Adventures in Retrieval Practice

Today I introduced my A level class to the concept of retrieval practice, based on the fabulous resources by the Learning Scientists – @AceThatTest. I timed it to take place at the end of the first theory topic of the year, before the first end-of-topic-test.

I started by showing them this excerpt from Professor Robert Winston’s BBC documentary, The Human Mind, on the role of the synapses and neurons in learning something new.

I then showed them the PowerPoint on retrieval practice by The Learning Scientists – @AceThatTest, available to download here. Although this class is a second year A level class and they have a year of solid retrieval practice behind them, we had never talked about the theory behind the practice of consistent recall of material.

It was then over to my class, and they completed the following activities:

  1. Recall everything you know about the topic by listing or mind mapping
  2. Compare what you know with your notes and topic pack and fill in any gaps. Check for accuracy
  3. Write ten questions on the topic – swap with the person next to you and answer the questions you are given
  4. Answer two past exam paper questions
  5. Repeat steps 1-4

Finally, we ended the lesson with a feedback session on the methods they had used to revise the topic, and an exit ticket question on the topic.

What Went Well

Every student identified areas for revision, and all were able to articulate what they did know, which was evident in the exam question answers and the exit ticket responses. That said, they were able to do this in AS year. Perhaps the best thing about the lesson was the discussion around learning that took place. Some students asked why I don’t teach them according to their preferred learning style, which was very interesting and will be something that will come up again I suspect. We talked about ability and how much control they can have over their progress, which ties in nicely with the work we are doing to foster growth mindset as a culture. Most valuably, there were comments along the lines of, ‘so this is why we do so many past exam questions..’. I hope they have taken away the idea that there is a very good reason for all those past exam questions, (and it’s not that I especially love marking), and start to reflect on their independent study habits as a consequence.

Even Better If

This class did not enjoy unstructured retrieval, and the majority fed back that they would prefer targeted questions rather than the ‘recall everything you know’ approach. This made them feel uncomfortable, so I need to figure out if this is good-uncomfortable that they will benefit from in the longer term, or bad-uncomfortable, in which case I will use a more structured approach next time. In Make it Stick, it is stated that “effortful retrieval makes for stronger learning and retention” (Brown, Roediger and McDaniel, 2014). It is certainly true that the retrieval I asked for was harder than retrieval using questions as prompts.

Don’t Ever Do Again

Possibly the unstructured ‘tell me what you know’ approach at step 1. They really did not like this, but I need to identify if that was because it was hard rather than ineffectual.


Brown, P.C., Roediger, H.L. and McDaniel, M.A. (2014) Make it Stick: The science of successful learning. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.