The art of retrieval

I’m now in my 11th year of teaching and I regularly reflect on my ‘pedagogy toolkit’ during the early stages of my career where it was all about discovery-based learning. I remember on several occasions being observed as a ‘facilitator’ in the room, with students working together to understand the processes that occurred at the different tectonic plate margins. You know what’s coming next, it was judged to be an outstanding lesson! For a few years, this approach to teaching and learning would continue and I was often confused when I’d set up this whiz-bang lesson, judged as outstanding, weeks later it was as if the lesson hadn’t taken place. I had provided the means for them to acquire knowledge, but they hadn’t retained the knowledge or even understood it, therefore they hadn’t learnt it.

The workaround cognitive load theory explains the reasons why teachers were struggling to understand why students were often forgetting what they had been taught the previous week:

‘Learning is defined as an alteration in long-term memory. If nothing has been altered in long-term memory, nothing has been learned.’ – Pass & Sweller (2014), Cognitive Load Theory.

Fast forward to today, my ‘pedagogy toolkit’ is very different from research-based evidence significantly influencing the way I approach lessons. Retrieval practice is one strategy that has transformed my approach to teaching. In the past, teaching was all about giving students knowledge in the hope that it would ‘stick’. The research on the forgetting curve, indicates the limitations of this approach, with the findings highlighting that if knowledge isn’t revisited, it can be completely lost from memory within a week. The art of retrieving previous knowledge regularly supports long term retention, aiding easier recall:

‘The critical mechanism for promoting retention of information is the successful retrieval of that information.’ – Andrew C Butler & Henry L Roediger (2008), Memory & Recognition.

The studies conducted by Karpicke and Roediger on studying and retrieving knowledge, which you can read here –  Karpicke & Roediger Study, demonstrated the power of retrieval in promoting meaningful learning.

Over the past few years, I have embedded retrieval practice in my teaching, and sharing the importance of this with my students, so that they understand the benefit and reduce their anxiety around ‘knowing stuff’. So, what does retrieval practice look like in my classroom? Here are four strategies that I have embedded, which are having a positive impact on improving student learning and long-term retention.


  1. Low-stake quizzing

At the start of the lesson, students are provided with six low-stake questions where they are actively recalling information from memory, without any aid from previous notes. The questions are spaced based on knowledge over time. I provide instant feedback following the short quiz and use the evidence to inform my planning in the coming weeks, or explicitly re-teach a concept or process at that point before moving on.

I asked several students their thoughts of retrieving knowledge from memory using this type of quiz.

‘I believe that having a quiz at the start of a lesson allows me to recap knowledge. They allow me to challenge my memory from past lessons and boost my overall knowledge of key information and facts. Without these short quizzes, I don’t think I would remember as many facts.’ – Emily, a Year 10 student.

‘In my opinion, having an opportunity to recall knowledge leads you to memorise and understand subjects/ topics a lot more because you are constantly recapping your knowledge. For example, at the beginning of year 7 I got confused by the different processes of erosion. I can now remember what they are and what they mean. I believe that they are very effective.’ Eva, a Year 9 student.


  1. Memory dump

This is an opportunity for students to recall knowledge about a concept or process using a blank sheet of A4 paper. For example, giving students 5 minutes to recall the physical and human causes of river flooding. This is again done from memory without any notes. Once the time is up, instant feedback is provided through a peer discussion around what they have managed to recall. Then using a knowledge organiser, they can identify the gaps in knowledge, and this becomes a focus for their homework during that week, or again if there is a concept or process that needs explicitly re-teaching, I do this before moving on.


  1. Memory draw

There are numerous studies that provide evidence for the benefits of drawing to aid learning. I regularly get students to recall a previously studied concept or process by drawing it from memory. For example, when looking at the processes of erosion, students draw the process before writing their understanding of it.


  1. Image recall

The use of images in Geography is a powerful strategy in supporting knowledge recall and retention, which can be done in several ways to support learning. For example, using images of river and coastal landforms to recall the sequence of formation from memory. Providing students with the diagram and asking them to annotate the diagram to recall the sequence.

2 thoughts on “The art of retrieval

  1. This is incredible – thank you. I’m going to share with SLT as good practice for whole school to adapt if that’s okay with you?

    Tara G. Caruso

    ** Via iPhone – the amazing technology of today! **



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