In recent years, cognitive scientists have provided teachers with insights into ways of helping students to remember learning. Driven by the work of Willingham (2009), Mccrea (2017) and Brown et al. (2014), we have developed our pedagogy and curriculum to teach memorably and make learning stick. At the heart of our approach is retrieval practice. Retrieval practice involves deliberately recalling knowledge from memory to enhance learning. Each time a memory is retrieved, it is strengthened and less likely to be forgotten.
Reformed linear assessments place huge demands on students’ ability to retain a large body of knowledge over a long period of time. In recognition of this, we set out to equip teachers and students with empirically supported strategies informed by The study of the human mind, such as the processes of though..., aimed at improving long-term retention. The drive to improve knowledge retention was aligned with our developing commitment to a knowledge-rich curriculum, where key concepts are secured, revisited and built upon. Embedding retrieval became a whole-school priority. CPD sessions were used to bridge the gap between research and practice by presenting a model of memory and the principles underlying retrieval practice. Although examples of retrieval in the classroom were provided, a specific approach was not mandated. Instead, individuals and departments were given time to experiment and innovate with retrieval practice to develop a repertoire of strategies. Staff engaged overwhelmingly positively with CPD on retrieval, which initiated a self-perpetuating cycle of professional development, characterised by ‘creative excitement’. The conversation about retrieval was truly alive and was sustained through CPD forums, briefing slots, blogs and reading recommendations. The value placed on retrieval was also reflected in our quality assurance procedures, and lesson observations were used as an opportunity to seek out and share great retrieval work.
Retrieval in practice
Strategies developed and embedded by teachers across the school included:
- regular low-stakes quizzing, including retrieval starters
- completing existing activities as ‘closed-book’ tasks
- retrieval homework tasks, e.g. constructing a mind map on a past topic from memory
- modelling retrieval-based revision activities, e.g. writing quiz questions on a sticky note stuck over text to encourage self-quizzing rather than re-reading
- a plethora of verbal questioning in lessons specifically aimed at recall
- encouraging students to make links between new and prior learning.
The range of retrieval opportunities are united and signposted through the use of a school-wide pedagogy board symbol designated for retrieval. Regularly engaging students in retrieval-based tasks in and out of lessons means that they are habitually pulling previously learned material to mind. In so doing, knowledge becomes more durably stored and more easily accessible. Retrieval starters have been a particular success, with staff reporting seeing benefits in terms of both knowledge retention and student motivation. A retrieval routine makes the start of every lesson calm, productive and powerful. Teachers also report having used retrieval starters to activate prior knowledge relevant to the lesson and making synoptic links between topics.
Teachers model effective learning strategies and a common language has developed to facilitate discussions about memory. Assemblies, blog posts, displays and parent communication have all been used to share the message with the entire school community. Students have been supported in their independent use of retrieval, with templates to guide retrieval practice shared as part of our ‘Revision Revolution’. Being overt about our use of retrieval has helped students to recognise it as an important step in the learning process. Students take retrieval just as seriously as we do.
Our curriculum is designed to be remembered
Once the principles had been embedded into everyday pedagogy, we began to look at how the curriculum infrastructure could be used to add rigour to retrieval. Defining knowledge through the use of knowledge organisers and retrieval question banks has forced us to reflect on the most powerful knowledge that we want students to remember. Sequencing topics and planning in spaced review has helped us to structure our curriculum to support long-term retention. Assessments are also being designed to be more synoptic, requiring retrieval from previous topics. Thinking about how students will remember learning, from first teaching through to revision, has become an essential component of our curriculum planning. In the words of Sherrington (2018, p. 19):
“A good knowledge-rich curriculum embraces ideas from cognitive science about memory, forgetting and the power of retrieval practice. Our curriculum is not simply a set of encounters from which children form ad hoc memories; it is designed to be remembered in detail – to be stored in our students’ long-term memories so that they can later build on it, forming ever wider and deeper schemas.”
Looking back, it is hard to believe that long-term memory was so neglected. The benefits of teaching for long-term retention extend far beyond improved exam results. As students’ ability to remember previously learned information increases, so does their ability to access new learning experiences. Successful recall is not an endpoint but a springboard for subsequent learning and for higher-order thinking. Teachers have fed back that by embedding retrieval they have noticed an improvement in students’ confidence, particularly in lower sets. The success experienced upon retrieving a fact correctly provides the motivation to embrace new learning, reinforcing engagement. Empowering students with effective learning strategies improves student agency, and they are regularly observed to be engaging in retrieval independently. Gradually, the concept of revision is becoming indistinguishable from learning; it happens all the time. When we accept the inevitability of forgetting and we teach with retention of learning at the heart of our pedagogy and curriculum, every lesson becomes more powerful.
This journey has been a case study in translating research into the classroom and transforming it into something tangible, practicable and flexible. By empowering staff with principles from cognitive science and facilitating the transformation of theory into practice, teachers have bought into retrieval in a meaningful way. Retrieval practice has inspired enthusiasm, creativity and ownership, which is what CPD should aim to do. Walking into every classroom and seeing a variety of strategies underpinned by the principle of retrieval is powerful and unifying.
Brown PC, Roediger III HL and McDaniel MA (2014) Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. London: Harvard University Press.
Mccrea P (2017) Memorable Teaching. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
Sherrington T (2018) What is a ‘knowledge-rich’ curriculum? Impact 4: 18–20.
Willingham DT (2009) Why Don’t Students Like School? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.