Embedding Retrieval Throughout Your Teaching

This is the fourth blog in the CogSciSci symposium on retrieval practice in the classroom, following on from contibutions from Adam Boxer (How to not screw up retrieval practice) and Damien Benney (Retrieval practice, retrieval roulette, schema, spacing and even a nod to Rosenshine) You should read the introduction to this symposium here before reading this article.

Rachel Wong (@BioRach) is a Science Teacher at a state school in Bath. Originally from Hong Kong, Rachel came to the UK to do A-levels and has been here ever since. She’s already produced a lot of resources that she’s shared with the #CogSciSci community (some of which can be found here) and has a Youtube channel for A-level Biology.

The concept of retrieval practice came to me through Twitter, in the form of “retrieval roulettes” made by Adam Boxer and Ruth Walker. I pretty much bought into it immediately because the benefits of retrieval practice are so obvious. It directly addresses the key problem that I find most of my students have, which is the lack of knowledge in their brains. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to me as a good learning practice though, given that I came from an educational background where constant practice is expected of us as students – I grew up having to do loads of extra practice questions on English grammar, Science and Maths. My mom bought many exercise books of various subjects from bookstores from primary school through to Year 11. They weren’t even my homework set from school, just extra practice that everyone is encouraged to do outside lessons. It may sound like horror to some of the students in the UK, but where I’m from, this is the norm. The logic wehad was simple – the more you practise, the better you become.

So the question I had was: why isn’t this the norm in the UK? It could be that a few years back, the concept of “edutainment” became the more welcomed idea, and a lot of teachers (myself included) focused more on thinking up crazy ideas to engage students, rather than actually thinking of teaching them proper content and teaching them how to learn. Recently though, I have learnt that the cognitive science behind the whole push on retrieval practice is the actual key to raising students’ attainment and engagement, not crazy engagement.

A lot of other amazing teachers have already written tons on the science behind retrieval and lots of other papers that back it up (here for more), so in this blogpost I will focus on reflecting my own experience within the field and share specifically four things: 1. The problems I’ve identified in students; 2. The aim of retrieval practice (RP); 3. Examples of RP; and 4. The next steps.

Problems identified

There are mainly three problems I’ve spotted while students are learning new content:

Problem 1: They simply don’t remember

Pupils don’t remember the content learnt in previous lessons, weeks, months, or years. If I’m teaching meiosis to Year 11 pupils, which involves going through the chromosome arrangements within a nucleus and the cell cycle, the pupils seem to not have a clue as to what I’m talking about. They’ve completely forgotten everything they’ve learnt in Year 9 about mitosis and the cell cycle. Even if we shorten the time frame, if I were to teach them a topic linking to a lesson they’ve learnt last week, a lot of them would not have remember what we actually covered in the lesson.

Problem 2: They don’t realise that they have to remember

This is a matter of metacognition. If I’m teaching Year 9 about the cell structure and referring to the topic taught in Year 7, I often get replies such as, “that’s Year 7 stuff! Why would we need it now?”. The students often lack an awareness of the reason for learning that topic then and there. To solve this problem, students need to know why they’re learning this and how to learn it. But without clear guidance and explanation, students won’t necessarily know that they even need to have an awareness.

Problem 3: They can’t apply their knowledge in exam questions

Exam questions are all about application of knowledge and linking concepts together, so it’s no surprise that pupils struggle with them without sufficient understanding. They don’t have enough content in their heads so they cannot identify what the related content would be. Some simply cannot understand what the questions are asking for. The closest thing some pupils can get is writing a paragraph on something that they know which is within the same topic, but not actually answering what the question is asking for. Some others would claim that they’ve never been taught that topic. 

The aims of retrieval practice

Retrieval practice is the solution. The aims listed below serve as the background reasoning for using this method to tackle each of the problems listed above.

Aim 1: Practise until you “cannot get it wrong”

It’s quite simple actually – practice makes perfect. The more we practise something, the better we become at it. Therefore, the more students practise using their knowledge, the more they will remember it. Obviously, they need to understand the content before they actually commit it to memory, which should be brought about by clear and direct exposition. This should always be followed by constant and regular practice of using that knowledge to let it sink into students’ long-term memory, eventually becoming something innate to them.

The mentality shouldn’t be “practise until you get it right”, but “practise until you cannot get it wrong”.

