: Effective retrieval in the classroom. Are we considering its impact on cognitive load? Effective retrieval in the classroom. Are we considering its impact on cognitive load?

Effective retrieval in the classroom. Are we considering its impact on cognitive load?

Effective retrieval in the classroom. Are we considering its impact on cognitive load?

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Andy Barker

Tutor for A Level Sociology and ECT Induction Tutor

Read more aboutAndy Barker

In this blog, Andy Barker, Tutor for A Level Sociology and Early career Teacher Induction Tutor at Oldham Sixth Form College, exemplifies the evidence around retrieval practice and cognitive load theory and discusses the potential lethal mutations if we oversimplify these concepts in the classroom.

Retrieval practice is now embedded in education pedagogy forming parts of the ITT/ECT framework. Both new and experienced teachers seem confident in the importance and impact of effective retrieval practice when understanding how students learn and through their early practice, teachers learn how to use retrieval and spaced practice to build automatic recall and application of key knowledge’. Initial Teacher Training and Early Career Framework, 2024.

As retrieval has become commonplace, especially in the sixth-form setting, we need to consider what effective retrieval practice looks like in the classroom and how it may conflict with students’ working memory. The two are closely linked as set out by the Educational Endowment Foundation poster on the relationship between retrieval and cognitive load theory. If we look below the surface, strategies such as interleaving and retrieval practice are based on key memory processes as well as Cognitive Load Theory’.

In my practice observing and working with a range of teachers, particularly during their ECT years, it’s clear we have adopted a consensus of what retrieval looks like in the classroom. Retrieval practices are more often just opportunities to show what students already know about previously learnt content with little regard to its relationship to new knowledge acquisition. All too often, students are asked to recall masses of information at the start of the lesson before new information is taught.

Common practices include:

  • A starter activity with questions on previous knowledge. This tends to be questions retrieving knowledge’ from a previous lesson with little regard to its relevance to the current lesson.
  • Large knowledge dumps’ of past topics. This may be related to the lesson but the amount of content retrieved fills the student’s working memory.
  • A retrieval scheme of work’ which follows the main scheme of work. This could be teachers routinely retrieving knowledge three weeks after teaching the content.

The above practice takes an oversimplified approach to retrieval that can overload student’s working memory. This is especially so in the post-16 context when the demands of students are high. Rachael Cattrall addresses the relationship between retrieval and cognitive load theory in her blog for the EEF asking if we are running too fast with retrieval. She states it would be shallow to see retrieval practice as simply occasional quizzes or cold call questions. This is just the tip of the iceberg. Below the surface sits an extensive theory of memory and cognitive load’. Professor Rob Coe also addresses the issue in his blog, Does retrieval practice’ translate into classroom practice’, 2019. He looks deeper into the research that underpins retrieval practice warning, If our advice is just to incorporate quizzing without support to build these capabilities, then it may well not work’. As teachers, we need to be more aware of the relationship between retrieval and working memory and consider how the strain that ineffective retrieval practices can have on the student’s cognitive load.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • Is the retrieval activity meaningful and purposeful- is it relevant to the lesson and helping students with their understanding of new knowledge?
  • What is the impact on cognitive load? Have you considered your student’s working memory and left space’ for new knowledge?
  • Has higher level thinking taken place? Are you asking students to recall knowledge to show understanding or are your students thinking hard about how previous knowledge helps them understand new knowledge?

Classroom exemplification

How I have changed my practice as a result of these considerations

I have found that effective retrieval practices tend to be more subtle and carefully thought out than we may first assume and I have found myself guilty of not considering working memory when retrieving knowledge. During a recent Marxist lesson on crime to my second-year A Level students, I spent 20 minutes of the lesson recalling the Marxist view of the family and the education system from their first year. After retrieving a wide range of key terms and even covering some exam skills with the students, I attempted to teach the Marxist view of crime.

Upon reflection and considering the student’s working memory I made the following changes:

1) My initial retrieval activity was simplified to check prior understanding of the key principles of Marxism, not previous topics. This avoided cognitive overload and helped challenge any misconceptions that could prevent the teaching of new knowledge.

2) I carefully considered how previous topics link. Rather than recalling all key concepts, I challenged students to see the relationship. For example, when considering how capitalism causes crime, my students recalled related concepts found in the family section.

3) I focused on skills as part of my retrieval practices. When students evaluated the usefulness of Marxism, we considered how other theories have been critical of the Marxist approach in education and family topics.

My journey toward more effective retrieval practice has taught me the importance of simplicity and relevance. Through careful reflection, I learned to tailor my retrieval activities to focus on key principles rather than overwhelming students with extensive content recall. The impact of these changes was obvious. The focus was on the new knowledge that students needed to learn and I left space in the students working memory to teach these skills. Retrieval practices allowed me to teach this knowledge and build on students’ prior understanding.

By shifting my perspective on retrieval, I created a classroom environment that fosters meaningful learning without overtaxing students’ working memory.

Top Tips for Effective Retrieval Practice in the Classroom

  1. Keep retrieval activities simple, focused and relevant: Design retrieval activities that target key concepts or principles. Avoid overwhelming students with excessive content recall and ensure retrieval questions or exercises are relevant to the lesson topic, helping students connect prior knowledge to new content.
  2. Consider cognitive load: Be mindful of students’ working memory limits. Allow space for new information without overloading them with large knowledge dumps.”
  3. Use retrieval to address misconceptions: Use retrieval activities to identify and correct any misunderstandings before introducing new material.
  4. Encourage hard thinking: Design retrieval tasks that require students to engage in deeper thinking and making connections, not just recalling facts.
  5. Involve students in the language of learning: Explain concepts like retrieval practice and cognitive load to students to enable them to use these skills independently in their own learning.

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