to do it as much as possible and space it out – that really makes a difference. What does seem to matter though, is that it should not be done on information that was covered in that lesson. It should be from previous lessons.

- Retrieval practice reduces test anxiety in students (67% decrease reported by students, as they are more used to the process of retrieval.

- Students need feedback on their retrieval, so they know what they know or don’t know! When this feedback is more elaborate e.g. why they might have got it wrong, this appears to be even more beneficial.

- Research suggests using a variety of different questions. In real classrooms, the retrieval benefit from short answer vs. multiple choice quizzes appears to be similar.

- Homework is a great opportunity to retrieval, but again should focus on information covered in previous lessons. The difficulty with this is that you can’t control the conditions they do the retrieval in e.g. they should definitely not look back through their books for the answers!

- Retrieval practice should not be given a grade – it’s a learning stratgey not an assessment tool.

By using retrieval practice as a learning strategy (not an assessment tool), we strengthen our memory. Research demonstrates that this improvement in memory and long-term learning is flexible, which:

- Improves students’ complex thinking and application skills

- Improves students’ organization of knowledge

- Improves students’ transfer of knowledge to new concepts

In other words, retrieval practice doesn’t just lead to memorization – it increases understanding. Because students have a better understanding of classroom material by having practiced using this information, students can adapt their knowledge to new situations, novel questions, and related contexts.

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