Retrieval Practice: The myths versus reality

In recent years retrieval practice (combined with spaced practice) has completely changed my teaching practice – for the better. I have seen many of the benefits of Retrieval Practice first hand, which go far beyond the ability to recall information from long term memory. I have fully embraced the research and this evidence-informed strategy, as have many others around the world. However, there are still some classroom teachers and students that are quite sceptical and wary about the hype surrounding retrieval practice.

Later this week my second book will be published with John Catt Education, Retrieval Practice: Research and Resources for every classroom. I am really excited for teachers to read it and I hope they find it very informative and useful. Through conversations with educators, both online and offline, it has been interesting to find out different perspectives and opinions when it comes to retrieval practice. Generally, the attitude is very positive (although I’m aware that the fact I’ve authored a book about retrieval practice may influence the conversations I have with other teachers!). 

Despite the enthusiasm around retrieval practice we need to be mindful that although it is a very important and essential classroom practice, it is only one strategy that needs to be used in combination with other approaches and in the correct context too. There are some common assumptions or myths that I thought I would address and explore when it comes to retrieval practice.

Myth number 1: “We’ve always done retrieval practice, it is nothing new …”

Retrieval practice has been a regular feature of many teachers’ classroom practice, it isn’t radically new. The evidence and research linked to retrieval practice has also been around a while (the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve dating back to 1885!) but this research has only become mainstream and accessible to teachers in recent years. There is a vast amount of research available to us and it can be overwhelming but it is very insightful and helpful for teachers, we shouldn’t ignore it or disregard it because we assume it is ‘nothing new’.

There have been various forms of retrieval practice used in classrooms for many years ranging from a paper-based quiz, mini-whiteboards and as technology has evolved teachers are able to use different online tools for quizzing. However, quizzing and testing have also been used a lot in the past to record data, as an assessment tool rather than as a tool to enhance and support teaching and learning. 

Something I was very guilty of during the early years of my career was ploughing through content and perhaps starting a lesson asking about material from the last lesson or recent lessons but never really delving further back. Months later I would expect my students to be able to recall information in a high stakes situation that they haven’t had the opportunity to practice retrieving. When people say we have always used retrieval practice I can say that I didn’t and I know I am not alone.

There is a temptation to say that retrieval practice is common sense but I don’t think it is. If it was simply common sense I and many other teachers would have used this strategy much sooner and students would be using it to revise instead of resorting to less effective and time-consuming methods such as re-reading and highlighting.

Tom Sherrington writes and presents a lot about Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction and some teachers have said the same thing about Rosenshine’s principles – ‘we’ve always been doing this and it’s just common sense’. Sherrington has addressed this in an excellent post you can read here. In response to the argument that Rosenshine is nothing new Sherrington writes,  “No, of course, it’s not. Rosenshine was researching in the 1970s and published an early paper ‘Teaching Functions’ that was first drafted in 1982. To me, the value in Rosenshine’s principles is not they are new – it’s that they stand the test of time.” I think that can also be applied to retrieval practice, that it will stand the test of time because it is effective and I also think there is much more for us to learn about this technique.

Myth number 2: “Every single lesson should start with retrieval practice …”

In my first book Love To Teach, the first chapter was entitled “The best way to start a lesson …” and I did write about using retrieval practice as part of a classroom routine to begin lessons. I stand by this as I do think it is generally the best way to start a lesson but I didn’t state that every lesson should start that way. I also added that “Although, I will be recommending starting lessons with regular retrieval, research does not explicitly state this is the most appropriate time in the lesson to carry out retrieval practice. It is an effective strategy that can be used at any point during a lesson”. 

Previously (what feels like many years ago but perhaps it is still happening in some classrooms) the focus of the starter task was to ‘hook’ the students into learning. The aim of the starter activity was to entice students with engagement even if the link to the lesson and content was weak ( I trained in 2009-2010 so perhaps my experiences reflect this time). This was clearly not a good use of time.

I remember reading a blog post entitled, The kids absolutely love it!” The phrase that launched a thousand gimmicks by David Didau where Didau describes a history lesson he observed and the focus of the lesson was to understand what life was like for Irish peasants during the potato famine. To start the lesson the teacher decided to hide potatoes around the classroom for children to find and hence the potato hunt was the exciting link to the lesson. The ‘kids absolutely loved it’ but when it came to writing, unsurprisingly, their responses lacked knowledge and depth because they had spent (or wasted) precious lesson time searching in cupboards and under tables for hidden potatoes. That teacher was well-intentioned, wanting to inspire and motivate their students, trying to make the topic more fun but obviously this is a classic example of engagement taken too far at the cost of learning.

