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Using digital collaboration to translate retrieval practice into classroom practice

9 min read
John Paul Mynott, School of Education, University of Aberdeen, UK
Audrey Buchanan, Quality Improvement Officer, Moray Council, UK
Pilar Arqued, Primary Teacher, Aberdeen City, UK
Dougie Beck, Principal Teacher (Primary), Highlands Council, UK
Andrew Boulind, Headteacher, Aberdeenshire Council, UK
Colin Carswell, Teacher, Argyll and Bute Council, UK
Jo Clark, Principal Teacher (Primary), Argyll and Bute Council, UK
Fiona Lindsay, Teacher, Aberdeenshire Council, UK
Jim McLean, Education Support Officer, Aberdeenshire Council, UK
Angela Pearson, Deputy Headteacher, Aberdeen City, UK
Tom Webster, Digital Deputy Headteacher, e-Sgoil, UK
Kim Winchester, Primary Teacher, Aberdeen City, UK


During the COVID-19 pandemic, the ways in which teachers worked in Scotland changed dramatically, with school closures and lessons and collegial meetings moving online. The Northern Alliance is one of Scotland’s Regional Improvement Collaboratives (RICs) and, due to the scale of the geographical area encompassing Argyll and Bute and the Comhairle Eilean Siar (Western Isles) in the west, the Highlands, Moray, Orkney and Shetland in the north and Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire in the north-east, digital working has been an essential element of its collaboration since its creation. Yet the transition of the wider community of teachers to online modes of working also meant a shift in focus for the professional development work that could be undertaken during the years of the pandemic. This paper focuses on a case study of a digital group of teachers from across Scotland, working with the Northern Alliance and the University of Aberdeen, to explore retrieval practice through digital methods during and immediately after school closures in Scotland. 


Retrieval practice

Teachers are likely to have been using elements of retrieval practice throughout their careers, calling this formative assessment (Wiliam, 2018) or assessment for learning (Clarke, 2014). Yet understanding these practices as retrieval practice and using the label consciously are more recent developments. In this study, we applied the broad definition of retrieval practice used by Weinstein et al. (2019), as the focus of the group was to consider how retrieval practices could be used in different classrooms. Weinstein et al. (2019) suggest that retrieval is anything that brings forward from the learner’s long-term memory previously studied information. This might be achieved through a conversation, a quiz or exam, a drawing or a question (Weinstein et al., 2019). Jones (2021) provides an elaboration of some key practices of retrieval in her practitioner guide on Leahy et al.’s (2005) five notions of formative assessment. Wiliam (2018) also provides suggestions about how teachers can use retrieval practice in their teaching to help pupils to learn and to reveal what pupils know or need to study further. We used this literature, along with blogs by Smith (2017), to consider the different ways in which we could implement retrieval practice in our teaching. 

Digital collaborations

Knowledge about digital collaboration in educational settings has rapidly developed because of the pandemic. Fishman et al. (2013) suggested that digital collaborations would be similar to in-person collaborations. This suggestion conflicts with emerging themes from digital collaborations. Unlike in-person collaborations, technical quality, connectivity and access to devices and tools (Joubert et al., 2020; Soto et al., 2019) all impact digital collaborations. 

Digital collaborations benefit from:

  • versatile facilitation (Goei et al., 2021) from a skilled facilitator
  • participant access to the same digital tools (software/platforms) and documents (Hrastinski, 2021; Joubert et al., 2020)
  • simultaneous reviewing (Soto et al., 2019) to enhance how collaborating participants work.


Drawing on this emerging knowledge base, the digital collaboration described used a digital platform (GLOW), which is accessible to all Scottish teachers and facilitators to support the process and thinking within the collaboration, as well as a joint digital outcome, using a digital book-making platform to support collaborative work from afar. 

Case study

In the autumn of 2021, a group of Scottish teachers worked with two facilitators from the Northern Alliance and University of Aberdeen respectively, to continue a digital collaboration project exploring digital methods of retrieval practice. The original group had started their collaboration in January 2021 when Scottish schools had been in a second lockdown closure and all school activities undertaken by the participants were online. During this initial period, the group held several meetings with the Northern Alliance on the theme ‘Curriculum delivery through digital innovation’, which gave them opportunities to explore and discuss interleaving, spaced practice and questioning. 

The participants (all authors of this paper) represented primary, secondary, rural, urban, English- and Gaelic-medium instruction, along with online settings, which together make up the diverse educational landscape of modern Scotland. The participants had a variety of teaching experiences, and the focus of the group was never to generalise ideas but to explore and consider ideas from literature from within practice and discuss these as a group. 

Throughout the autumn and winter of 2021/2022 the participants met six times to discuss retrieval practice. These meetings can be described as two phases. Phase 1 was an exploration of ideas from literature, relating them to practice and trialling out ideas in different contexts. Phase 2 focused on the outcomes of Phase 1 and a desire to share something accessible and practice-centred with other teachers. 

