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Retrieval Practice: School consistency and teacher autonomy

Retrieval Practice: Balancing school consistency and teacher autonomy

4 min read
  • Retrieval Practice

In the quest to best maximise the benefits of Retrieval Practice, schools and colleges are facing an interesting dilemma. Is it best to go for a consistent approach that runs through every lesson and subject, or is it better to let their teachers decide how best to weave retrieval into their daily practice?

Both options have their potential downsides. If school consistency is too rigid, then it can stifle creativity and negate each teacher’s expertise. However, if autonomy is too broad, then strategies done under the name of “retrieval” can vary so much that the lack of guidance and structure can lead to negative consequences.

Retrieval principles, not specific strategies

Perhaps the answer in the great Consistency vs Autonomy battle lies in how we view Retrieval Practice – specifically, viewing it through the lens of “Principles” instead of “Strategies”.

Research has indicated that there are several principles, or “active ingredients” that will hopefully lead to more effective Retrieval Practice. This include, but are not limited to:

  • Challenging but successful – If retrieval is too easy, then students aren’t thinking hard enough. However, if it is too difficult, then it can either be demotivating or sub-optimal for memory.
  • Low stakes – Excessive stress can hinder retention and recall. Keeping retrieval low-stakes, which helps differentiate it from formal assessment, should help enhance learning.
  • Spaced retrieval – As people forget things at a far quicker rate than we would like, one-off retrieval is less effective than revisiting the material regularly.
  • Interleaved retrieval – Combining Interleaving with Retrieval Practice has shown good promise in the research.

These are broad-brush, general principles that can nudge a teacher in a general direction on how to utilise retrieval. They act as a compass that can point in a particular direction, but not as GPS that can give exact coordinates.

The specific strategies of Retrieval Practice can vary within any of these principles and take many forms. For example, this could be a short multiple-choice quiz at the start of a lesson or asking students at the end of class to write down everything they remember from the lesson in 60 seconds.

What’s important to note is that the research is much more conclusive on the efficacy of general principles, but we are still waiting to see exactly how that translates best into day-to-day teaching.

Why do we know less about specific strategies?

There is no short, simple and easy answer for this. It is probably due to a number of factors, which include:

  • The original research studies were done in a different setting to the one you teach in (i.e., many, but not all, are done in a University context).
  • Each subject has its different nuances and demands (i.e., retrieval in English may look different than retrieval in PE).
  • Some strategies may be more specific to different age students, so therefore what works in Year 3 may not be appropriate for Year 13.
  • The context of your school is unique, which means that a particular strategy that works somewhere may not work as well elsewhere.
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If we know less about specific strategies, why might they be popular?

There are three potential reasons why society may be drawn to specific strategies over focusing on general principles…

Time saving

It is far quicker to teach a large group of people (i.e., all your staff) about a specific strategy. Teaching about the principles requires more than surface knowledge. It probably involves discussion and debate about the research and the mechanisms that underpin the process.

As time is the big elephant in the room in education, this means short-termism can lead to a focus on just a specific strategy to the detriment of the principles behind it.

Mandated from above

Due to the big potential benefits that Retrieval Practice offers, it is tempting to mandate that it gets done in a certain way to ensure some level of roll-out occurs. This can, for example, lead to it being dictated that every lesson has start with a certain Retrieval Practice activity.

For more on this, you can read about this in our blog here.

It might work – for a select group

Set rules (aka specific strategies) can be beneficial for some people, typically novices. Following a rigid formula can help someone go from novice to competent, as it provides a framework that they otherwise wouldn’t have followed. This idea is based on the Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition*.

Therefore, if you had no idea how to implement Retrieval Practice, then having a few tangible strategies may actually help.

Final thoughts

So, how can schools balance the desire for consistency vs teacher autonomy when it comes to Retrieval Practice?

A crucial first step may well be to strive for consistency of principles as opposed to consistency of strategies. One-off specific strategies may be quick to learn and easy to administer, but they come with a cost.

It is only once we dig into the underlying principles and mechanisms, as well as give teachers the time and space to reflect how they think it can best be applied to their subject and in their context, that we are likely to see Retrieval Practice best utilised in the classroom.

We first came across the idea of applying cognitive science to the Dreyfus Model from Dr Tom Perry, as part of our Cognitive Science Network masterclasses. You should follow him on Twitter, he is a genius.