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Why Retrieval Practice is the Best Revision Tactic

It certainly isn’t the easiest way to revise, says Adam Boxer – but it’s definitely the most effective...

  • Why Retrieval Practice is the Best Revision Tactic

It’s by now quite well-known that retrieval practice is the most effective way for your students to strengthen their long-term memories.

As teachers across the UK become more and more evidence-informed, we are learning to ditch the revision games, posters, highlighting, re-reading and mnemonics, replacing them with frequent low-stakes quizzing on core material.

In fact a paradigm shift is occurring around revision itself, with teachers moving from a system where they teach a sequence of lessons, have a revision lesson and then a test, to a system where the revision lesson is removed, with frequent opportunities for retrieval practice built in to the main sequence of lessons.

These changes are possible because of how well-researched retrieval practice is. Cognitive scientists have spent decades investigating its use as a memory technique and, though nothing in science is ever beyond question, the positive results across a vast number of studies speak for themselves.

New discoveries

There are, however, aspects that teachers might not be aware of. For example, Hungarian researchers tested whether or not retrieval practice could help mitigate the debilitating cognitive effects of being in a high stress environment.

Psychologists (and teachers!) have known for a long time that a little bit of stress is a good thing in terms of student performance, but too much stress can be debilitating and hinders performance.

The researchers found that the power of retrieval practice to prepare students for tests held even when they took the tests under extremely stressful conditions.

Another fascinating finding relates to “participant prediction of recall”.

Participants in a study used either re-reading or retrieval practice to learn material, but in varying amounts. After they had a set amount of time with these techniques, they were asked to predict how well they thought they would recall that information in a week or so’s time.

Participants who had done the least amount of retrieval practice thought that they would recall the most, and participants who had done the most amount of retrieval practice thought they would recall the least.

As we can probably guess by this point, results for the actual test showed the exact opposite. So participants who thoughtthey had learned the least, actually learned the most.

Rich rewards

I think the best way to explain this finding is by thinking about the relative difficulty of the two tasks.

Re-reading is, cognitively speaking, easy to do. Reading is easy, and when we re-read material we have a voice in our head saying “yes I got that”, no problem.

But there is a difference between understanding something and committing it to long-term memory. You can probably understand this article very easily, but if you sat a test on it next week would you remember all, or even most, of its details? Probably not.

In order to prepare yourself for such a test you would have to expend serious mental effort. And in the short term it would certainly feel like you weren’t getting anywhere. It would feel painful, slow, and frustrating.

But what if you did put in that effort, and it worked out? What if you persevered through that short-term pain and feeling of frustration and really committed yourself to retrieval practice, and were duly rewarded in a test? What would that feel like?

No doubt, you would probably feel quite proud of yourself. You would start to feel competent in whatever subject you had decided to really commit to.

And psychologists point to competence as an incredibly powerful driver of long term motivation: as we get better at things, we start to enjoy them more.

In the short term, your students will hate retrieval practice. They will hate the feeling of not knowing an answer or getting things only partially correct. But the science is clear: it works.

If you can build a culture that looks beyond that short term pain and understands that it’s worth it in the long-term, your students will truly fly.


Adam Boxer is a science teacher working in a comprehensive in North London. He specialises in applying findings from research to day to day classroom practice. Follow him on Twitter at @adamboxer1.

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