Online learning & retrieval practice …

Teaching is a profession known for the challenges faced. Those challenges can be related to classroom behaviour, exam pressures, funding and budget issues amongst many other factors. The COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 has brought new and additional challenges to all professions, businesses and occupations – not excluding teaching.

Schools have been able to respond to the decision to launch online learning (or as it is known in the United Arab Emirates where I am based – ‘distance learning’) using different approaches based on the tools, resources and knowledge of the leaders, teachers and students within each school community. I know many teachers that already consider themselves to be very tech-savvy and are fully embracing this opportunity to trial new approaches to learning and explore innovative digital tools and avenues. In contrast to other teachers where this feels like very uncomfortable territory. The gap between teacher confidence using technology has existed for years but has been made even more evident in recent months.

There can be a wealth of benefits when it comes to using technology to enhance teaching and learning. We can and should aim to take something positive away from this experience.

Retrieval practice has become a well-known term in education over recent years, although the strategy itself has existed in classrooms for much longer, and this refers to the act of recalling information from long term memory. Every time this is information is recalled from memory it will make that information easier and quicker to recall in the future. Retrieval practice is vital to learning and technology certainly lends itself very well to this strategy.

Pre COVID-19 teachers were already using technology in different ways to practice retrieval of previously taught learning material. There are many well-known websites that are ideal for providing students with a range of quizzes including multiple choice and/or opportunities for free recall, writing short or extended answers. Just some examples of these great sites include Quizziz, Google Forms and Kahoot. Each site is different with their own individual features to support learning.

Retrieval practice can take place with or without technology, but the key thing is that it is taking place whether we are in a school classroom or virtual classroom. It is simply too important to ignore.

Another benefit of technology for educators is that a lot of digital tools (mentioned above) allow the teacher to be able to respond to work or provide feedback in a quicker and more efficient way than traditional methods of marking and feedback. Quizizz and Kahoot for example will immediately inform students if their answers were correct or not. It will also provide data for the teacher to gain an overview and insight of an individual or class set of results. The teacher doesn’t need to mark each quiz themselves as the technology can do this for us. Technology can be fantastic for supporting our workload. Reducing our time marking can give teachers more time to invest in planning, communication or engaging with professional development.

There are many more benefits to using technology that educators, students, and parents are discovering on a daily basis however, distance learning whilst described as an effective temporary solution will never replace the authentic classroom experience.

Firstly, retrieval practice is a great strategy for showing a classroom teacher what their students can and cannot recall. This doesn’t always happen during an online quiz. It can be during a question and answer discussion in class and this dialogue between the teacher and students allows for verbal retrieval and opportunities to expand, elaborate, develop and explore answers further in a way that a digital quiz simply cannot do.

Online quizzes tend to (not always) lend themselves better to multiple-choice questions rather than opportunities for free recall and we should be careful during online learning not to become too reliant on multiple-choice questioning.

I do use regular multiple-choice quizzing but there is a lot of research that informs us that students benefit more from answering questions that don’t provide any cues, clues or ask students to select the correct answer (although we should consider the point that research suggests younger students need some support and scaffolding to aid their retrieval). The fantastic work of Professor John Dunlosky et al also tells us that tests or quizzes that require recall from memory will be more effective for developing long-term memory. This is not to dismiss multiple-choice quizzing, as it can be a useful form of review and can/should be used as part of a varied retrieval diet.

It’s important to remember that multiple-choice quizzes involve the process of recognition as students have to simply identify the correct answer. Free recall quizzes will be more time consuming for the teacher to assess but the reason short answers are more beneficial than answering a multiple-choice question is that it simply requires more effort from the student. More effortful = more effective.

Basically, the research I have read has led me to conclude that as teachers we should combine the two methods: recognition with multiple-choice quizzing and free recall. This is because multiple-choice quizzing often leads to greater retrieval success than short answer questions with free recall (in addition to supporting teacher workload, resulting in more regular retrieval opportunities). The benefits of retrieval practice can depend on both the retrieval difficulty and retrieval success, so combining the harder questions with opportunities for success would be optimal.


Online learning is the approach we have to take for the health, safety and welfare of all. There is no disagreement that this isn’t our priority. Online learning will become easier for students and teachers in many ways as we adapt to new technologies, develop our own routines and hopefully grow in confidence. This will continue in the UAE for the rest of this academic year but no confirmation has been announced at this point for September 2020.

As time passes with online learning, not all aspects will become easier. The longer the period of time between seeing friends, family and colleagues can bring more mental health and pastoral concerns. The transition back to school will certainly be welcomed by many with open arms but could also be something that people struggle with, returning after such a long time in their own homes.

It can feel like limbo right now, remembering life pre-COVID and planning for life and normality to return post-COVID. There are lots of uncertainties about this time but one thing is clear is that life has changed globally and each individual is trying to navigate and find their own “new normal” both inside and outside of the classroom. As teachers, we adapt to different situations daily and once again we are adapting and rising to the new challenges faced whilst remembering this isn’t a time to simply keep children busy at home but ensuring effective learning is still taking place. 


One thought on “Online learning & retrieval practice …”

  1. Chris says:

    Great Points. Love that Quizizz expanded their question types to fill in the blank among others. Allows the possibility of more free recall type retrieval that you mention.

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