Retrieve It! Making retrieval practice a priority for Year 11

Despite optionality this year, the AQA course is lengthy. If you are doing it over 2 years, it needs to be covered at the rate of knots and so therefore retrieval practice (RP) should be a welcome guest in every classroom!  Put simply, RP is the strategy of calling information to mind which enhances and boosts learning. It has become rather popular lately and with good reason

The resource:

Retrieval Practice is highly customisable. For example, a few weeks ago, after marking mocks, I gave my Year 11s a vocabulary list containing the words oxbow lakes, regeneration and monitoring. This was entirely due to the fact that my students had struggled with these words during their mocks; hence it is a highly responsive teaching tool. All it takes is my whiteboard pen, ready to write up whichever 1-3 words/phrases I think they need to contend with that lesson. If they link to the lesson you will go on to teach, great! If not, do not worry – RP for the sake of RP doesn’t hurt!

I’ve long been a fan of being honest and open about teaching strategies with pupils. I cannot overstate the importance of taking the time to explain something before beginning to teach it – why let students be mind-readers? Tell them what you want from it, why it is important, how you’ve seen it succeed it before, etc…

In many ways, as teachers we are salespeople, so why not channel this and do a good sales pitch…?

 I usually explain it using the following logic:

  • Every time you ‘retrieve’ a fact, definition, etc., you strengthen its position in your long-term memory and your ability to recall it again when needed, say, in an exam.
  • You normalise your memory of a key term the more you practise retrieving it; if the first time you’ve thought about the definition of mass movement – a term you learned about many months ago – is during your exam in May, two (or three years) into your GCSE then your brain is not going to like you very much!
  • There is no point in ‘hiding’ from key terms or concepts we don’t ‘like’ or quite ‘get’ now, because they will come back to ‘bite us’ at some point… We need to confront them NOW.

The routine:

As with anything new being introduced in a classroom or department, routines are key. Repetition is important – do this every single lesson. I do it for the first 10 minutes and this is planned in, but if you want to adjust this then that is fine (I just wouldn’t go above 15 or below 5).

Watch out for…:

Personally, the most worrying thing for me is the feedback element: How do I or the pupils know their ‘Explain it!’ for attrition was right…?

There are two ways of going about this:

  1. Take the time write answers for each of your key terms. This is perfectly fine, of course, but eats into time for you as a teacher to produce AND time during the lesson; if pupils have spent 10 minutes writing and they spent 10 minutes ‘marking’, that is a large chunk of the lesson gone… (I do, however, recognise that with some low-ability classes or where SEN requires it, this will have to be the chosen option).
  2. Put the onus back on the children (outlined below): I tell them this is not the first time they have come across regeneration. In fact, we covered it at great length on the 20th November 2020 (“remember that Friday afternoon double…?”, I glumly enquire). Therefore, I tell them to use every tool at their disposal (textbook, revision guide, etc…) to check their responses at home or in their spare time. The responsibility is completely on them. This is perhaps a product of the fiercely driven pupils I teach, but I think I would do it in any context or classroom – it’s about having high expectations and fostering independence, two things I am passionate about.

The target:

Lastly comes the less frequently talked about benefit of RP: pupils identify gaps in their learning. Knowing what you know is important, yes – but knowing what you DON’T know is immeasurably powerful. To that end, in my classroom, this activity ends with pupils writing one brutally honest target, such as: “I couldn’t answer this now but I will practise… [xxx]”. You could of course follow this up formally using homework or intervention classes, but as I said above, in my context the pupils are (thus far!) being conscientious enough to do this voluntarily!

I hope this has been a helpful read and this goes on to have an impact on your pupils. Best of lucking retrieving!

See below for some examples of students using the resource:

Abdurrahman Pérez is Head of Geography at a school in central London and is passionate about excellent Geography teaching and developing his pupils into life-long geographers. He is also an examiner, resource developer and CPD presenter. He tweets at @mr_perez5 and blogs at Home | earthwriting (