Research School Network: The Evidence Behind Retrieval Practice: Unpacking the Research Dr Niki Kaiser takes a closer look at the evidence behind retrieval practice.

The Evidence Behind Retrieval Practice: Unpacking the Research

Dr Niki Kaiser takes a closer look at the evidence behind retrieval practice.

by Norfolk Research School
on the

Retrieval practice has become a prevalent strategy in UK classrooms, supported by its growing reputation in the educational landscape. But what does the evidence really say about its effectiveness and widespread use? A decade ago, the term retrieval practice” was unfamiliar to most teachers, yet today, it’s a fast becoming a cornerstone of teaching. Advocates often cite cognitive science research as validation, but is the evidence comprehensive enough for its application in such a diverse range of school contexts?

What do we mean by applied research?

Cognitive science encompasses two categories: basic and applied. Basic cognitive science seeks to uncover fundamental principles of learning and memory, typically through controlled experiments, which can then be applied more broadly. In contrast, applied cognitive science employs these insights to address practical problems, though its scope is more limited and the outcomes less positive compared to basic science.

Where does the evidence for retrieval practice come from?

A significant proportion of the evidence supporting retrieval practice hails from basic cognitive science research, frequently involving university students in short-term studies. While these studies showcased the promise of retrieval practice in theory, real-world school research is somewhat more scarce.

The EEF’s Cognitive Science review https://educationendowmentfoun…) examined only school-based studies, focusing on those that required students to recall information from memory, rather than simply revisiting or restudying it. The findings revealed that when compared to re-studying, quizzing generally had a positive impact, although the results were quite varied, including some negative outcomes. It’s also worth noting that many of these studies were conducted by researchers rather than classroom teachers, covering a limited age range and a narrow range of subjects.

How does the research align with everyday practice?

The EEF’s review focused on research conducted in school settings, rather than controlled lab environments. However, even within classrooms, some conditions remained far from typical practice, so in a follow-up analysis, Tom Perry, the review’s author, added three criteria to bring studies closer to the reality of everyday practice:

. The intervention should span three weeks or more.

. Regular classroom teachers should deliver the intervention.

. Each study should include 100 or more pupils.

Despite retrieval practice boasting one of the most robust evidence bases in both basic and applied sciences, when Perry applied these more stringent criteria, none of the studies on retrieval practice met the requirements.

Should we stop doing retrieval practice?

Given the limited research that faithfully reflects the diverse classrooms, subjects, and contexts where retrieval practice is currently applied, should we reconsider its use? Questions remain about when to use it, how much time to allocate to it, and its effectiveness in more complex learning (beyond basic factual recall). Additionally, we need to consider just how challenging retrieval questions should be – if students struggle to retrieve information in the first place, will it still enhance memory strength?

However, the EEF review, despite its limitations, suggests that retrieval practice remains a valuable approach due to its strong theoretical foundation and cost-effectiveness. As Perry aptly notes, The (plausible) assumption is that, as the basic science is strong and the findings relate to fundamental principles of learning and memory, they should be applicable everywhere.” In essence, the absence of evidence across applied contexts might not be a cause for concern, but rather a challenge to navigate the practical aspects.

How should we use retrieval practice?

As teachers, we should approach retrieval practice, like any pedagogical approach, with thoughtfulness and a focus on evaluation. While research provides valuable insights, we are the experts in our classrooms and subjects. Thus, we should customise and adapt these methods to meet the specific needs of our subjects and the individuals we teach. The same applies to retrieval practice – harnessing its potential while acknowledging its limitations.

Retrieval practice remains a potent tool with a solid theoretical foundation. Despite the limitations in applied research, it retains its status as a valuable strategy in education. As teachers, we should embrace retrieval practice, while maintaining a discerning and adaptable approach, so we can ensure it caters for the unique requirements of our classrooms and individual students.

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