Retrieval: the key to learning success

As outlined in their book, Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, authors Brown, Roediger III and McDaniel outline a very potent learning strategy: Retrieval Practice.

Retrieval practice involves actively trying to access (retrieve) information from our brains without any cues or prompts. While retrieval has traditionally seen as a gauge for learning (i.e: students would retrieve all of their knowledge in the exam to demonstrate their learning), the cognitive science is now clearly telling us that retrieval is an incredibly powerful strategy in the process of learning. Impressively, the act of quizzing students on the content they are studying can result in improvements in a whole grade level, compared to students who are not quizzed on the same content.

Here are some ideas for making retrieval practice work as a learning strategy in your classroom:

 Ask students to retrieve rather than recognise

Create retrieval activities where students will be genuinely pulling information out of their brains without any help. If a student is selecting a correct answer rather than coming to that answer unassisted, we would call this recognition rather than retrieval. Steer clear of the following.

  • Multiple choice
  • Matching tasks
  • Selecting from a list

 Retrieve regularly (or at least 3 times)

Peer-reviewed research on this strategy (Karpicke, 2009, as cited in this Cult of Pedagogy article) suggests that students should be able to successfully retrieve an item from memory at least three times before they can confidently say that item has ‘stuck’ in their brains. Incorporating regular opportunities for students to retrieve is therefore an important step.

Expect a specific answer

Ask questions that have specific and relatively clear answers. It is ok if there is more than one possible answer, but this must be clear to students. This may involve asking one very specific question (for example, where is the Aral Sea located?), or a more open-ended question (for example, what are three facts you learned about the Aral Sea last lesson?).

Keep it independent at first

Have each student individually attempt to retrieve the information from their memory before asking them to collaborate with their peers. Consider an accountability measure such as having each student write down their answer, or using an online quiz format before students collaborate. For example, use think-pair-share, but ensure each student has had time to think and write their answer (‘think’) before working with their partner (‘pair’).

Make it formative

Keep retrieval practice separate from summative assessment tasks and make sure students understand the difference. Students should see retrieval as a learning strategy rather than a stressful or high-stakes test. Students and teacher should be able to use the results of retrieval practice tasks to monitor progress with learning.

Understand the value of retrieval practice for higher order thinking

Retrieval practice does more than just help students learn basic and simple content. It works very effectively to support higher order thinking within modern learning contexts such as inquiry-based learning, project-based learning, flipped learning and blended learning.

One school principal involved in retrieval practice research said: “.. for kids to be able to evaluate, synthesise, and apply a concept in different settings, they’re going to be much more efficient at getting there when they have the base of knowledge and the retention…” (Principal Roger Chamberlain from Columbia Middle School, quoted in Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning).   This is a sentiment echoed by Cult of Pedagogy here. The foundation of background knowledge is the key for students to be able to engage in any kind of higher order thinking and retrieval practice will help to lay that foundation.

Start small, start today

This learning strategy is highly effectively and is surprisingly simple to implement. As pointed out by in her podcast with Dr Pooja Agarwal, Jennifer Gonzalez advises teachers to start with something small like a short quiz or exit slip asking students to retrieve important concepts from the lesson.



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