Ways I am using Retrieval Practice
‘…the retrieval effect means that if you want to retrieve knowledge from your memory, you have to practice retrieving knowledge from your memory.’ 1
Retrieval practice while not being a panacea is now a well-edupublicised approach across the Twitterati. Here are some simple ways I have been adopting retrieval practice in the classroom.
1) Lag Homework/Classwork Feedback/Free Recall Tests: Marking the students’ books I make a note of what they couldn’t do so well earlier on in the term or year and write a Memory Task (MT) in their book. Depending on how well or how not so well the students have grasped previous ‘learning’ from my interpretation of what they have written down in books I write a task to complete to redo or rexplain something. For example, if we covered how to write a short paragraph in the present and perfect tenses in French last term I might write,
‘MT: Please write as much as you can about what you do in your free time and what you did last weekend.'
Or simply I might walk around the class while the students are working and deliver an impromptu free recall test, ‘Write all you can about how the imperfect tense works’, for when the students have finished (if I haven’t used extension retrieval practice tasks as per number 5 on this list below).
I’m also thinking of getting students to use card to go back to earlier sections in their books and simply cover up explanations we might have noted down, previous exercises or written pieces and asking them to redo them on a blank page or on separate paper before then comparing the up-to-date version with what they did before.
2) Syllabus retrieval practice: I tried the following with a Year 11 student I was mentoring once having downloaded the exam specifications, past papers, mark schemes, specimen papers and examiner reports for all of his subjects; called up the specimen papers for three or four subjects and scrolled down to the ‘Subject Content’ section. Then, simply, I would use a mix of elaborative interrogation with him reading the key idea out before then adding ‘why is this true?’ to the end of the key idea and then him answering his own question as well as he could.
Then, not allowing him to see the specification I would ask a series of fairly generic, ‘content-free’ prompts (with Geography being an erstwhile A-Level Geographer I did sometimes venture into more specific Geography prompts and with other subjects if I had a little more knowledge of them then I dared to venture into domain-specific questioning in more depth). So, looking at the outgoing AQA Geography spec I might have asked something relatively straightforward (for me that is, to think up) like ‘How does the vegetation in temperate deciduous forest adapt to the climate and soils?’
As an aside and to show how potentially useful a technique this could be I might then look at a past paper with the student and hold down ‘ctrl + f’ to do a search on the paper to find an example of the content that was just tested…and a quick search on the 2014 past paper reveals the following question,
‘4 (a) (ii) Explain how vegetation in hot deserts adapts to the climate.
3) Pre-testing: To make it more accessible I have used multiple-choice questions and not free-recall tests to test the students on the content coming up. Forgive the self-promotion but sometimes I have used an activity from Fun Learning Activities in MFL ('Fast-Forwarded Learning') where I film myself ‘teaching’ to an empty room a part of the syllabus to come and the task for the students is to work out an answer based on this ‘Fastforwarded’ aspect of the course to come when I play it to them.
4) Free Recall Takeaway Extension Tasks: I’ve only recently been trialling this but at the start of a term or with a new class I project a list of potential extension tasks which must take place on a blank page in books, totally from memory. The students make a list of these tasks at the back of their books in the first lesson or first lesson back and we practise using these throughout the term. So, there might be a list of 10-15 Free Recall Extension Tasks which students copy down and then choose different ones throughout the year when they’ve finished working in class. Things like, ‘Write out everything you know from memory about how the future tense works’ and ‘Write out the main groups of adjective endings and an example for each.’
5) Paired-retrieval practice: To lower the stakes I always used to use this activity with students in pairs to test their retrieval pretty much when they came into the classroom. By projecting the list of key vocabulary which had been practised a previous lesson or two/three lessons prior I covered up the meanings and called out a time limit for each pair in the class to write as many meanings down as possible. The winning pair after the meanings were shown once the time limit elapsed won the language trophies on their desks for the rest of the lesson. I used to use this activity once the students had just finished practising the vocabulary in the same lesson but found that retrieval strength was too high so that the students could easily recall meanings. Good for self-efficacy perhaps but less beneficial in terms of creating the conditions towards making more durable learning.
6) Magic-Whiteboard Retrieval: Similarly, I might project a list of ‘Takeaway Retrieval Practice Tasks’ and ask the students to ‘Go To The Walls’ having chosen a task from the takeaway and complete it on Magic Whiteboard stuck up around the room.
7) Learning Mat Retrieval: Asking the students to write & draw all that they can from memory from the previous term or year on a double page spread in books.
1 James M. Lang, (2016) Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons From the Science of Learning, San Francisco, Jossey-Bass. loc. 523.