Tips for Teachers: 9. Retrieval practice techniques

Jun 20, 2023 | Blogs

Tips for Teachers: 9. Retrieval practice techniques

Jun 20, 2023 | Blogs

‘When we think about learning, we typically focus on getting information into students’ heads. What if, instead, we focus on getting information out of students’ heads?’ 


‘Retrieval practice is a learning strategy where we focus on getting information out.  Through the act of retrieval, or calling information to mind, our memory for that information is strengthened and forgetting is less likely to occur. It is a strategy in which calling information to mind subsequently enhances and boosts learning.’ (Agarwal et al. 2020)

When teachers think about retrieval practice the method of quizzing often springs to mind and, whilst low stakes quizzing is a beneficial retrieval practice technique, it is not the only technique we can utilise, so what else could we do? Here are some ideas:

  • Tell me – using ‘tell me’ questions is a great way of getting pupils to explain or recount information. This must link to something that the teacher has taught in some depth.
  • Summarise – summarising is a good way to ascertain if pupils can activate their prior learning. Ask them to summarise something from a previous lesson, then display a model answer and get them to check if their summary contains all the necessary elements.
  • Map and compare – this method is used where you want to check pupils’ capacity to make links. For example, ask them to make a memory map of the key aspects of a topic, for example the themes in a text.
  • Exit tickets – are an opportunity for pupils to reflect on what they have accomplished and what they could improve on. They prompt pupils to think about how and what they learn, as well as what challenges they are still facing.
  • Self-explanation – this is asking pupils to explain something to themselves. Give then a few silent moments to complete a mental task. They generate a version of what they understand through a mind map, written paragraph, labelled diagram and so on, and then self-check.
  • Brain dump – this is a small strategy that has a big impact on learning and is based on cognitive science research. Brain dump is also known as ‘free recall’, ‘show what you know’ and ‘stop and jot.’
  • Diamond nine – this is the process of arranging information is an effective way of helping pupils explore an issue. The final arrangement will provide the teacher with an indication of how they are thinking and the knowledge they are able to recall, particularly when they are asked to explain their reasons and choices. A diamond nine involves pupils arranging information in the shape of a diamond, placing the information they believe to be the most important at the top and the least at the bottom.
  • Archery target – this activity involves pupils placing the information they believe to be the most important in the centre of the target and the information least important on the periphery.
  • Snowballing – involves pupils working individually, then in pairs, before pairs join together to create groups. For example, recall three possible reasons why…now join together and try to find five between you.

‘By using retrieval practice as a learning strategy (not an assessment tool!), we exercise and strengthen our memory. Research demonstrates that this improvement in memory and long-term learning is flexible, which:

  • Improves students’ complex thinking and application skills
  • Improves students’ organization of knowledge
  • Improves students’ transfer of knowledge to new concepts

In other words, retrieval practice doesn’t just lead to memorization – it increases understanding.’  (Agarwal et al. 2020)

Did you know you can include and upload evidence of using these techniques in your appraisal forms in Schoolaspect?

This blog was written by Bretta Townend-Jowitt, Education Consultant and Trainer. 

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