The initial introduction of retrieval requires two elements to become successfully embedded:
a) We, as teachers, need the process of retrieval to become a habit so that it is an integral part of our daily planning;
b) Students are used to the challenge of retrieving information without referring to their notes / books and recognise the benefits of this ‘testing’ in order to identify areas of weakness but to also help strengthen information stored in their long-term memories.
Once these foundational points are established, we should then consider the purpose of the task being set. Recalling ‘everything about tectonics’ may be worthwhile when preparing for a summative assessment and we can provide students with sufficient time to review their work, to identify gaps / errors, to really reflect honestly on their current knowledge level and to set specific targets for future study. However, often we do not have a large block of time available to do this effectively so the focus of the retrieval practice needs to be more nuanced. This is where we need to think more deeply about the purpose of the task.
We may wish to consider whether the retrieval of specific aspects of prior learning are needed in order for students to fully understand the new content being delivered in a lesson. For example, when teaching about the formation of coastal landforms, students need to know about the different process affecting the coastline so the retrieval task would focus on the types of erosion and weathering that they have learnt the previous year.
Alternatively, we may choose to review knowledge of an unrelated topic (e.g. the facts for a volcanic eruption) as part of a planned sequence of inter-leaving. For example, year 11 geographers complete a weekly ‘case study quiz’ focusing solely on the recall of specific facts and figures related to a named case study.
Equally, the focus on the simple recall of facts many not be sufficient to ensure that students fully understand a topic. Instead, retrieval may need to prioritise conceptual understanding e.g. create a chain of consequences arising from the River Severn flooding; or identify and rank the reasons for lower levels of development in Malawi compared to Singapore.
Another option is for students to recall the steps / instructions for a particular procedure e.g. balancing chemical equations, the structure / features of a particular type of extended writing or how to give 6 figure grid references. For a novel or a historical time period, students could be challenged to recall the key events and then order these chronologically.
Multiple choice questions are often linked to retrieval practice. Their value can often lie in providing us with an opportunity to check students understanding (or, hopefully, their lack of mis-conceptions). Here, thought needs to be given to ensuring that plausible distractors are included so that we can make an accurate judgement about levels of understanding and reduce the chance of students making a ‘positive guess’.
With all of these adjustments / variations, the essential principle remains the same: students complete the task individually, in silence and without reference to any related material. They are then given time to reflect on how well they were able to complete the task too. The challenge for us as teachers, is to really consider the exact purpose of the task so that it is effective as possible.