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Regular Practice (Retrieval Practice)

The Early Career Framework states that teachers must learn that... Regular purposeful practice of what has previously been taught can help consolidate material and help pupils remember what they have learned.

This element of the ECF is referring us to Retrieval Practice. Retrieval practice boosts learning by pulling information out of students’ heads, rather than cramming information into students’ heads.

We tend to think that most learning occurs during the initial encoding stage–when students get information “in” by re-reading, reviewing, and taking notes. However, one of the most robust findings from 100+ years of cognitive science research is that a significant amount of learning occurs when students pull information “out” through retrieval practice.

Lots has been written about Retrieval Practice, in fact, there is a previous blog post on the topic which you can read here. As I don't believe in reinventing the wheel, this post aims to point you in the direction of the existing expertise out there on retrieval practice.

In his blog post "Retrieval Practice: The Rule of 3", #TeacherToolkit discusses that research advocates that retrieving information at least two, if not three, times will optimise performance. Research suggests that retrieval is the key process for understanding and for promoting learning. Understanding retrieval for teachers is essential for understanding learning. Retrieval is not just a neutral assessment of a learner’s knowledge, but the act of retrieval itself produces learning.

“If retrieval merely assessed the learning, then we would not expect to see much gained by increasing the number of repeated retrieval opportunities. Yet repeated retrieval produced large gains in long-term retention. Repeatedly retrieving words during initial learning, which amounted to only two or three extra retrievals in this experiment, produced about a 150 % improvement in long-term retention.”

The Learning Scientists have also written much about Retrieval Practice

#TeacherHead Tom Sherrington suggests the following key principles to embedding Retrieval Practice in the classroom in his blog post "10 Techniques for Retrieval Practice"

  1. Involve everyone: Good techniques involve all students checking their knowledge, not just a few and not just one at a time as you might do when questioning.

  2. Make checking accurate and easy: it should be possible for all students to find out what they got right and wrong, what they know well and where they have gaps. Every technique involves students testing their knowledge and then checking their work for accuracy and completeness. (This is not the same as giving students extended mark schemes to mark longer assessments which, for me goes beyond a simple retrieval practice activity)

  3. Specify the knowledge: Where appropriate, it’s better if students know the set of knowledge any retrieval will be based on, so they can study, prepare and self-check. It must be possible for students to check their own answers which has implications for the way the knowledge requirements are laid out.

  4. Keep it generative: students need to explore their memory to check what they know and understand; this means removing cue-cards, prompts, scaffolds and cheat-sheets; it means closing the books and thinking for themselves.

  5. Make it time efficient: The idea of each technique is that they can be used repeatedly in an efficient manner without dominating whole lessons.

  6. Make it workload efficient: None of these methods involve the teacher checking the students’ answers, creating unsustainable workload. A teacher might choose to check the occasional test but that’s no use for routine practice.

#KateJones is a leading expert on Retrieval Practice and she has written many books on the topic, she also has a collection of retrieval practice research and resources on her blog. She also appeared on #LDEduchat where she delivered an hour-long CPD on the topic. In this session, she shares some of the key ideas we can use to help improve memory retrieval.

Ways to use Retrieval Practice in the Classroom


This quick, low-maintenance strategy can be used at any time to have students recall information, then share it with a partner. You can use think-pair-shares with single-answer questions, or make them more open-ended, like “Think of one thing you learned yesterday about cells.” Be sure to have students think on their own before turning to a partner. “It’s important for students to retrieve individually as much as possible,” Agarwal advises. “If you jump right into pairs, then we all know as educators that some students are retrieving and some may not be.” One way to make sure all students retrieve is to have them jot responses down on paper before sharing them with a partner.

Low-Stakes Quizzes

These can be given on paper, in a Google Form, with an individual response system like clickers, Plickers, or Poll Everywhere; or by using a game like Kahoot or Quizziz. It’s important to note that these quizzes are a learning strategy: Ideally, students wouldn’t get scores on them at all, but if you must give some points, make them an almost negligible part of students’ overall class grade.

Brain Dumps

Have students get out a sheet of paper and, within a certain length of time, write down everything they know about a topic of study. This can be done at the beginning of a unit (similar to how you’d use a K-W-L Chart), partway through as a way to reinforce learning, or near the end of a unit. Once students have completed theirs, they can exchange them in a think-pair-share or use them to compile a whole-class brain dump. Then they can return to their texts to see what they missed or what needs correction.


