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How to use Retrieval Practice effectively in the classroom

How to use Retrieval Practice effectively in the classroom

6 min read
  • Retrieval Practice

Retrieval Practice, the process of generating an answer to a question, is one of the most effective learning strategies. There are many different ways to implement it in the classroom and in studying sessions such as multiple-choice questionnaires, quizzes or mini whiteboards.

However, what are the key factors to ensure that you are effectively utilising Retrieval Practice in the classroom? Should you include hints when testing? How do students feel after using Retrieval Practice? Let’s take a look at what the research suggests the best practices are…

What is Retrieval Practice?

Retrieval Practice is the process of generating an answer to a question. This strategy requires students to recall previously-learnt knowledge, which helps strengthen their memory traces. It also increases the likelihood that the information will be retained in their long-term memory.

Some benefits to using Retrieval Practice include:

  • Identifying gaps in knowledge
  • Making connections
  • Checking for understanding
  • Strengthening connections

How to use Retrieval Practice effectively

Low stakes

Testing can be stressful for students. Although a little amount of stress is good, too much can negatively impact their performance. Therefore, Retrieval Practice should be done in a low-stakes environment.

This was also shown in a study where participants were split into a high and low stakes group. Although there was no difference in the students’ quiz performance, when tested a week later, those in the low-stakes condition significantly outperformed those in the high-stakes condition. Therefore, the benefits for Retrieval Practice are more prominent when done under low stakes environments.

Some ways to help you implement a low-stakes environment in the classroom include:

  • Making it a classroom norm
  • Removing question timers
  • Getting rid of leader boards

Difficult and successful

The retrieval effort hypothesis suggests that the more difficult a successful Retrieval Practice is, the more effective it is for students’ memory. Therefore, it is all about finding the “sweet spot”, where students are challenged, but not so much that they cannot answer any of the questions.

Setting challenging tasks helps reflect the high expectations you have for your students, which can lead to the Pygmalion Effect. This is when people raise their achievement in order to meet others’ high standards and expectations. Setting difficult quizzes can therefore help improve your students’ performance. However, if the task exceeds your students’ ability, it can result in them feeling stressed and anxious. It is therefore important to set achievable, yet challenging  Retrieval Practice tasks.

Getting it wrong

What if students get the question wrong? Well, research suggests that simply doing a pre-test, even if they get some of the questions wrong, helps improve students’ performance in the final test.

Another example that shows this is the “Hypercorrection Effect”. This effect highlights that it is easy to correct students’ mistakes when they are highly confident in their answer. In a study, researchers found that having feedback followed by a test can help protect students against the return of these errors. Therefore, doing Retrieval Practice but getting it wrong can still support students’ learning.

Some other possible reasons for why getting it wrong can help is that:

  • It helps strengthen retrieval routes between the question and answer
  • It encourages deeper processing of the question and highlights related concepts
  • It acts as a cue when attempting to recall on subsequent tests
  • It drives future revision as gaps in knowledge have been identified

Feedback given

Feedback after using Retrieval Practice is the last tool to help utilise this strategy effectively. Some benefits to using feedback include:

  1. Clearing any misunderstandings

When using Retrieval Practice with strategies such as multiple-choice questionnaires, students might pick up false information. For example, if they pick the wrong answer and do not get this corrected, they might continue to falsely believe that the answer is correct.

Researchers have found that giving feedback can help make it unlikely that the student repeats the same mistakes. When students were given feedback, they also had a larger number of correct responses and improved performance. Therefore, giving feedback after using retrieval practice can help clear out any misunderstandings.

  1. Enhancing motivation

Across three studies, researchers asked students to study Swedish vocabulary using Retrieval Practice or by re-reading. They found that when students were given feedback, they were more likely to be interested in the subject.

When students weren’t given feedback, they were less interested in learning about the Swedish language. Therefore, giving feedback after a task can help develop students’ motivation and interest in the subject – with research showing that students who enjoyed school at a young age are more likely to perform better in their exams, this is highly beneficial.

  1. Promoting long-term use

Researchers have found that students rarely engage in Retrieval Practice when studying, but often re-read their notes or textbooks, which is an ineffective way to revise. Giving feedback after using Retrieval Practice has shown to promote the long-term use of this technique.

In this study, students were either given general feedback about the benefits of Retrieval Practice, or individualised feedback on how much they improved after using Retrieval Practice. The researchers found that giving individual feedback resulted in students using Retrieval Practice in the long term. Therefore, giving individual feedback about the benefits of Retrieval Practice can help encourage its use and improve students’ performance.

Accelerate academic growth at your school with one of the most effective Teaching & Learning strategies.

What if you can’t give feeback?

Can students still benefit from Retrieval Practice if it is unsuccessful, and they don’t receive feedback? Well, most studies that examined unsuccessful Retrieval Practice used pre-tests. Students are therefore introduced to the topic after the quiz, which might result in them self-correcting their errors.

As mentioned before, research also shows that if students get the question wrong without feedback, misconceptions can persist and become ingrained into their learning. Therefore, feedback is highly important for students to benefit from Retrieval Practice.

Giving hints during Retrieval Practice

Can giving hints help your students learn? Well, in this study, students either had no hints, weak, or strong hints to help them fill out the names of the body parts. The students then had a final test without hints. They reported that the task with strong hints was:

  • The most effective
  • The most fun
  • Something they would utilise from then on

However, using strong hints produced the worst final test performance. This discrepancy between students believing that the hint helped their revision and the reality of them performing worse is called “the illusion of learning.” This illusion commonly happens, with students often preferring learning strategies that require less effort and therefore reduced effectiveness.

Interestingly, the researchers found no significant difference in students’ performance or how fun they rated it if they got weak or no hints. It might therefore be useful to include weak hints if the task is too difficult. Overall, having strong hints can negatively impact students’ performance, but using weak hints might be helpful.

How do students feel after using Retrieval Practice?

Does using Retrieval Practice help students feel better? Well, in this study, students used Retrieval Practice in their lessons. They were then asked how they feel about their upcoming exams. The researchers found that:

  • 72% of students felt less nervous
  • 22% of students felt the same
  • 6% of students felt more nervous

Therefore, using Retrieval Practice is an effective way to help calm students’ nerves about an exam. This is particularly important, as stress can hinder their performance.

Final thoughts

Retrieval Practice is one of the most effective learning strategies you can implement in your classroom. However, there are some key points to keep in mind when using this technique. Firstly, it should be done in a low stake environment, it should be difficult but successful and feedback should be given to boost learning.

When it comes to giving hints, strong hints should be avoided as it could lead to an “illusion of learning”. However, using weak hints could support students learning, particularly if the task is difficult. Retrieval Practice is also beneficial in helping students feel calmer about their final exams, which can help them perform their best.

About the author

Kate Jones

Kate Jones

Kate Jones is a teacher, leader and Senior Associate of Teaching & Learning at Evidence Based Education. With over a decade of teaching experience in both the UK and abroad, she has also presented and worked with schools around the world as an education consultant. Kate is the author of seven books including best-seller Love to Teach: Research and resources for every classroom, and regularly contributes to various educational magazines. Alongside her teaching and leadership roles, she is also an Ambassador for bereavement charity, Winston’s Wish.

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