Retrieval is Everything

Most students and many teachers do not realise the huge importance of retrieval for learning. This post aims to explain why retrieval is important and to give some strategies for doing it well.

DO Hebb (1949) was the first person to acknowledge that, when neurones fire together, they wire together but it was not until the 1980s that scientists discovered what was happening on a physiological level when learning takes place.  Long term potentiation (LTP) is one of several phenomena underlying synaptic plasticity, the ability of chemical synapses to increase their strength the more often they are activated. LTP is widely considered one of the major cellular mechanisms that underlies learning and memory, and retrieval is the best way to make it happen.


When a child exclaims they don’t understand how they failed  a test when they revised for hours, I get them to show me what they have done. Invariably they have completed part of the process but not the most important one, why? Learning involves three distinct processes, encoding, rehearsal and retrieval. Students love the encoding part, making colourful mindmaps and cue cards. They don’t mind the rehearsal part, repeating the information they have just learned. But they hate the retrieval part because it is hard and boring. Therefore, there is hardly ever any evidence of completed practice questions as part of their revisionRetrieval is most effective when it is done long after learning and is done cold, without text books or cues to help.  It requires effort and perhaps even some anxiety and that is why it is so often overlooked. Yet it is the part of the process which gives the most robust learning of information and best chance of being able to apply the knowledge later on.

Memory_ProcessThe diagram shows the processes used to lay down a memory. Encoding involves making the information stand out (elaborative encoding), knowing what it means (semantic encoding); rehearsal involves repetition of what has just been learned and retrieval is remembering information learned some time ago.

So let’s go over some 5 minute strategies for retrieval that teachers can use and students can adopt for their own learning.

  1. The brain dump. Five minutes at the start of a lesson using a topic covered last term or even last year. Give students a piece of paper and a pen (no notes or books) and set the timer. Students write all they know about the topic of social influence for example. At that point they can check with the textbook adding detail that they have missed. A week later, they can do the same exercise again and be amazed as to how much more detail and how much easier it is the second time.
  2. The starter question. Pick an exam question from a previous topic and get students to answer it from memory. They will protest that they don’t know it but  must write something. The teacher can then put up a model answer and get the students to complete the question.
  3. Write the opening sentence. Students are given an exam question e.g. ‘Discuss two ways in which people might resist social influence.’ By writing just an opening sentence, students are retrieving their conceptual knowledge and their exam skill knowledge. It is a very powerful tool for uncovering and righting misconceptions in two minutes flat!
  4. Draw me a diagram. I usually get a student to draw on the whiteboard and others call out annotations. Misconceptions can be discussed and sorted there and then. One of my favourites but make sure it is from two topics ago if your aim is to prectise retrieval and not rehearsal.
  5. Kahoot quizzes are awesome.  It takes seconds to make an account and you do not have to write them yourself, simply search for a topic and away you go.  You can use them for AFL as the students are playing. I write down the topics that show the highest rate of variation in the answers so that I can make a note to retrieve those next time.

So remember, for learning to take place on a deep level it must be retrieved, cold, from two topics ago and retrieved often. Students have not revised if they have only done the encoding part so make sure all revision includes practice questions. If you’re still in doubt, take a look at the downward arrow on the long term memory box. Until next time, enjoy your retrieval escapades and let me know if you come across any more strategy gems.










Kill that Photocopier

Ok, so I haven’t posted for a long time. My excuse? we moved house, I became a director of subject and increased my workload and, yes, I got sucked into the working 50 plus hours a week once again. However, something that happened this week re-ignighted my passion for doing a good job and doing it smart.

On Monday we returned after half term to find new photocopiers has been installed in school. I rushed in to explore the shiny new machines with loads of questions. could I copy in colour, make booklets, staple and print in A3?  In my overzealouness, I didn’t notice that we had been given a personal budget of £10 for the term and I had used this up in 10 minutes!

I panicked for a minute and then I thought, perhaps all is not lost, perhaps I could do things differently.  I quickly reviewed my week’s lessons and asked myself, ‘Do I really need to print that worksheet, table, bit of information to hand out or is there another way I could do this?’ of course, I had the option of putting all my handouts through our reprographics department but they require 48 hours’ notice and I needed them in 10 minutes, so that was out of the question.

I looked through my lessons for the day and asked myself what was the main purpose of the handouts I had gathered to accompany them and were they really necessary? was there another way of using them that didn’t involve the kids spending ten minutes fighting over the glue sticks and hole punch?

hear are some things I came up with:

  1. Organiser for Working Memory snipped from a textbook. instead of giving them the full handout, they sketched the table and then completed it using the text book.WMM

2. Write your own scenario:  The second handout I was going to give the kids (in the same lesson!) was a scenario about shopping in the sales. I made up my own quick scenario about buying my new house and got the kids to jot it down.  I talked about looking around the house, thinking about the furniture I had and where it would fit, wondering if my bedding would go with the curtains or whether I would have to buy more and could I afford it? etc etc.  I then got them to annotate the scenario to show where I had used various parts of my working memory. even better, I could have got them to write a scenario of a personal experience and then annotated their own.

3.  Essay plan template:  I normally print copies of these and give them out so that students can plan upcoming essays. however this time I got them to retrieve the plan template from memory and jot it down before adding the information. This also helped them to retrieve their knowledge of essay structure so they and I gained from the activity

4. Feeding back on a test. Instead of printing out the markscheme (which are useless as they need interpretation anyway) I did a couple of powerpoint slides on whole class feedback e,g, general misconceptions and questions that were generally not answered well. then I used a visualiser to write in some model answers live so that students could correct their papers with me and then write a hint that would help them next time.

NB. I am old so my hands do not look greatt under a visualiser, bear this in mind if you try it yourself and invest in some luxury hand cream or maybe a pair of gloves!

I am liberated! I am no longer going to spend hours at the photcopier unblocking someone else’s paper jam that they gave up on and walked away from or hunting for paper in the first place as it always seem to have run out by the time I get there. I will have to wear an extra cardigan as I no longer carry the residual warmth of the daily 20 minute stint at the copier, but the time and freedom I have gained is well worth it.