Retrieval Practice: An Introduction from Alex Fairlamb.

A Fairlamb

The forgetting curve is a well-known and much cited part of pedagogy.  To learn once, you are likely to forget the information, but to recall and reinforce that information ensures that this new knowledge is embedded in the long, rather than short, term memory. 

Image result for forgetting curve


At a time when practitioners are becoming increasingly interested in cognitive science and evidence informed an area of interest has understandably been retrieval practice (since 2010 there has been a marked increase in papers exploring the impact of retrieval practice).  Retrieval practice, become a core component of a teacher’s repertoire of strategies and a key component of curriculum design. 

Why do it?

  • Retrieval practice makes learning effortful and challenging.  Having to actually recall the and write down an answer to a flashcard improves learning more than thinking that you know the answer and flipping the card over prematurely.  Through the act of practicing what we know and recalling information – it is much more effective than re-reading, taking notes or listening to lectures.’ (Agarwal et al, 2018)
  • Ten benefits of retrieval practice identified by Roediger, Putnam and Smith (2011)
  • Aids later retention – ‘Retrieval practice occurring during tests can greatly enhance retention of the retrieved information (relative to no testing or even restudying).   Furthermore, besides it’s durability, such repeated retrieval produces knowledge that can be retrieved flexibly and transferred to other situations.
  • Identifies gaps in knowledge
  • Causes students to learn more from the next study episode
  • Produces better organisation of knowledge
  • Improves transfer of knowledge to new contexts
  • Facilitate retrieval of material that was not tested
  • Improves metacognitive monitoring
  • Prevents interference from prior material when learning new material
  • Provides feedback to instructors
  • Encourages students to study.

How do we include it?

Tom Sherrington (@teacherhead) outlines a series of key ways to interweave retrieval practice into the curriculum.  I was fortunate enough to attend training delivered by Tom at Framwellgate School, thanks to the kind invitation of Andy Byers (@Framheadteacher).  Tom argues that practitioner’s must create a culture of retrieval within their classroom and schools, incorporating it either daily, weekly or monthly.  Below, I have summarised his suggestions from both his blog and the training.

Some key strategies from Tom as to how to implement it include:

‘Include everyone’ (Sherrington, 2019)
Avoid doing hands up and selecting one or two students to provide the answer to the recall questions.  This only lets you know that two students have recalled the information.  What about the rest?  Tom advises cold calling – getting the students to discuss their prior knowledge in a think, pair format then cold calling.  An alternative strategy he suggests is to think, pair then follow with students writing responses on mini whiteboards and have them hold them up. This was we can assess who has recalled it, misconceptions and where additional support may need to be given. 

Accuracy and gap check ease.
It should be possible for all students to find out what they got right and wrong, what they know well, and where the gaps are’ (Sherrington, 2019).  Tom also argues that this is key for student motivation and commitment because they begin to think ‘If I read the stuff, I can be successful in the quiz’ – they see immediate impact and their confidence is reinforced.  He then highlights how this then allows for deeper questions ensue.
Taking it further.
Tom used two fantastic terms, ‘elaborative questioning’ and ‘evaluative interrogation’.  He argues that to recall knowledge is one element of retrieval practice, but then this knowledge must be drawn out and extended through questioning.  This allows for the foundational knowledge to be recalled, then elaborated upon.  Asking other students to extend the responses given, or apply knowledge in different contexts, supports schema development.  Asking them why they think that is the answer, or how they knew it, ensures that they articulate their knowledge and enables teachers to understand the extent of knowledge that has been learned.
Workload efficient.
A term that is like a chorus of angels to teachers.  Tom highights the dangers of setting tests that are lengthy and therefore are too difficult for a practitioner to mark and keep track of.  This limits the impact.  Far better are retrieval strategies that can be marked quickly, feedback given, and the outcomes of the retrieval used to inform future planning (common misconceptions that need correcting etc.)  The EEF recommends digital technology to do this e.g. GoogleDoc quizzes.

What different strategies can we use?

Within this, Tom Sherrington highlights that pair, shares should occur at the start.

  • Verbal questioning (student answers on a whiteboard/mini whiteboard, R/A/G cards), cold calling)
  • Entrance tickets (instead of upon exit, they complete upon entrance so that the teacher can identify recall and misconceptions at the start)
  • Quizzes on paper or online (e.g. Quizlet, GoogleDocs, Seneca) – The first example I have put below is where students must recall the key information to define the differing people and events.  I wanted them to improve their provenance skills when evaluating the value of sources and this was the strategy that I’m using.  Recall, R/A/G the answer/confidence, then improve using the knowledge organisers that they had revised from.  Students then must apply this to a five minute essay plan, to encourage them to plan before diving into their extended essays.  The define, R/A/G, improve was taken from Andrew Sweeting and then I added the essay part so they would elaborate on their knowledge and reinforce good essay writing practice.  The second example is taken from a strategy that Kate Jones with a points based quiz.  I use this strategy regularly in lessons, and at the end of modules – with higher points awarded to the recall of knowledge from earlier in the module. 
  • Images for recall (images on the board / dual coding symbols used – students then have to recall information related to that image/dual code)
  • Mind map from memory (I do this quite often with essays e.g. October 1917 causes – students have to mind map the various reasons with 5-7 pieces of supporting evidence)
  • Summarising key information (wordle, bullet point lists, mini-grid)

Example: Knowledge retrieval test (original idea by Andrew Sweet) followed by application of the knowledge to an essay plan to take forward (my idea).


Agarwal, P. K., Bain, P. M., & Chamberlain, R. W. (2012). The value of applied research: Retrieval practice improves classroom learning and recommendations from a teacher, a principal, and a scientist. Educational Psychology Review, 24, 437-448, cited from

[accessed on 4.12.19]

Sherrington, Tom (2019). 10 Techniques for Retrieval Practice, [accessed on 4.12.19]

Roediger, H and Smith, M, (2011)  ‘Ten benefits of Testing and Their Applications to Educational Practice’, Psychology of Learning, Vol 55, pg. 1-36 (Science Direct)

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