Module: Retrieval Practice

Welcome to the professional learning module on retrieval practice. We hope you find it helpful and informative, and send us any feedback you might have. For the full list of the modules and explanation of how they work, please see here.

This module has been reviewed by Pooja Agarwal

This course will outline the history of retrieval practice, the theory behind it and its application in the classroom. At the end of the course we will ask you to complete a short written task, so you may want to take notes as you progress through the course. You can use this optional virtual notepad to help you engage with the texts.

  1. What is retrieval practice?

Read this study by cognitive scientists Roediger and Karpicke. Questions which you can use to frame your thinking about the study:

  • Why did the researchers complete two different experiments? What conclusions could the second experiment offer that the first one could not?
  • What is an “educationally relevant” context, and why is it important to conduct studies on “educationally relevant” materials?
  • Participants in the majority “study” conditions outperformed participants in the majority “test” conditions in the short term, but not in the long term. What ramifications does that have in the classroom?
  • Is student cramming effective? If it is effective in the short term, how can we convince students that it is not in the long term?
  • In the conclusion, the researchers cite studies from the Bjorks about long and short term difficulties. Summarise those findings and explain how they relate to retrieval practice.

2. How do students practise?

Most students do not tend to use effective learning strategies. Read the introduction to this study on the topic by Dunlosky et al. Also read the closing remarks from page 44 until the end. It is recommended that you study the section on retrieval practice in detail, and choose two others to study similarly. 

Questions which you can use to frame your thinking about the study:

  • Out of the list of 10 strategies, which ones do you think your students use the most outside of class?
  • Out of the list of 10 strategies, which ones do you think you use most in your day to day practice?
  • Draw a sketch graph with effect along the x-axis and ease of student implementation on the y-axis. The “goldilocks zone” would be high effect and high ease. Map each of the ten strategies on your graph.
  • Which ones are in the teacher’s control? How could teachers change what they do in order to make high effect strategies easier to use? (section 7 below will provide more ideas on this)
  • Out of the two strategies you chose to read further, what surprised you the most?
  • Under which, if any, circumstances is that strategy most effective?
  • Should teachers ever use strategies that we know are less effective?

3. Spacing

Research shows that spacing retrieval over time increases its power. Efrat Furst has written a description of the evidence behind this and potential mechanisms to explain its effect here, and you should start by reading that. Read this blog by teacher Damian Benney looking at how he researched how large the spacing gaps in-between sessions of retrieval should be. Questions which you can use to frame your thinking about the blog:

  • To what extent are teachers in control of the size of the retrieval gap?
  • What are the advantages of using a routinized system like Benney’s to map all instances of retrieval across a year?
  • What are the disadvantages of the above?
  • “Lagging” homeworks and assessments are vital in implementing spacing. Which opportunities could you take to better embed spacing in your teaching?

4. Feedback

How should teachers give feedback after retrieval practice? Read the section relating to feedback in this large research summary by Roediger and Karpicke. Questions which you can use to frame your thinking about the blog:

  • For what kinds of task is feedback most appropriate?
  • In the absence of feedback, can learning still occur?
  • What are the dangers of not giving feedback?
  • When should feedback take place?

5. Anxiety

Exams are high-stakes environments that can impair our students’ performance. This study designed an experiment to establish whether or not retrieval practice protected participants from the impairments of a high-stakes assessment. Questions which you can use to frame your thinking about the blog:

  • Outline the design of the experiment and the four groups within the study
  • How was stress induced in the participants?
  • To what extent is that stress similar to the stress involved in high-stakes assessments?
  • How could these findings affect your practice as well as your recommendations to students?

6. Transfer

Transfer is the “holy grail” of education: giving students the ability to apply their knowledge to unfamiliar situations. Read Steven Pan and Pooja Agarwal’s booklet on the topic. Questions which you can use to frame your thinking about the blog:

  • Give an example of near transfer in the science classroom. In the past, how have you prepared students for such situations?
  • Give an example of far transfer in the science classroom. In the past, how have you prepared students for such situations?
  • How can retrieval practice be used to promote transfer?
  • Which approaches are less effective for promoting transfer?
  • What modifications can you make to your practice in order to better prepare your students for transfer?

7. In the classroom

Download a copy of the retrieval roulette for your specialism. See also this list of resources of teachers applying retrieval in their classrooms. At the bottom of the page are a number of resources you can use to promote and increase the amount of retrieval practice your students engage in.

Round-up and takehomes

  • Retrieval practice is the most effective method to increase your students’ ability to use information in future
  • Retrieval opportunities should be spread out over time
  • Students should always receive specific and precise feedback following retrieval
  • There are a number of ways to embed retrieval practice into your lessons, and there are many resources available to support you with this
  • Encouraging your students to do retrieval practice is not enough. You must provide them with clear and simple routes to doing so

8. End of module task

As with all modules, there is a task at the end. This task should serve not only to consolidate the work you have done throughout the module, but is also a way for other teachers to see how you have applied and used the things you have learnt. We would like to publish your task when you are finished, but if you would rather that we didn’t then please just let us know when you submit it.

Please choose a task from the below and send it to cogscisci@gmail.com:

  • Retrieval overview: write a blog or poster to be used by other teachers to quickly learn more about retrieval practice
  • Student resource: write a document aimed at students and parents to promote retrieval practice by the suggestion of some simple resources and routines
  • Teacher resource: design a resource for teachers to use when implementing retrieval in their classroom
  • What I’ve done: write a blog article about your experiences of retrieval practice and how you have implemented it in your classroom
  • Pushing it further: what kinds of topics have you used retrieval practice for? In which circumstances have you had more or less relative success? Write a blog outlining your findings.

If you have any feedback for the CogSciSci team on this course or anything else on the site, please use this form to submit it anonymously.

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