What is retrieval practice, and why is it so important?

Let me tell you a story: I have a degree in both French and German, but due to the nature of the schools that I have recently worked in, I haven’t taught German for some years. In 2016, I found myself in a hotel in Berlin in a queue of people while desperately trying to drag the sentence ‘Please can I leave my suitcase here until 3 o’clock?’ from the back of my brain.  There were 4 people in front of me in the queue; I hoped, for the only time in my life, they would have long and detailed requests for the receptionist. You will be pleased to know that I did manage to come up with the appropriate sentence in German, albeit maybe not the most grammatically correct sentence, and I left my suitcase at the hotel and headed off to explore Berlin. 

Lovely though this story is, it does highlight the age-old adage of ‘use it or lose it’, and at its most basic, this is why retrieval practice is so important in the classroom.

The more regularly we retrieve information the stronger the memories become – which is why after my incident in Berlin, I now read and listen to podcasts in German more regularly, in addition to taking any opportunity to speak German, for fear of being unable to express a simple request in one of my favourite languages again. 


Solidifying Memories

The better we are at recalling knowledge, the better placed we are to explore new knowledge. Retrieval practice helps students learn through the process of recalling knowledge, in the most simplistic terms, by moving information from their short-term to long-term memory. Retrieval practice does help students to recall facts, but one of the notable findings of retrieval practice is that it also helps students to use the knowledge more flexibly in the future.

With all this in mind, how can we, as teachers, go about supporting our students as they attempt to get knowledge into their long-term memory, and how can you integrate the practice into your classroom? 

In truth, retrieval practice can take place at any time during a period of learning (which may not necessarily be a single lesson) however, in my classroom, retrieval practice tended to take place at the beginning of the lesson. The reason for this was twofold: 

  • Firstly, I got to check how much my students had remembered from the last lesson and from previous lessons. (It’s always useful to go further back in time and check learning from a month or so ago, too, as this helps strengthen memory and learning outcomes.) 
  • Secondly, it became part of my classroom routine. Students love routine; it keeps them settled and organised, which is great as a teacher as this helps with classroom discipline. Each lesson would start with a retrieval practice activity: a quiz in Socrative or an activity designed in Showbie. It made for a settled start to class and a perfect start to learning!

Activities that Support Retrieval Practice

There are many activities that teachers can use to support retrieval practice. The good news about most of these activities is that they are simple to plan and easy to use. When we talk about retrieval practice, we often think of testing, and testing is indeed one form of retrieval practice but just the word ‘test’ has negative connotations.

Thus, it is better to think of retrieval practice as a low-stakes activity, where quizzes might be a fun element or may not even be scored. Yet, these kinds of activities are just as powerful at supporting teaching and learning as a traditional test.

A firm favourite in my classroom was Socrative. Socrative is a quizzing app that enables teachers to easily quiz their students then simply and effectively see and understand where gaps in knowledge occur. Regular use of formative assessments in Socrative can help support student learning through retrieval practice. It can also be argued that short regular testing can also help to reduce student anxiety about testing, which is definitely a win-win!

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Socrative enables teachers to set a variety of questions in a number of engaging ways. Not only that, but multiple-choice questions can be weighted which, in terms of retrieval practice, is a huge boon as questions could be worth 0 points, meaning that the pressure that students sometimes feel when it comes to testing is avoided.

Identifying Knowledge Gaps

Results of tests are delivered in real-time to the teacher, and moreover, the results are formatted; green for correct and red for incorrect, so that you can see at a glance which students are answering correctly or indeed which questions students are struggling with.

Quiz Results

The results can then go on to inform future teaching and planning. But it’s not just the teacher that needs to know the results, it’s the students too, so it’s great to know that quiz results can be emailed directly to students upon completion. This enables students to reflect back on their learning whilst enabling them to understand where the gaps in their knowledge lie. 

If you use Socrative from within Showbie, launching a quiz and sharing results is even easier as students can join a quiz from directly within Showbie. Once a quiz is complete, individual student results can be shared within Showbie which means that both teachers and students can use the rich annotation tools to ensure that feedback is detailed and personalised. If that were not enough to whet your appetite, here at Showbie we know that sharing is caring, so you can reduce workload further by easily sharing quizzes with your colleagues simply by sharing the quiz code, making it easy to come up with a bank of retrieval practice quizzes per topic that anyone can use.

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Regular retrieval practice quizzes were commonplace in my classroom, they helped to build student confidence in their learning and understanding of my subject and they helped me to plan more relevant, informed lessons in order to help plug knowledge gaps and drive learning forward.

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Learning Specialist

As a trained languages teacher, Rachel developed her use of technology to support teaching and learning. With over 24 years of teaching experience, she has achieved Apple Distinguished Educator and Apple Professional Learning Specialist status.

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