Whilst I still believe the start of a lesson can be a time to complete an interesting, stimulating and engaging task (I really do want my students to enjoy lessons and enjoy learning – I think every teacher does) it should be beneficial to learning. The task should enhance learning not distract from it. I can recall many starter activity tasks I delivered that at the time seemed like excellent practice but on reflection, I fail to see how those tasks supported the teaching and learning taking place in my classroom. There was a culture of snazzy starters and we have moved away from that now.

The problem we now have is some schools (not my school and certainly not all schools) are adopting a different and perhaps extreme type of culture that has an inflexible approach to classroom planning and taking the autonomy away from teachers. This can be seen here in this tweet below:

Context is key. Retrieval practice in action in a lesson can look different with different age groups and across different subjects too. Yes, retrieval practice is a great way to start the lesson and it should become embedded as part of structured classroom practice and a carefully constructed curriculum. Retrieval practice should not promote or be part of a regimented, rigid and restricted classroom routine. It doesn’t have to be that way. 

Myth number 3: “Retrieval Practice just involves knowledge tests …”

A knowledge/fact test can work well at clearly identifying areas of strength and areas of weakness or development for students. This knowledge, for both the teacher and student, about what students can and can’t recall is very powerful and useful. However, knowledge or fact tests repeated continuously can become boring, mundane and that then supports the idea that retrieval practice is simply about regurgitating isolated facts when that is also another myth – not true.

My new book explores the research I have read about retrieval practice and the science of learning but the book also contains a wide range of classroom activities and ideas that can be adapted for different subjects and ages. There are quizzes and games that focus on knowledge but also vocabulary and making links and connections between different factors too. Teachers on Twitter and Instagram are regularly sharing innovative and creative retrieval strategies that they have tried and tested in their classrooms. There is a place for knowledge tests but something else I really like about retrieval practice is its flexibility for the classroom. You can read about my retrieval grids here and about the popular retrieval roulette by Adam Boxer here.

Myth number 4: “We don’t have time for retrieval practice in lessons …”

I have heard this a lot and I do understand the concern. Teachers often have so much content to get through, especially with exam classes, that little time can be spent revisiting prior learning and subject content previously covered – as mentioned I was certainly guilty of this. Previously, I lacked knowledge and understanding of forgetting and memory therefore there was an expectation students would remember information and if they didn’t it would be very disappointing. It seems obvious now (easy to say with hindsight and increased knowledge and understanding) that revisiting a topic 12 months later (or longer!) in the classroom just before the exam won’t be as effective as regular recall and retrieval.

If teachers feel they do not have time for retrieval practice in their lessons I would encourage them to think very carefully about the structure of their lessons. Is there anything that could be removed and replaced with retrieval practice? For example, the plenary task was often used at the end of a lesson to find out what students had learned in that lesson but now we have a greater awareness of the difference between performance and learning. Learning takes time. An option would be to take the plenary task from one lesson and use it in the future as a retrieval task once some forgetting has taken place. It might seem difficult fitting retrieval practice into lessons and a tightly planned curriculum but it is certainly worth it. 

Myth number 5: “Why do students need to be able to recall information when we have Google?”

This debate continuously rages on via social media and in real life, no doubt it will continue for a long time too. Yes, Google is wonderful. We have a wealth of information at our fingertips and we would be naive to not recognise this but I find it hard to believe that some people would suggest that knowledge is now redundant to Google. To search for and find information on Google and then understand that information actually requires background knowledge to do so. Also, do we want future generations to lack the knowledge and confidence to navigate through life without being able to Google everything? Do we want to create a Google dependent culture and society? Perhaps, some might argue there already is one. I do use Google a lot, possibly every day but has Google crushed my desire to read and learn more? No. Is it just me that feels that way? No.

Much has been written about this topic. Here are some interesting posts and articles;

I decided not to write about the Google debate in my new book because I felt the argument that students don’t need knowledge, understanding, and skills because we have Google and that the teaching profession is potentially at risk because of Google, robots and other technologies shows a lack of understanding about the importance and role of education. 

I didn’t want to give too much away about my new book but if you are interested to find out more about retrieval practice you can order my new book on Amazon here. I would also highly recommend checking out the work of Dr. Pooja K Agarwal here and the team of Learning Scientists here. Although, I have just written a book about retrieval practice I am keen to learn lots more and continue to develop this strategy with my students and colleagues.

5 thoughts on “Retrieval Practice: The myths versus reality”

  1. Mr John M Murphy says:

    Thanks for this blog post. I will share with my trainers at PSA Performance Academy.

  2. Amy says:

    I think the retrieval process is important for students to remember things long term. It can help the teacher to know what the student already knows. It can help the student to see what they can recall.

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