Ten Takeaways from ‘Retrieval Practice’ by Kate Jones

I really enjoy writing these posts and being able to summarise and synthesise everything I’ve taken form an edu book. I find it often takes me longer to read a book on teaching and learning than it does to read fiction as I’m doing a lot more mentally when I read it. It helps me to take notes and these always turn into one of these posts, where I have to give my thinking some order.

I love retrieval practice in an unhealthy teacher way. I know what impact it can have, how useful it can be, and some of the research behind it, but I know deep down that I’ve probably got into a bit of a rut with it. I do the 5-a-day drill questions, as do the whole department and whole school, still do the odd brain dump, sometimes do quizzes, do lots of verbal retrieval practice, but I wanted new strategies and ideas, so this book was just what I needed.

It starts with a healthy dose of research and all the science side. I find this interesting, myself, and whilst some of it I had read before, I found it a useful summary of all the research, helpfully separated into common questions which come up when teachers are encouraged to utilise retrieval practice. There was some research which was new to me, which I need to think about applying (mentioned below in the top ten). Finally, there are a series of chapters with a lot of retrieval practice strategies. And I mean a lot. What was really interesting for me is that a lot of ‘discovery learning’ activities – the type I now consider to be bordering on pointless – have been reimagined by Jones to include retrieval practice. This is what really got me thinking. How can I, across the whole department, ensure that retrieval doesn’t get compartmentalised into only low stakes quizzing? I need to get my thinking cap on, but there are definitely some ideas in this that I will be creating resources for and sharing ideas with the department.

It’s funny how we forget things in teaching, isn’t it? I talked to my local trainees about reading the book, then discussed retrieval practice in the classroom with some of them individually. These conversations gave me a pang of memory of something I had written, and it turns out I had written a blog post about varying retrieval practice back in 2018 which I had apparently forgotten (available here). This post does include some strategies mentioned in the book (brain drops for example) but also talks a lot about how to vary testing, rather than actual strategies. What I really enjoyed about Kate’s book was how many strategies there were. Below are ten ideas I’ve taken away, not all strategies, some just thoughts – but if you’re looking for more strategies, get the book. It’s full of them!

1. The Many Benefits of Retrieval Practice

For me, the main benefit of retrieval practice is the impact on students’ memory and therefore their learning. I really enjoyed Kate’s explanation of the paper Ten Benefits of Testing and Their Applications to Educational Practice. When you include advantages such as better organisation of knowledge, improved ability to transfer knowledge, and really interestingly for me, that testing encourages students to study more, it’s hard to understand why some schools/teachers are reluctant to implement retrieval practice strategies. This is a paper I plan to read in more detail and share with my team.

2. Optimum Spacing Intervals

I’ve always thought spacing makes obvious sense what with the forgetting curve, but I have secretly worried about whether I am ‘spacing’ correctly. As teachers, it’s not as simple as mapping out the days we will ensure retrieval, as we are obviously restricted by timetables, weekends and holidays. The discussion of the study into optimum spacing intervals was interesting for me, and that spacing intervals are affected by how far ahead a test is. A test that is up to a year away should have four week spacing intervals in terms of study sessions. This obviously helps us to consider our students with revision sessions/independent work and how we can timetable them for optimum impact.

3. A New Resource: Pixabay

Kate mentions using pictures to inform retrieval practice, and different ways to do this. This is not a form of dual coding, but instead a different way of getting students to retrieve information. I was definitely guilty, in my early years of teaching, of putting an interesting image up on the board and asking students ‘What’s happening here?’ And after some ‘engaging’ discussions where some students were trying to argue that the photo was photoshopped and others were daydreaming and staring out of the window I might have made a tenuous link to the content of the lesson. Instead, Kate suggests using pictures to aid retrieval practice, for example in History an image of a WW1 soldier in the trenches and “then students could – either verbally or through writing – retrieve what they know about trench foot”. This is something I definitely don’t do enough. Why am I just saying “Right, what happened last lesson in act 2 scene 2 of ‘Macbeth’’ – when I could just as easily stick an image up like the one below and ask students to write down everything they remember about the scene? This surely gets far more students involved than the ones I might cold call/ those who are engaging in my questions. She also mentions Pixabay , a site I hadn’t heard of, which can also provide prompts, but is also really useful for creative writing images!

Write down everything you remember about the scene we read last lesson, using this image to help you…

4. A Useful Anecdote

The books is filled with reminders that Kate is very much an active teacher and her ideas are being applied in the classroom. One anecdote not only made this clear, but also resonated with me, where Kate describes a student who had commented on another teacher’s lack of variety in retrieval practice and how “they chose not to study a specific subject at A Level because the teacher had used the same style retrieval quiz every lesson for two years.” This is the worry with retrieval practice – it probably can feel like constant quizzing and nothing more. This really hit me, as mentioned in the introduction, and is something I have thought about in detail since reading. I want to ensure I don’t fall into this RP trap, and to also ensure we don’t as a department.

