Practising Retrieval


How many of our students rely mainly on reading through notes or revision guides, thinking this is how to revise? Unfortunately they are practising recognition, not free recall, and it can be very misleading. They feel they know the material because they have learnt it a few months ago and recognise it, but this is dependent on the triggers on the page of notes, which they will not have in the exam.

Research shows that practising retrieval is the most important preparation for exams. There’s no point students focussing on writing beautiful revision cards, mind maps or topic summaries if they can’t access the information and get it out of their memory.

OUTformation not just INformation

My students are all issued with the Complete Companions Revision Guides from the beginning of the course, so they don’t waste time summarising topics. Another advantage of these is that the evaluation/discussion points are very clearly organised and there are only four carefully selected AO3 points to learn per potential essay, which makes the content more manageable. For weaker students, we suggest learning just three, as it is better to know a few well rather than mentioning more points but not developing them properly. Students make class notes in workbooks, which also contain activities to help with deep processing and practise exam skills. Many of these activities are taken from the APPLY pages in the Revision Guides. Weaker students (aiming for C or below) are also given the Exam Workbooks to help them structure answers to different types of questions.

We practise retrieval in most lessons and keep encouraging students to do this on their own.

In lessons, we often start with a mini-test, a set of 6-8 questions on the board which they answer on mini-whiteboards. This wonderful technology seems to encourage them to have a go, as it doesn’t feel as solid and permanent as a piece of paper. It also saves paper! We encourage them every time to think hard and have a guess rather than looking up answers. Once they have attempted all the questions they can then resort to looking in their notes to fill in gaps.

Quizzes are really useful for practising retrieval, and everyone has their favourites, but my students still love a Kahoot on a Friday afternoon with brain sweet prizes. It’s worth checking and editing the answers carefully though, as some have apparently been created by teachers in a hurry or students who didn’t actually know the answers!

In their private study, students are recommended to practise retrieval at every stage:

  • Before you revise a topic, mind-map or brainstorm as many key terms, theories and studies as you can.
  • Then look at your notes or the revision guide to check the accuracy of your recall.
  • Don’t be afraid to guess: remembering something wrong then correcting it leads to better recall in the future than if you give up too soon and look up the answer.
  • Add bits in that you missed in a different colour so you can see which bits you didn’t remember that time, and focus on them next time through.
  • Revise a topic, don’t test yourself immediately but start the next revision session with a self-test, Kerboodle assessment, ‘REVIEW’ task (from the Revision Guides) or practise exam questions on that topic. This spaces the recall so you have to dig deeper into your memory, and strengthens the retrievability of the information (outformation!)
  • Kerboodle resources can be assigned to students, and the self-marking assessments are very useful for practising retrieval in class, or if students have access to them, in their own private study.
  • Revisit a topic again after a few days, again starting with retrieval practice, a quick brainstorm or mindmap, or an essay plan from memory.

Some concepts can be rehearsed by gradually de-scaffolding, removing the hints, until they can recall the whole thing. I do this with Statistical testing, and I have a card-sort version of the table of statistical tests (see page 17 of the Year 2 Revision Guide) which I get them to organise into a decision tree or a table at the beginning of each lesson. Gradually I take away the structure so after a few lessons they are able to draw the table from memory on a mini whiteboard.

As we finish the spec over the next few weeks, we will be reminding the students to make use of their revision time effectively, and to prioritise practising retrieval. They can see the sense in this, I just hope they’re doing it!

Rachel Moody

Head of Psychology, King Edward VI School, Southampton

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