Aim 2: Learn how our brain works – realise the existence of the schema of knowledge

It’s not surprising that most students find it extremely difficult to memorise so many different facts they’re learning each day, as they’re constantly adding new things into their brains, increasing their cognitive load. Some youngsters may become discouraged and feel that they’re not “clever enough” to do science (or any other subject), simply because they really struggle with learning facts. But if we can tell them that it’s understandable that they’re finding it difficult and explain how the brain learns, we may be able to bring their self-faith back up in order to tackle the problem again. By telling them that our brains learn by repeated practice and building links between things, they may try to seek links between the things they’re learning. We as teachers can also guide them in building these links, given we are the expert learners of our field. Helping them build this schema of knowledge boosts their understanding, memory and ideally confidence and interest, as they start to see the connections between these topics.

Aim 3: Increase the ability to realise what the question is really asking for

With a wider scope of knowledge in their brains, students can spot the topics being tested on in questions more easily. This could simply be recognising a keyword or phrase used within the question or the passage, then linking it to the related topic(s). In synoptic questions, this becomes an especially important skill.

For example, a question says “Explain why the body cells of a diabetic patient lose water”. From first glance, it’s obvious that your knowledge of diabetes is needed in this question. Most students would happily write: “diabetes is where your blood glucose level is too high/low” or “a lack of blood glucose level control”. Then many will get stuck there, as they don’t seem to have an idea how this may link to anything else. Those with the schema of knowledge built firmly in their brains may then spot the phrase “lose water” and link to water movement – osmosis. A further link then is formed into how water moves – down the water concentration/potential gradient. And ultimately, they may arrive at the correct answer, illustrating how high blood glucose level means low water level in the bloodstream, hence water moves from the body cells into the bloodstream, down the water potential gradient by osmosis.

If the students don’t have a firm understanding built in the brains about osmosis and diabetes, they may not be able to get full marks on the questions. In most cases that I’ve seen, pupils only spot the most obvious keyword in the question and try to build their answers around that topic, without extending further into other areas of the subject. With retrieval practice and exam question practice, this will improve.

I quite like tables to summarise things, so here we go:

ProblemAim/Reason for RP as solution
Pupils don’t recall previous contentInternalise knowledge and facts until they “cannot get it wrong”, before doing application in exam questions
Lack of metacognition – Pupils don’t realise they need to be familiar with previous content in order to understand new contentUnderstand the existence of the schema of knowledge and build it
Failure to apply knowledge – Pupils cannot do exam questions due to lack of understanding and synoptic linksLearn how to interpret exam questions, especially synoptic ones

Examples of retrieval practice

There are many ways to implement retrieval practice in the classroom. Here I will explain how I’ve used it with my GCSE and sixth form classes, and the idea I have behind each of them.


There are usually three ways I use the retrieval questions:

As the starter

My year 11 group comes into my lessons now with an expectation of 5 retrieval questions on the board that they will complete while I do the register. With them being an especially lively group, this works really well. The questions are always related to the topic we’re doing and definitely cover the content done in the previous few lessons. This retrieval time allows their brain to recall the content they’ve learnt previously and brings focus to the lesson.

As end of topic quizzes

Example of an end of topic Retrieval Quiz

When I first started doing this, my classes moaned saying it’s impossible to do 50 questions in 20 minutes (yes, 50 fact-based questions in one chapter). As I pointed out to them during feedback, that it contains questions that they’ve done before (and has green pen-marked them), they started realising the importance of those mini-quizzes, starters and hinge points I’ve thrown at them before. And as time went on, they became better at those quizzes, not necessarily those on the same topic, but quizzes on other topics. I suspect this has something to do with them changing their mindset about learning facts and realising that it is, in fact, possible to memorise 50 facts in a relatively straightforward way – tons of practice. This also served as a really good way for me to see if there are any misconceptions, which I can then tackle during the whole-class feedback in the next lesson.

As combined quizzes – spaced retrieval

If time allows, the classes do a mixed quiz that contains retrieval questions from a few chapters. This usually happens a week or two after we’ve finished that topic. And as before, it will contain questions that they’ve seen before, but rather than all 50, it’ll be just 2-3 questions from different chapters. They may not necessarily be linked, so it’s testing if they’ve learnt isolated facts. It may not provide us with much insight into how they’re learning, but serve more as a reminder to the students: how well do you remember the the stuff we’ve done a few months ago? There should be forewarning to these quizzes, as it provides the chance for pupils to revise. The point of these quizzes is to make them go over old topics, so it doesn’t matter if they’ve done the questions before. If they’ve revised and scored high marks on a random selection of questions that they’ve done previously, we’ve achieved our purpose.