5. A Research Project – What Do We Call It?

During the book other teachers share and explain their own experiences. One particular case study from Nigel Davis gave an interesting study into the impact of retrieval practice on Geography students. At the end, he asked for feedback, and although the feedback was positive (as was the impact on their learning) he notes how “some students did give a groan of ‘retrieval again?” And he explains that “on reflection, calling each starter ‘Let’s Retrieve’ was a mistake.” This got me thinking how if we separate retrieval to only being drill questions and then later, revision strategies, students will miss the point of how it is so integral to the learning process. Perhaps we don’t call it anything, or identify it when it is happening, but just ensure it is a core principle in the way we teach.

6. Module Checklists – Where Are We Going?

One thing I have used in the past, in my own classroom, were unit checklists. I have found them useful, if time consuming to create, especially in my early career where I kept teaching things differently or changing the content of my lessons. Now that my teaching has become more regular, and that as a department we have more centralised resources/booklets and assessments, one idea from another case study really piqued my interest. Tom Johns’ explains how he gives students checklists at the start of a topic “made up of numbered statements linked to the topic specification”. In our schemes of work we have a list of statements for the knowledge and skills students should develop, and I’m now considering if we can transfer these to student lists which can help them to tick off the elements of the unit as they go along. I plan to match these up the sections of the knowledge organiser, so that students have a clearer idea of what they need to retrieve and when they have covered it.

7. A Resource: Challenge Grids

I definitely have used varied forms of challenge grids before, but haven’t for some time. Kate shares lots of versions of these, which are clearly an effective way of implementing retrieval practice, spacing and interleaving of content. For the challenge grids she uses the analogy of gaming, and explains how challenge grids help with ensuring a level of desirable difficulty. In the examples provided she gives more points for more tricky concepts, as seen in the image below. She explains more about them in detail at a blog on her website, here.

An example of a challenge grid shared by Kate Jones on her website.

8. Timelines for Chronology (with a resource)

One thing which I have already created an accompanying resource for is an idea from Jones’ discussion of dual coding, which leads to another set of resources and ideas. She explains that whilst she doesn’t always use timelines as a retrieval task (they need to be taught the content first!), they “can be a retrieval activity, just remove the support and information”. She goes through a variety of tasks using the timeline, and mentions how they might be used in English to plot a narrative (something I think I will create, with more time!) but it got the cogs whirring about the chronology of ‘An Inspector Calls’, where students need a sound knowledge of what happens in between when the play is set (1912) and first performed in the UK (1946). I’ve created a resource, available here on Litdrive with symbols for students to retrieve the key historical events around the text (after they have been taught them!) See what I created in the image below.

A simple retrieval activity about the context of ‘An Inspector Calls’

9. Parent Quizzing Booklets

This year unfortunately COVID-19 stopped our school’s annual parents’ revision evening. I had prepared a pack for parents with the knowledge organisers and the images we use for quotations and their answers, so that parents could use these resources to aid their child’s revision. However, this is taken one step further in another case study in the book, from Emily Folorunsho, who combined retrieval practice and parental engagement. She mentions how the EEF cite parental engagement as “having 2-3 months’ positive impact” (from the T+L toolkit available online). She decided to give parents the tools to properly support their children with retrieval practice methods, so gave them quizzing booklets which “was designed to mirror the reading journal that primary students receive”- in other words, they had to record when the quizzing took place. The data she gives regarding impact on outcomes, engagement and confidence is brilliant, added to increased parental interaction with their child’s learning – it’s clearly a win-win. This is something I’d also like to introduce. She explains how the student feedback was that they wish they had it at the start of their GCSEs; thankfully, I have some time to think about implementing this.

10. More active retrieval practice

I am no longer the active ‘fun’ teacher I was 7 years ago… as explained throughout this blog with some of my references of tasks gone by. What really got me thinking with this book, was how kagan style strategies which would ostensibly have little to do with memory or deeper learning have been adapted by Jones to encourage more active ways of engaging students in retrieval practice. There are activities which involve moving around the room (cops and robbers, quiz-quiz-trade, walkabout bingo) – and whilst before reading the book, the idea of this may have made me shudder, I am now left wondering if I should allow these strategies a place in my classroom. I’d hate to have a student who felt like the one mentioned in the anecdote explained in takeaway 4. And after all in that blog post I wrote a couple of years ago, I shared the importance of varying retrieval practice. The strange thing with teaching is that when something works and you know it has impact, it’s so easy to get stuck into the habit of doing that one thing in one way. I need to have a long hard think about how I can mix it up – only if it is just on the odd occasion!

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