Phase 1

Phase 1 started with initial sharing and facilitation of some reading on novel questions (Wiliam, 2018; Jones, 2021) and an exploration of the breadth of what retrieval practice could be. The University of Aberdeen facilitator supported the content of these sessions, but much of the discussion came from linking these ideas with the prior facilitation and discussion that the group had had with the Northern Alliance. The group was encouraged to bring forward their own thinking and the discussion was organic but enabled all participants to consider their own thinking, exemplify ideas that they had tried out and have discussions about what worked well and what worked less well. A multitude of different retrieval practice approaches were used and discussed, such as brain dumps, concept mapping, novel questions and quizzing. 

Phase 2

During Phase 2, the participants collated their thinking from Phase 1 into pages for a digital book on retrieval practice. They chose an approach that they felt they could confidently share their learning on, and discussed what was important to share with other teachers. Key considerations were access, how much time it would take and how another teacher could pick up this practice in their own context. Discussions around practicality and usefulness were central to the group’s decisions about what their finished book would look like. 

During Phase 2, different participants shared their experience of using digital books. This helped the whole group to access and use the digital tools needed. Example pages were made and discussed and then all the participants worked on their final submissions, creating a book that was published and shared openly. The book proved to be a popular resource and was promoted by the book platform, as well as the participants of the collaboration. 

Evaluation of case study

Working digitally does not need to be a barrier to collaborative professional learning. This case study shows how a group of participants who are geographically distant were able to learn, work and develop something collaboratively that enhanced their own professional learning and supported the professional learning of teachers beyond the initial collaboration. 

There were some key elements that supported this collaboration. These were expertise sharing, joint digital tools and facilitation. 

Expertise sharing

Expertise in collaborations can be difficult to balance. Amador and Carter (2016) suggest that facilitators and more experienced colleagues in collaborations need to ensure that they do not dominate discussion spaces. Due to the structure of the collaboration, all participants were sharing their expertise. In both phases, the focus was on drawing from everyone’s expertise. Facilitators linked to their own thinking and provided spaces to ensure that all participants were able to bring forward their expertise after trying out the retrieval ideas in practice. In Phase 2, participants had more knowledge of how to use the digital book platform than either facilitator. This expertise was prioritised, and participants and facilitators developed their knowledge of this platform together. What was crucial in the expertise sharing was that it was not just practice- or theory-based; literature was considered in relation to practice, and trials in practice were considered in relation to the literature with which the participants had engaged. Building on the literature around retrieval practice gave the group the chance to rediscover theory and apply this to their enquiry work. This helped the group to move towards evaluative thinking, rather than simply a description of their work (Amador and Carter, 2016). 

Joint digital tools

While the collaboration focused on using digital methods, it is the use of a digital tool in the form of Book Creator that was helpful in giving the collaboration a joint space in which to work. Using the digital book enabled the group to see what they had learnt, as they chose the approaches about which they wanted to write, and it also gave them a place to explore how those ideas should look. These were two important parts of the professional learning for the group, as they needed to think not only about their own learning, but also about how this could be made useful to someone else who might not have the same opportunity to work in collaboration with others to explore retrieval practice. Using the digital book enabled a discussion about how much information should be included, how long the video content should be and what wider links needed to be included for teachers who wanted to explore more about a given topic. 


There were multiple types of facilitation in this project: 

  • The Northern Alliance facilitated the logistics of meetings and provided a virtual place in which to meet.
  • The University of Aberdeen initially facilitated discussion, with prompts from retrieval practice literature. In the later meetings, the focus shifted to giving a space for everyone to bring forward ideas for further consideration.
  • Other members of the group facilitated the digital book links, accessing and maintaining the digital book and providing opportunities to share the group’s work with wider audiences.


All of these challenges the perspective that the facilitator is the person charged with facilitating everything. What this group did effectively was to enable each other to facilitate, playing to their strengths, supporting the whole group and delivering the digital book as a record of their learning. 

Summary (recommendations and solutions) 

There is a lot that can be learnt about digital collaborations. But this case demonstrates that participants who are not near each other and work in different settings can work together effectively to learn about retrieval practice, explore this within their own practice and produce something representing their learning that is useful to others. 

We created the conditions for collaboration through commitment to coming together around a common goal and collective purpose. Relationships were developed over time through using digital tools to create a virtual learning space, exchanging information and maintaining contact. These digital tools – Teams, email and Twitter – allowed trust to be developed over time, as well as the opportunity to learn each other’s expertise. Rather than a hierarchy, roles and responsibilities naturally evolved through clear structures, such as virtual meetings, emails and Twitter discussions. 

This collaborative group was dynamic and interested in the subject of retrieval practice, and their professional learning was supported by ensuring that expertise was shared, drawn from actual classroom practice and discussed. It was the discussion that was facilitated by the wider group. Yet facilitation is not just the responsibility of the facilitators; different participants should be able to facilitate when they are able to lead on aspects of the specific discussion in question. Encouraging curiosity rather than judgement and giving everyone a voice, through forming a community of learning as belonging (Wenger, 2009), ensured an honest discussion. Both expertise sharing and facilitation are also supported by effective use of joint digital tools. This suggests that those differences emerging in the digital collaboration literature discussed above were important to this collaborative group and should be considered as part of digital professional learning moving forward. 

Our digital book can be viewed at:

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