A-level (specifically A2):

The main problem with A-level is the amount of content that students have to internalise. Many of my Y13 students cannot recall basic facts they’ve learnt before the summer holidays, as they’ve mainly stored their information as short-term memory. To tackle this problem, I’ve built a routine with my A2 students that they will complete 6 retrieval questions on a selected AS topic every week. They will stick the questions into an exercise book and answer them in the book. We then go through the questions and they correct it using a green pen. But what I find as the most useful thing isn’t just them correcting their answers, but the extension questions we have while discussing the previously chosen ones. I will literally try to think of anything throughout the specification that links to the general background of a printed question, then pose it out to the class. We then write notes and build that knowledge on. It could be an extension within the same topic, deepening their understanding and exploring their memory on it; or it could be something entirely different but with a simple or sometimes subtle link with the topic.

For example, in this picture below, the pupils were doing questions on Ch.3 Biological molecules, so all the biochemistry bits.

The first question is “What is the primary structure of a protein?”. The answer is “the amino acid sequence”.

I then stretch it further with the following questions:

  • What are the other levels of structures of proteins?
  • Name the bonds involved in each of the levels of structures.
  • What amino acid can form disulphide bridges? Why can it do that?
  • How are the hydrogen bonds in secondary and tertiary structures different?
  • What is the structure of an amino acid?
  • How does each part of the amino acid form the different levels of protein structure?

It took up around 10 minutes at least to go through just the extent of the first question, but it’s time well-spent, as the class gets to dive into the bigger, underlying background of content behind this question.

Another example is question 5: “Describe the structure of amylose, including the bonds involved and the shape.”. We don’t just look at the structure of amylose, but what it is actually part of, which is starch.

The related extended discussion includes:

  • What is the other part that makes up starch? (amylopectin)
  • What is the structure of amylopectin? What are the bonds involved here?
  • How do amylose and amylopectin interact to form starch?
  • How do their structures and interactions make starch such as a good energy storage?

And perhaps further onto:

  • How are the glycosidic bonds formed between the glucose molecules?
  • How can they be broken when glucose is needed for respiration?
  • What type of glucose is used to make starch? (α-glucose)
  • Draw it out – how would β-glucose be different? (inverted OH group)
  • What other macromolecules are formed by α- and β-glucose?
  • Spot the similarities in terms of structure and arrangement of the storage molecules (ie. Amylopectin and glycogen) – why is glycogen such a good energy storage in animals?

Another 10 minutes has gone by, but again, it’s worth it.

When it comes to photosynthesis and respiration, I go absolutely mental with it – the students come into the lesson and will draw the whole reaction out (at least up to the point that I’ve taught them). This will be for every single lesson we have on the topic. It doesn’t even matter if they get it wrong to start with, it’s about them thinking hard to recall the content and physically drawing it out. They don’t like to get it wrong, but it’s important to assure them that learning takes place from correcting your mistakes. The aim is to turn it into muscle memory – “you need to get to the point you can draw it with your eyes closed”. Again, they started thinking it’s impossible, but eventually they get used to it and realise drawing it out becomes easier, quicker and more accurate as time goes by. Quite a few of them have actually achieved the point of drawing the whole reaction out with their eyes closed!

Next steps

I firmly believe that retrieval practice is a fundamental method to help pupils build and secure their schema of learning and boost confidence alongside it. What I don’t believe in is that retrieval practice alone can solve all our problems. It can only work up till a certain point, as when it comes to assessments, most of the questions asked will be more application-based and/or synoptic, requiring students to isolate information from certain areas of their schema in order to form a logical and relevant response. This requires exam question practice and reflective feedback. But without the secure schema of knowledge, students can’t even start to access these exam questions, let alone to achieve sufficient marks on them. Once the students are more fluent in stating facts, they move onto topic-based past paper questions, completing them without notes and referring back to the mark scheme once they’re done. They should pay specific attention to keywords or phrases that are underlined in the mark scheme, notice what words or phrases that are not accepted in them, and hopefully spot questions that are commonly asked. This helps them identify and focus their revision targets. When I return the marked topic tests to them, they are encouraged to analyse their paper, trying to identify the reason they’ve lost marks, such as not knowing enough content, not interpreting the questions properly, careless mistakes, or lack of organisation in longer responses. This should inform them on how to improve their work, which may be to revise more by retrieval practice or doing exam questions to enhance their exam techniques etc.

To summarise, here are the two key things that I’ve picked up in these two years of pushing retrieval practice:

  1. Regular retrieval is the basic expectation, as the more you practise, the more you recall;
  2. Linking between topics helps build the schema of knowledge, which deepens understanding, aids memorisation and allows pupils to better apply their knowledge into specific contexts in assessments.

It’s a first for me to write a more “official” and public blog so please let me know what you think and any feedback is much appreciated. I’m very interested to hear what people are doing to help their students recall facts better!

4 thoughts on “Embedding Retrieval Throughout Your Teaching

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