Retrieval Practice: The Rule of 3

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Retrieval Practice Memory


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How best can a teacher test what a pupil has learnt?

Research suggests that retrieval is the key process for understanding and for promoting learning. Understanding retrieval for teachers is essential for understanding learning. Retrieval is not just a neutral assessment of a learner’s knowledge, but the act of retrieval itself produces learning.

How do you know if a pupil has learned something?

The authors suggest that “learning represents the ability to use past experiences in the service of the present.” The correct answer should be that there has been a shift in long-term memory, acquiring knowledge. If a person has learned something, it means they are capable of using information. I have had the knowledge versus skills debate with headteacher, Clare Sealy:

Clare responded to a tweet I shared about ‘ironing a shirt in a hotel’ (Sealy, 2018). I asked whether ironing a shirt was about knowledge or skills. Clare responded with a reply and link to her blog post explaining the difference between knowledge: – particularly declarative knowledge and procedural knowledge:

  • Declarative knowledge = to know that.
  • Procedural knowledge = to know how.

In essence, learning is more than encoding information. I need to know something (declarative), and then know what to do (procedural) with that information; using that knowledge and deciding skill/critical thinking to apply when required. With the abundance of research, blogs and articles, I believe all teachers should know more about memory.

What is retrieval practice?

Retrieval is the “analysis of learning” and the process of ‘retrieval itself’ contributes to learning. Karpicke et al argue that “Despite the positive effects of active retrieval practice, several findings converge on the conclusion that many students lack metacognitive awareness of the benefits of active retrieval.”

It is, therefore, essential schools and teachers teach students metacognition: how to learn.

Karpicke et al suggest that for “decades, researchers in cognitive psychology have made the argument on both logical and empirical grounds that [pupils] do not store copies of past experiences and reproduce them verbatim at the time of retrieval… [Pupils] sometimes experience illusions and distortions when they reconstruct knowledge… The knowledge a [pupil] expresses can vary greatly depending on the retrieval cues available… The inferences one might make about student learning depend entirely on the retrieval conditions.”

Never assume learning has happened…

I have always advocated that it is ‘dangerous’ for teachers to ‘assume’ pupils have learned something. It is vital that every teacher regularly checks the learning – and learn how to do this effectively with 30 pupils in the room!

What does the research suggest?

“If retrieval merely assessed the learning, then we would not expect to see much gained by increasing the number of repeated retrieval opportunities. Yet repeated retrieval produced large gains in long-term retention. Repeatedly retrieving words during initial learning, which amounted to only two or three extra retrievals in this experiment, produced about a 150 % improvement in long-term retention.”

In fact, the research advocates that retrieving information at least two, if not three, times will optimise performance. The researchers conclude that the “challenge for future research and development is to identify the best ways to leverage active retrieval to promote student learning” and do it, two or three times! As ever, this is a challenge for us all…

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Get in touch if you are looking for Just Great Teaching ideas and discover what retrieval pracrice may look like in a practical training day. There are some resource ideas on this website.

Source: Karpicke, J. D. and Grimaldi, P. J. (2012), ‘Retrieval-based learning: A perspective for enhancing meaningful learning’, Educational Psychology Review, 24, (3), 401–418.

You can download the full paper here.

9 thoughts on “Retrieval Practice: The Rule of 3

  1. This fits exactly with a podcast that I was signposted to recently, “The Learning Scientist”, which talks in depth about ‘retrieval practice’. Great article!

  2. I think this is a fantastic article!
    I utilise the rule of 3 in the form of a pop quizzes during each lesson, and after the third quiz on the lesson’s content it is clear that the students are far confident not only about the answers required for the questions, but also why said answers are correct.

      1. No far from it @Janette, I incorporate the quizzes in such a way that the students not only learn from them but also have fun whilst completing them.

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