Talking about ‘Retrieval Practice’

For the past few years I have began lessons in the senior phase by using my randomiser to ask young people to recall knowledge. I can’t remember when I started doing this but I feel it has made an impact on my learners abilities to bring information to the front of their mind quickly. After doing some reading into what I do I have came to the conclusion that it is a mix of ‘Cold Calling’ as suggested by Doug Lemov and ‘Retrieval Practice’ which has been researched at length by Dr Pooja K. Agarwal (retrievalpractice.org). My practice in this regard was good but I wasn’t getting enough evidence of learning from ALL young people as I was only asking enough questions until I was satisfied that the required knowledge was shared. I was also satisfied that by using a randomiser I was getting the most out of my learners but in each lesson if I only asked three questions then only three young people shared their learning, this is not enough. So I am now very much interested in really getting my teeth into Retrieval Practice and how I can use it more thoroughly in my lessons.

So what exactly is Retrieval Practice? Dr Agarwal was recently on an episode of ‘The Staffroom’, an Australian based education podcast, and while on the show she described Retrieval Practise as a strategy in which bringing information to mind enhances and even boosts learning. Simply by deliberately trying to recall information without the help of a textbook forces us to pull our knowledge out and find out what we actually know. Research in cognitive science has found that by simply recalling an answer improves learning to a larger extent than finding the answer in your notes jotter. Dr Agarwal also mentions in her website, Retrieval Practice.org, that it is the struggle of trying to recall an answer that improves our memory and learning. So it is by asking a question and allowing time for the ‘struggle’ to take place will boost learning for that young person. Research has also suggested that the more difficult the Retrieval Practice, the better it is for a pupils long term learning.

For me, like many other teachers, I use a form of Retrieval but as I mentioned at the beginning I don’t commit to it. In my role I have observed colleagues across my current school setting and Retrieval first came to my mind after asking questions around starter tasks in Maths. In one maths classroom the pupils were answering 10 questions that could have been from any part of the course in the previous 3 months. This practice forces learners into the ‘struggle’ and those that are successful are more than likely improving their long term memory with regards to tackling the particular problems within the starter task. Like me many other colleagues have spoke of using a form of Retrieval Practice but wouldn’t necessarily have called it that. With this in mind I would now like to make Retrieval a habit in my classroom. What I mean by that is I want to do it in every lesson and elicit evidence from every pupil.

The case for Retrieval Practice being a key feature of every lesson is further backed up by Rosenshines’ Principles of Instruction. According to Barack Rosenshine in his ‘Principles Of Instruction’ he noted that ‘the most effective teachers began their lessons with a five- to eight-minute review of previously covered material’ which further backs up my initial cold calling that was a feature of my senior phase lessons but also suggests that I should indeed make Retrieval a daily practice in my classroom because after all, who doesn’t want to be a most effective teacher.

Moving forward I will be making Retrieval Practice a key part of my lesson planning. One of my main challenges will be doing it quickly, effectively and ensuring I can get information from each one of my learners. This is not an easy task but it is one I am committed to. Formative assessment strategies such as using mini whiteboards and pair, share could be used for this that are quick and easy to manage tasks. Rose shine also suggests in his ‘Principles of Instruction’ that this initial time can be used discussing Homework, over learning material and asking pupils about difficulties they have had with certain topics.

When planning for Retrieval Practice it is important that it is used as a learning strategy and not an assessment. Many teachers have suggested that Retrieval Practice is an assessment tool, which it is but it must be low stakes. Retrieval can be, as Mary Myatt suggests, high challenge and low threat. Any Retrieval Practice you do should provide you with feedback which is why I will be moving forward with the use of mini whiteboards as I can take then into the gym and outdoors.

I would recommend checking out Dr Agarwal’s website if you would like more information on how to embed Retrieval Practice into your daily learning activities.

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