Learning science involves the acquisition and retention of a large body of knowledge. To be useful, both in assessments and in everyday life, this knowledge needs to be stored durably in memory. Knowledge also needs to be accessible when attempts are made to retrieve it. Aware that students felt overwhelmed by the quantity of content to be remembered for linear GCSEs, I sought research-informed strategies to improve their long-term retention. I found retrieval practice and have never looked back.
What is retrieval practice?
Retrieval practice is a learning strategy that involves deliberately recalling facts or concepts from memory to enhance learning. The act of retrieving strengthens memories, making them easier to recall in the future. As Daniel Willingham has said;
“A great deal has been written about the impact of retrieval practice on memory. That’s because the effect is sizable, it has been replicated many times and it seems to lead not just to better memory but deeper memory that supports transfer.”
Embedding retrieval practice in the classroom
Embedding opportunities to revisit and retrieve previously learned information has involved simple shifts in my classroom practice. Every science lesson now starts with a low-stakes retrieval quiz on previously learned content. These quizzes regularly re-expose students to key knowledge to interrupt forgetting. Retrieval starters are also useful for activating prior knowledge so that students are ready to make connections between old and new learning. In addition to starter quizzes, a plethora of verbal questioning in lessons means students are habitually pulling previously learned material to mind. Traditional lesson activities like past paper questions, summary paragraphs and concept mapping, are used as opportunities for retrieval practice by the simple act of completing them ‘closed-book’. Such activities are always signposted as ‘retrieval practice’. Being overt about the use of retrieval means that students learn to recognise it as a powerful step in the learning process and take it seriously.
Retrieval outside the classroom
Students are encouraged to use retrieval outside of lessons too through retrieval-based homework tasks and during revision. We discuss ways of making revision more effective by including retrieval. For example, instead of simply re-reading a chapter of a textbook, they could write themselves a bank of questions to use for self-quizzing. Or they could write three questions on a post-it for every page of a textbook read and stick it to the page. Next time they open the book on this page, they quiz themselves on the questions. That way they benefit from the retrieval effect, plus they can decide where to direct further revision time to ensure they are focusing on things they do not know. Engaging in a dialogue with students about retrieval builds their metacognition and developing a better picture of how individuals are revising means that they can be redirected if they are using ineffective strategies.
Embedding retrieval practice in my classroom has improved students’ retention of key knowledge. But the benefits are not restricted to simple recall. As recall of fundamental facts becomes more automatic, they can access new, more complex concepts and problems. To my delight, I have observed a marked improvement in students’ confidence. The success experienced upon retrieving a fact correctly provides students with the confidence and motivation to embrace new learning reinforcing their engagement with science.
Originally, I sought a strategy to improve long-term learning in preparation for linear assessments. However, I have found that the real power of retrieval is in producing long-term learning that makes students more confident scientists. I hope that this enthusiasm for science, along with the scientific knowledge they have acquired, will remain with them well beyond their exams.
Amelia Kyriakides is Head of Biology and Lead Practitioner at a comprehensive secondary school in Oxfordshire. She has led on teaching memorably and revising effectively with a focus on retrieval since completing her MSc in Learning and Teaching. Amelia’s MSc research explored the use of strategies to support long-term retention of learning in the science classroom.
Agarwal, P. J., & Bain, P. M. (2019). Powerful Teaching.
Brown, P. C., Roediger III, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning.
Dunlosky, J. (2013). Strengthening the Student Toolbox study strategies to Boost learning. Accessible at: https://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/periodicals/dunlosky.pdf
Karpicke, J. D. (2016). A powerful way to improve learning and memory: Practicing retrieval enhances long-term, meaningful learning. Accessible at: https://www.apa.org/science/about/psa/2016/06/learning-memory
Helen Skelton looks at revision strategies drawing on cognitive science in this blog post.
Dom Shibli provides an introduction to cognitive science in this blog post.
Adam Robbins explores the benefits of SLOP in this blog post.
The Oxford Revision Project webpage includes links to useful blogs and articles on cognitive science as well as information on related publishing from us.