The art of Retrieval Practice

Education has a number of different trends which come and go, but ultimately whichever way content is delivered, the student has to sit in an exam hall on their own and retrieve all those golden nuggets of information that their teachers have tried to instil into them.

So all of a sudden the action is reversed instead of trying to get information INTO students, we have to try to get information OUT of students. Now those of you with teenage children, getting anything out of them is a near on impossible task, let alone any semblance of information, so this presents quite the challenge.

Retrieval practice is a researched learning strategy which focuses on bringing information to the front of the brain so that it can be acted upon efficiently. Revision strategies have tended to be based upon reading textbooks and highlighting key information and hoping that we can remember them, in he old days we called this technique ‘cramming’. All students think they can read something and then feel confident that they know the information, until they are faced with the pressure cooker of the exam hall and it has all mysteriously disappeared. How many of you have started an exam confidently and then half way through the question stopped to think ‘what shall I write about next’? Retrieval practice is positioned to prevent this situation from occurring.

Retrieval practice is a strategy in which bringing information to mind enhances and boosts learning. Deliberately recalling information forces us to pull our knowledge “out” and examine what we know.


So by trying to recall information we can strengthen our memory and help bring the information to hand my readily. Difficult in an online world where everything you need to know is at the push of a button, why bother learning something when you can look it up readily? However, in the exam hall that comfort blanket is taken away and all of a sudden there is a demand to recall information, are your students prepared for this?

Cognitive scientists used to refer to retrieval practice as “the testing effect.” it seems obvious when you think about it that recreating the exam conditions through tests (or short quizzes) dramatically improve the ability to recall information. Retrieving information requires effort, in the same way a dog retrieves a stick requires a significant boost of energy, so does recalling information. The challenge is to normalise this activity, the more one practices retrieving information the more the brain gets used to exercising itself in this way.

So how can this bve put into practice? In History and Politics lessons, I have developed the 30 minute on / 10 minute off strategy for GCSE and A-Level. it is a simple act of retrieval.

Block out a two hour revision slot in your revision timetable.

  • 30 mins – Revise the information, read the notes/books, make notes, use flashcards. Active learning through doing rather than simply reading or highlighting.
  • 10 mins – Off, go and make a cup of tea, check your insta stories, whatever really to switch off.
  • 30 mins – Answer a question in exam conditions, no notes, no phones, no laptops, no reference points. Simply put yourself under pressure for 30 minutes.
  • 10 mins – Reward yourself wit a cup of tea or a nice cool relaxing drink
  • 30 mins – Compare your answer written in exam conditions with your notes. use mark schemes and examiners reports. what grade would you have given yourself? Why? What did you do well? what could you improve etc? If you have time re-write either your whole answer or parts of it.

There are of course other less time consuming ways to achieve the same outcome, such as short quizzes, however it is important that you normalise the process of completing exam questions and this technique will help you achieve this whilst retrieving that golden nugget of information at the moment you need it the most.

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