Retrieval practice has become ubiquitous in schools because it is easy to implement, and the outcomes are easy to observe and measure. As a teacher educator I am lucky enough to visit classrooms in many different schools and retrieval practice strategies are far more evident than they used to be. Often used as a settler activity at the start of the lesson, a retrieval practice activity might be called a ‘Can do task’ or ‘5-a-day’. The students are quizzed on topics they were taught last lesson, last week and last term. The actual activity can vary but there are some schools where every lesson must begin with some sort of retrieval practice activity. I will explore the issues with this approach later on.
There are benefits to retrieval practice. Retrieval helps bring to mind what has been taught (Weinstein et al., 2019) and if the teacher carefully chooses the questions based on what they gauge in the classroom and by marking students’ work, they can attempt to address gaps in knowledge or reinforce those tricky topics that often come with misconceptions.
Retrieval practice is also important because ‘the mechanics of memory have a huge impact on learning’ (Hendrick and MacPherson, 2017). Without prior knowledge it is difficult to integrate new information. As a learner becomes more familiar with a topic it is organised into a schema. A schema is a description of how knowledge is arranged in the mind – as a learner becomes more familiar with a topic, the organisation of the schema becomes more orderly and accessible. An organised schema is what separates novices from experts who can demonstrate a deeper understanding of their subject matter (National Research Council, 2000). Retrieval practice, therefore, gives the learner the knowledge to successfully communicate ideas, concepts and informed opinions using what they have learned before.
During retrieval practice, the learner pays attention to the questions put to them by the teacher, holding the information in the working memory (WM). Simultaneously, the WM accesses the relevant schema in long term memory (LTM). An expert with an organised schema can access the relevant information from their LTM quickly and this will aid problem-solving. A novice with a poorly organised schema will find it harder to remember information, so exposing the learner to topics multiple times can strengthen the retrieval process. Hence, the aim of retrieval practice is to move the relevant information into the long-term memory. This is also desirable because the WM has a limited capacity whilst the LTM is seen to be infinite. Accessing the information from the LTM reduces the demand on the WM and therefore supports the learning process.
The evidence for retrieval practice is quite compelling and supports the new GCSE examination structure with terminal exams at the end of Year 11. I can see why it is popular in schools. Retrieval practice can be seen as a low-resource activity. But does this translate into success in the classroom? I am not entirely convinced.
The literature on retrieval practice potentially overly simplifies the learning process and does not take into account 30 learners being in the classroom. Retrieval practice does draw a learner’s attention to something we would like them to learn, but we have to recognise, as Descartes wrote about in the 1600s that ‘…we have different ways of directing our thoughts and do not take into account the same things.’ (cited in Mercier and Sperber 2018). Learners might only engage with the activity at a superficial level, especially if they have to do a ‘Can do task’ 5 times a day, 5 days a week. I have certainly heard groans at the start of some lessons as the ‘Can do task’ appears on the board.
It is also not likely that the storage and retrieval of memories works as seamlessly as simplified models of the mind suggests. Bjork and Bjork (1992) identify some ‘important peculiarities of the human memory system’ and describe recall from memory as ‘erratic, highly fallible and heavily cue dependant’. Information that is readily available on one day might prove elusive on another. Factors like environmental cues and the emotional state of the learner can have an effect on their ability to bring something to mind. Sitting in a chaotic classroom environment is not going to support retrieval practice and neither is coming to school hungry.
I have also observed retrieval practice activities that are designed to last 5 minutes but in reality, take 20 minutes. This is usually due to a miscalculation by the teacher about the difficulty of the questions, or, as mentioned before, the learners being unable to recall the material on that particular day. While it might demonstrate a gap in student knowledge, a retrieval practice activity should have a time limit because in a packed curriculum this is time lost from teaching new material. Conversely, sometimes the questions are so easy that it might give a false impression to the teacher and the students that learning has been successful. In an observation this can give the sense that learning has taken place but might have little value to the teacher and give the students a false impression that they are learning.
It is also important to remember that retrieval practice is something that is done after the teaching has occurred. The main challenge for the teacher is to make something understandable, to clarify and expand an idea and to show how facts and concepts are connected (Tharby, 2019). I would argue that teachers find this much harder to do well than a retrieval practice exercise. It requires a teacher to have a good grasp of their subject and I would hope that schools spend more of their CPD time on this as opposed to designing retrieval practice activities. It is often tempting for schools to focus on ‘easy wins’ such as retrieval practice, and it does have a place in the classroom. But we have to embrace the complexity of teaching a wide range of different subjects. Provide teachers with high-quality, subject-specific training that supports subject development and subject-specific pedagogy. We cannot reduce learning to retrieval practice, and we have to remember that our models of learning might not seamlessly translate from theory to practice in the classroom.
Bjork RA and Bjork EL (1992) A new theory of disuse and an old theory of stimulus fluctuation. In: Healy A, Kosslyn S and Shiffrin R (eds) From Learning Processes to Cognitive Processes: Essays in Honor of William K. Estes. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, pp. 35–67. bjorklab.psych.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/13/2016/07/RBjork_EBjork_1992.pdf (accessed 23.10.19)
Hendrick C and MacPherson R (2017) What Does This Look Like in the Classroom. Melton. John Catt Publications.
Mercier H and Sperber D (2018) The Enigma of Reason. A New Theory of Human Understanding. London; New York: Penguin Books.
National Research Council (2000) How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi.org/10.17226/9853. (accessed 8.1.20)
Tharby A (2018) How To Explain Absolutely Anything To Absolutely Anyone. The Art and Science of Teacher Explanation. Crown House Publishing. Carmarthen, Wales.
Weinstein Y, Sumeracki M and Caviglioli O (2019) Understanding How We Learn. A Visual Guide. Oxford. Routledge.