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How can you use feedback to enhance Retrieval Practice?

How can you use feedback to enhance Retrieval Practice?

4 min read
  • Delivering feedback
  • Retrieval Practice

Every teacher wants their students to learn more effectively and perform to the best of their ability in exams. And while there is unfortunately no rule book for this, there is one way you can have a positive impact on it: Retrieval Practice.

It has been repeatedly proven to aid student learning, by allowing them to learn information in the long term, making it ready to recall both when exams come around, and far beyond into the future.

But is there a way to make Retrieval Practice even more effective? Many have expressed curiosity about the way it may interact with feedback. So, here’s a look at what research says about providing feedback alongside Retrieval Practice…

The 6 benefits of Retrieval Practice

Retrieval Practice enhances and boosts learning by requiring students to generate answers to questions from memory. You’re probably already using it in your classroom, as some ways to use it include multiple-choice tests, past papers, quizzes, flashcards, and more.

This is in stark contrast to student favourites such as re-reading and highlighting – while these may give the impression of learning in the short term, this is more due to familiarity than true, long-lasting learning.

So, why is Retrieval Practice so effective? Well, it has six main benefits:

  1. It identifies gaps in knowledge
  2. It helps make stronger connections between information
  3. It allows to check for misunderstandings
  4. It strengthens memory connections
  5. It makes those connections more robust under pressure and stress
  6. It makes it easier to learn new things in the future

Retrieval Practice and feedback

So, where does feedback stand in all this? Research suggests that feedback enhances the positive effects of Retrieval Practice. As the authors of that study note, Retrieval Practice is often effective even without feedback (i.e., giving the correct answer), but feedback further enhances the benefits of testing.

But it’s not just about telling your students what is right or wrong – it also allows you to explain to your students why something is right or wrong, further strengthening that memory in their brain, as well as allowing them to approach future tasks more confidently.

Whilst there is no one-size-fits-all way to provide feedback to your students, here are some guidelines that might help you:

Immediate vs delayed feedback

You may have been told to give feedback immediately for it to be effective. And while this is true in some cases, delayed feedback may be more powerful in others. For example, in this interesting study where students were tested on the same multiple-choice quiz a week apart, those who received delayed feedback after the initial test remembered more than those who received immediate feedback (the annoying problem here is that researchers tend to disagree about what counts as ‘delayed feedback’… in some studies it is after ten minutes whilst in others it is much longer).

One reason why delayed feedback may help is that it creates a sort of Spacing Effect, allowing students to almost forget information before learning it again. Confused as to what that means for you? We’ve created this handy flowchart to help you decide when and how to provide feedback.

Group vs individual feedback

While many teachers will provide their students with group feedback, individual feedback has been shown to have a stronger effect on students’ Retrieval Practice decisions. While students who receive group feedback tend to choose to use Retrieval Practice only in the short term, those who receive individual feedback tend to choose to use it in both the short and long term. This is even more pronounced when students can see they have benefited from Retrieval Practice through things such as test results.

If students can see the benefit of using it, they are more likely to include Retrieval Practice in their revision routines. Individual feedback can show students that their actual learning did not in fact match their perceived learning. This could cause students to change their practice styles to what actually benefits them instead of what they mistakenly think helps.

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So, what does this look like in the classroom?

Here are a few things you could try in the classroom the boost your students’ learning and encourage them to use Retrieval Practice. Why don’t you give these a go:

Final thoughts

Retrieval Practice has been proven to be very beneficial to students’ learning. Not only does it improve skill application, but also allows better transfer of knowledge to new concepts. And one way to boost this is to use feedback alongside Retrieval Practice, as it furthers students’ understanding and allows them to produce better test results.

One important thing to remember: Retrieval Practice materials such as quizzes should be learning tools, not assessment tools, as high stakes partially negate the benefits of this strategy. And don’t forget to let your students know how Retrieval Practice can help them, to encourage them to make good use of it.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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