Retrieval Practice For Revision

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How can we support students in their revision?

Retrieval practice is defined by Mark Enser as ‘retrieving something from our memories to make it easier to recall in future.’ If using it makes recall easier, surely this is a big win for learning and the progress of our students.

It has had a lot of press recently and is cited by The Learning Scientists as the most effective study method according to much solid research. Proof it’s important, then, if we perceive learning as something entering long-term memory. What strategies can we use to make it a successful and regular part of our classroom?

www.retrievalpractice.org helpfully offers this explanation of retrieval: ‘looking back and pulling information out of your head.’

Here are my top five ways of ‘pulling information out of students’ heads’:

1. Self-quizzing

This in itself is a strategy that has become widely used. It usually involves the teacher developing a knowledge-organiser with all the key information from that scheme which students use as revision homework. They try to memorise it in sections in a similar way to spellings. For example, read, regurgitate, check and correct with the final stage done in a different colour pen. This helps because they can visually see the gaps in their knowledge.

We have launched a lecture series this year for our grade 7-9 students. We have encouraged them to use Cornell note-taking. This works by writing key questions in the margin and a summary at the bottom. They can use these notes to self-quiz by concealing the answers to their questions from the lecture in order to memorise the key information as part of their revision.

2. Tests

There are many ways to structure tests, but it does make the above revision homework more purposeful if students know they will be tested on it in class. I use regular ‘recap’ tests which might feature questions about themes, quotes, characters and academic style. Andy Tharby’s excellent Memory Platform structure tests last lesson, last week, last term and finally links last lesson to last term to encourage the transferring of knowledge (clearly a priority in the new Ofsted framework).

3. Cloze

Cloze exercises can be a great way to gently remove scaffolding from retrieval practice activities by initially providing quite a few keywords and gradually reducing this until you a left with something like: the witches’ chant in Act One, 13 words ‘______________’. I find this a great one for memorising quotes.

4. Brain Dump

I’m not keen on the name. Being an English teacher it’s all about the connotations and I’m not sure there are many positive ones for ‘dump’! However, this is an effective strategy with no teacher planning required. Simply, give students a topic (for example, the theme of responsibility in An Inspector Calls) and they write everything they can remember. Do this individually, in pairs or teams. This can then be added to as a class with students writing down anything they did not have in a different colour, again to make the gaps in their knowledge visible.

5. Paired Quizzing

Give one student questions and answers to quiz their partner with before changing roles. Providing the answers for them just avoids the sharing of any misconceptions. Get students into the habit of trying to ‘elicit’ the correct answer from their partner before providing it.

I like using Tip-Tip-Teach-Try Again.This involves providing a tip, usually in the form of a question (e.g. can you remember a word beginning with ‘p’ that links to the witches?), followed by a second tip. If their partner is still struggling, they give them the answer but then ask the question again to ensure they have listened. You could insist that students write any answers they did not get right first time.

And finally…

There are lots more activities you could use to make retrieval practice a regular part of your teaching and I know that both Tom Sherrington and Mark Enser have written great blogs about this recently but the above are some that I use regularly and have worked well in my classroom.

I teach mainly low-ability sets and my year 7 class could confidently tell you all about ethos, logos or pathos and its relevance in ancient Greece from Shakespeare to the modern-day – using some pretty impressive vocabulary. I think this is thanks to retrieval practice and – though this may be perceived as boring for some – repetition. repetition, repetition!

Helen Sharpe

Helen works at The Radclyffe School in Oldham as English AST and Lead Teacher for Literacy. She has worked tirelessly to build a culture of reading through regular assemblies and whole-school initiatives while trialling and sharing best practice in pedagogy. Helen is passionate about curriculum design and led the development of a KS3 curriculum which followed 'the journey of literature' in her faculty, underpinned with fortnightly grammar and reading/spelling lessons. This curriculum was designed to be rich in high-quality texts, academic language and challenge and it has thus far had transformative results. She believes in high levels of challenge for all students regardless of ability or need.

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