These can be a powerful retrieval tool in class or at home, but students need to be taught to use them correctly:

  • Once a card has been mastered, keep it in the deck a while. Research has shown that students tend to “drop” cards out of their decks too soon after they have mastered them (Karpicke, 2009). Ideally, a fact should be successfully retrieved three times before a student moves on from it.

  • Actually retrieve - Karpicke’s research also found that when students see a familiar prompt on a flashcard, they have a tendency to tell themselves they know it, then flip it over to see the answer, rather than taking a few extra seconds to actually recall the answer—and ideally, say it out loud—before flipping the card over. The difference in timing is subtle, but important: Students will not get the same benefits from flashcards unless they actually retrieve the answer before seeing it.

  • Shuffle the deck - Keeping the cards in the same order makes them predictable. Once a deck has been gone through a few times, it should be shuffled to make it more challenging.

The Teaching and Learning Toolbox for Research Informed Education also has posted 20 Ideas for student led retrieval practice.


[Further reading recommendations are indicated with an asterisk.]

Adesope, O. O., Trevisan, D. A., & Sundararajan, N. (2017) Rethinking the Use of Tests: A Meta-Analysis of Practice Testing. Review of Educational Research, 87(3), 659–701. .

Agarwal, P. K., Finley, J. R., Rose, N. S., & Roediger, H. L. (2017) Benefits from retrieval practice are greater for students with lower working memory capacity. Memory, 25(6), 764–771. .

Allen, B. and Sims, S. (2018) The Teacher Gap. Abingdon: Routledge. Baddeley, A. (2003) Working memory: looking back and looking forward. Nature reviews neuroscience, 4(10), 829-839.

Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (2009) Developing the theory of formative assessment. Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability, 21(1), pp.5-31. Chi, M. T. (2009) Three types of conceptual change: Belief revision, mental model transformation, and categorical shift. In International handbook of research on conceptual change (pp. 89-110). Routledge.

Clark, R., Nguyen, F. & Sweller, J. (2006) Efficiency in Learning: Evidence-Based Guidelines to Manage Cognitive Load. John Wiley & Sons. Cowan, N. (2008) What are the differences between long-term, short-term, and working memory? Progress in brain research, 169, 323-338.

*Deans for Impact (2015) The Science of Learning [Online] Accessible from: . [retrieved 10 October 2018]. Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013) Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, Supplement, 14(1), 4–58. .

*Education Endowment Foundation (2018) Improving Secondary Science Guidance Report. [Online] Accessible from: [retrieved 10 October 2018]. 29

Gathercole, S., Lamont, E., & Alloway, T. (2006) Working memory in the classroom. Working memory and education, 219-240.

Hattie, J. (2012) Visible Learning for Teachers. Oxford: Routledge.

Kirschner, P., Sweller, J., Kirschner, F. & Zambrano, J. (2018) From cognitive load theory to collaborative cognitive load theory. In International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning, 13(2), 213-233.

Pachler, H., Bain, P. M., Bottge, B. A., Graesser, A., Koedinger, K., McDaniel, M., & Metcalfe, J. (2007) Organizing Instruction and Study to Improve Student Learning. US Department of Education.

Pan, S. C., & Rickard, T. C. (2018) Transfer of test-enhanced learning: Meta-analytic review and synthesis. Psychological Bulletin, 144(7), 710–756. .

Roediger, H. L., & Butler, A. C. (2011) The critical role of retrieval practice in long-term retention. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 15(1), 20–27. .

*Rosenshine, B. (2012) Principles of Instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know. American Educator, 12–20. .

Simonsmeier, B. A., Flaig, M., Deiglmayr, A., Schalk, L., & Well-being, S. (2018) Domain-Specific Prior Knowledge and Learning: A Meta-Analysis Prior Knowledge and Learning. Accessible from:

Sweller, J. (2016). Working Memory, Long-term Memory, and Instructional Design. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 5(4), 360–367. .

Willingham, D. T. (2009) Why don’t students like school? San Francisco, CA: JosseyBass. Wittwer, J., & Renkl, A. (2010) How Effective are Instructional Explanations in Example-Based Learning? A Meta-Analytic Review. Educational Psychology Review, 22(4), 393–409. .

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