Peter Imeson shares his own strategies for making best use of this much vaunted technique.

The knowledge of effective, research based learning strategies is becoming much more widespread, due to an increase in blog posts, books and articles.  These techniques include: retrieval practice, distributed/spaced practice and interleaving.  In the summer edition of the journal Dr Jo Bentham posed the question ‘should we include these strategies from the very start of the programme of study, or do we complete the specification and then introduce these recall techniques?’  Personally I think the answer is very firmly the former of these two options.  I get students to use retrieval practice throughout the course whether at GCSE or A-level.  There are three main reasons for this: firstly, the research clearly shows that learning is more effective when carried out through distributed practice rather than cramming at the end of the course; secondly, new knowledge is more effectively learned when it builds on existing knowledge, therefore the stronger the recall of the material which has been taught, the more likely it is that the new knowledge will be learned well; finally, introducing the techniques at an early stage and using them regularly makes the practice habitual for the students.

In this article I will focus mainly on the technique of retrieval practice and explain some of the ways I am developing the use of retrieval practice with my classes.  A large amount of the research on retrieval practice has been carried out by Robert Bjork who coined the phrase ‘desirable difficulty’ to describe the phenomenon that learning techniques which appear more difficult to learners will often produce stronger long-term memories.  He states:

‘Retrieved information, rather than being left in the same state it was in prior to being recalled, becomes more recallable in the future than it would have been otherwise, and competing information associated with the same cues can become less recallable in the future.’ Bjork, 2016

For anyone who is interested in finding out more about the science behind the techniques he has some useful short videos on his website  Early on in the course I explain the rationale for using the approach and briefly explain the research that underpins the technique as I feel that it helps to get students to fully engage with the techniques.

Paul A. Kirschner & Mirjam Neelen (2018) quote a meta-analysis (Adesope, Trevisan, and Sundarajan (2017)), which concluded that retrieval practice is more effective than any other learning strategy.  This result applied to all age levels and across a wide variety of retrieval tasks such as free-recall, multiple choice questions, quiz questions, etc.  To quote the authors: ‘there are simply no other strategies that work as well as retrieval practice for learning’.  They recommend that a variety of methods should be used and it should be done regularly in a low-stakes testing environment. They also state that ‘feedback, either from the teacher or having the learner check her/his own answers, is imperative!’

The first strategy is one which I picked up from the blog ‘The Learning Profession’ which it called ‘5-a-day’.  Quite simply this is a starter A5 sheet of 5 questions – it is usually placed at the students’ desks before the start of the lesson so that they can begin as soon as they arrive.  A mixture of question types are used, for example: definitions, diagrams, list three reasons, multiple choice and explainations.  These questions are taken not just from the most recent work but from across the course, therefore bringing in distributed practice (spreading practice of concepts over a period of time) and interleaving (mixing together different concepts in practice sessions).  Students are encouraged to do the work in silence and without notes, as the point of the exercise is for them to retrieve the knowledge from their memory.  Once completed, the students mark their own answers in a different colour pen and I emphasise the importance of adding notes – even where their answers are correct.  I often take these in because a quick glance through the sheets can show topics which have generally been poorly recalled and may need further work, as well as showing students who consistently achieve low recall.  Also when they are collected in, students tend to put more effort into their own corrections.

Example of a 5-a-day sheet

  • Using an example explain the term ‘direct tax’.
  • Draw an AS/AD diagram showing the impact on the price level and real output of a decrease in the UK’s base rate.
  • Which of the following are correct statements about supply-side policies (maybe more than one).
    A: They lead to a fall in the price level.
    B: They are likely to cause an increase in unemployment.
    C: They all involve an increase in government spending.
    D: They involve increasing productivity levels in the economy.
  • In recent years the level of fiscal deficits have been decreasing, explain the impact of this on the national debt.
  • Explain one reason why an increase in immigration might not lead to an increase in unemployment in the economy.

Another strategy that I am increasingly using is to give a set of recap questions as homework, include answers and get students to mark their own work.  This is done through our online homework system ‘Show My Homework’.  Again the students have to mark their own work in a different colour and I collect it in to check that this has been done properly. As well as the benefit of recall practice, it also models good practice in producing answers, chains of reasoning, use of data and concepts, etc.  Some students engage with this more than others and it is possible for them to look at the answers first, but any homework will produce a range of engagement from students.  Explaining the rationale for the approach helps.  Obviously it is time consuming to produce the answers but once done they can be re-used each year and it saves time on marking.

An extract from a homework:

  1. Explain what is meant by a variable being in ‘real terms’ e.g. real GDP.
    The effects of inflation have been removed from the figures.
  2. Which of the following statements about the figures above are correct (could be more than one):
    A: Real GDP was lower than real household income over the seven years on the graph.
    Incorrect – the figures are in index numbers so it is not possible to tell which are higher just how much they have changed by.
    B: Real consumption was lower in 2015 Q1 than in 2008 Q1
    Correct – it is 100 in 2008 Q1 and 99 in 2015 Q1
    C: Real consumption saw a larger fall than real GDP during the period shown
    Correct – it fell to a lower level and was still lower at the end of the period shown.
    D: Real disposable income was approx. 2.2% higher in 2015 Q1 than 2008 Q1.
  3. Explain the impact of rising real disposable income on the UK economy.

Consumers will have more disposable income to spend and can afford to buy more with it so the amount of spending will increase.  This will mean that firms will make higher sales leading to higher profits and is likely to lead to higher employment levels.

These are just two of the ways in which I use retrieval practice, it can also be used through short quizzes, sets of multiple choice questions or even games such as ‘Who Wants to be a Millionnaire’.  The beauty of the technique is that it is so easy to use and can fit into almost any amount of time; from just a spare five minutes at the beginning or end of a lesson, to a full lesson.  Using the technique in these different ways is important, since ‘varying the context, examples, and problem type engages processes that can lead to a richer and more elaborated encoding of concepts and ideas’ (Bjork 2016).  It is also easy for students to use in their own studying by using flash cards, writing themselves questions to answer at a later date or through testing each other.  My hope is that by making retrieval practice such a habitual part of the way students learn throughout the year, they will be encouraged to use it when it comes to their own revision.

Peter Imeson is Head of Business and Economics at Farmor’s School in Fairford.


Getting Through the Revision Season Jo Bentham EBEA Journal Summer 2018