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4 ways to avoid Retrieval Practice becoming gimmicky

4 ways to avoid Retrieval Practice becoming a gimmick in your school

7 min read
  • Becoming evidence-informed
  • Retrieval Practice

To maximise teaching, we need to understand how learning takes place. Over the last few years, this understanding has rightfully led many to think about how they use retrieval practice in lessons.

Retrieval practice, the act of recalling previously-learnt information, has the potential to transform and accelerate students’ learning. It has been widely adopted by teachers all over the world. But whenever research findings become mainstream and mandated, there is potential for it to mutate into a tick box exercise, a step away from becoming a gimmick.

So, what are the red flags that might indicate that retrieval practice is in danger of being stuck with the gimmick label?

Research into retrieval practice has found it is associated with many beneficial outcomes. These include:

  • Increased rate of learning
  • Identification of gaps in knowledge
  • Reduction of stress
  • Development of metacognitive skills

So what could go wrong? When something has a positive evidence base, excited leaders look to scale this up across their school, college or MAT. The temptation to create a template or mandate a delivery process is strong. Despite good intentions (wanting all students to get the benefits of retrieval practice) it can quickly morph into a rigid “thing” to be done, with no wiggle room offered.

Once this happens, the nuance gets lost and it runs the risks of being seen as a gimmick. Inevitably, the pressure to mandate retrieval approaches can be magnified through assumptions that “Ofsted want to see it”.

In general, non-negotiables reduce teacher judgement and diminish the appeal of a strategy. Where teachers lack agency, retrieval practice is done superficially. This causes resentment, and eventually poor implementation, undermining the whole point of the original research.

Let’s explore this in this blog co-written with Mark Roberts…

3 signs that Retrieval Practice could become a gimmick in your school

So, what are the warning signs of gimmickry? We think there are at least three red flags to look out for…

1. The obligation to use it at start of every lesson

There is a very good case to be made for starting a lesson with retrieval practice. A recent study supports this, with researchers finding that activating prior learning helps improve retention and reduce cognitive load. Some teachers may opt to do it in all lessons.

But the key here is teacher choice. Once something is externally directed by those not teaching the class, with no flexibility or nuance, problems arise.

There are times where using retrieval practice may not be optimal. Teachers might fall into the trap of asking students to recall a topic that has not yet been taught in adequate depth, leading to shallow, guessed responses. Or, on other occasions, teachers might want to start a lesson with a more inspirational introduction to a new topic – one designed to spark curiosity rather than check for understanding.

In Mark’s English lessons, for example, instead of quizzing students about enjambment and caesura, he will often prefer to start poetry lessons with a philosophical statement designed purely to get students thinking. Sometimes, retrieval will also make more sense during the middle of a lesson. Rigidly dictating that retrieval practice should only be done at the start of a lesson can inhibit learning.

2. Mandating a set amount of time to practise retrieval

Research has been unable to identify an ideal amount of time to spend in each lesson doing retrieval practice. The nearest we could find is in Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction, suggesting that 5-8 minutes at the start should be spent on reviewing previous learning, which is similar but not the same as retrieval practice.

Even then, it’s one of the few things in his awesome seminal paper that we disagree with. Each lesson is different. The context, length, topic and the students in front of you are unique. Likewise, the type of retrieval practice you use has to be factored in. Therefore, any attempt to prescribe a set amount of time to spend on retrieval practice transforms a highly effective technique into a crude, blunt instrument.

For example, Mark once started a Year 12 literature lesson with three quotations on the board, which he wanted students to quickly annotate and then discuss. After 15 minutes, he realised that this retrieval “starter” was actually going to take up the entire lesson. Students were getting so much out of the activity that stopping it due to a seemingly arbitrary time limit would have been ludicrous. 

3. Prioritising fun during retrieval

One of the reasons retrieval practice works is that it prompts students to think hard (which is one of the reasons they have an awkward relationship with this strategy). Research suggests students prefer retrieval practice when it is easy and fun ­­– however, the same research paper also found that fun forms of retrieval aren’t effective.

It’s easy to understand the desire to make retrieval fun. The theory goes that fun leads to engagement which leads to learning, but the evidence around academic motivation suggests this tends not to be the case. Of course we want students to enjoy lessons and develop a love of learning, but the minute we prioritise fun over learning, we move from away from what retrieval practice should primarily be about.

In the past, Mark might have used a Kahoot quiz or have asked students to throw a ball around the class, retrieving information as they caught it. But over time, he came to realise that these snazzy engagement approaches distracted students from the actual learning. Unfortunately, they remember the fun of lobbing a ball around the room, or the quirky quiz team names, but they forget the crucial knowledge about the character of Duncan in Macbeth.

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4 strategies to avoid retrieval practice becoming a gimmick

If those are the pitfalls, what are the solutions? How can we ensure we get the most from retrieval practice when trying to implement it at scale?

1. Discuss general principles

Instead of viewing retrieval as a gimmicky one-off exercise that can be satisfied through a downloadable worksheet, it’s better to discuss guidelines and principles.

This can include why “recalling information ingrains learning”, why “memory is the reside of thought,” or how “quizzes can accelerate learning, not just assess it”. If these ideas lead to worksheets or retrieval activities, that’s fine. But the starting point should always be why we are doing it as opposed to the activity itself.

2. Trust teachers to use research to inform their judgement, not replace it

Teachers are the experts in their subjects. As retrieval practice will look different depending on both the subject being taught and the age of the students, the only way to maximise the research findings is to marry it with teacher expertise.

Doing so can be both liberating and exciting, as the best way to use retrieval practice in a deep, meaningful and long-lasting way is to lean on subject-specific teachers’ opinions. This may mean that there is a higher range of variability between subjects, but that is a good thing.

3. Embrace trial and error

The best way to avoid cognitive science becoming gimmicky is to engage in critical reflection. What worked well? What would you do differently? Why did X work better than Y?

By asking these questions, we ensure that we are all critical consumers. Over time, this may well be the best bet in avoiding fads and learning myths

4. Give staff the option to read the research first-hand

There are many barriers to reading research first-hand. They can be hard to locate, behind paywalls and written in psych-heavy jargon. This can be really time-consuming, especially in an age which often demands quick fixes.

But pushing through those obstacles can be worth it. There is gold in those research studies. And by reading them first-hand, teachers are more likely to be able to deduce for themselves what would work best for their classroom environment.

Again, choice is the key factor here. For those unwilling (or unable) to read research first-hand, providing research summaries may be a really good solution. These can cut through the noise and provide quick succinct summaries (to get started with this, here are a few such summaries).

Final thoughts

To the best of our current knowledge, retrieval practice offers one of our best bets to aid student learning. This means we can teach in a more efficient and effective manner. Hopefully some of the above red flags can help us navigate through a minefield of fads and gimmicks, leading us to a nuanced, context dependent and teacher-led way to implement retrieval practice in the classroom.

This blog was co-written with Mark Roberts. Be sure to follow him on Twitter @mr_englishteach.

About the author

Mark Roberts

Mark Roberts

Mark Roberts is Director of Research and an English Teacher at Carrickfergus Grammar School. He is the author of The Boy Question, an evidence-informed guide for busy classroom teachers packed with practical ideas to support boys to succeed in school. Mark is also a Council member of the Chartered College of Teaching, and frequently contributes to Tes on subjects including pedagogy, behaviour, leadership and educational research.

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