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Retrieval practice – My next steps

Over the last term, I have been really thinking about how to make my retrieval practice more focused and relevant in addressing gaps in knowledge and tackling misconceptions. Retrieval practice is now an embedded part of my lesson routine, but I felt there was more I could do to make it meaningful. I really believe it it important, as Tom Sherrington says, to “vary the diet”, but after reading this study from Argawal et al, it is clear that there is evidence that the best conditions in order to prepare for a higher order seem to be factual quizzing followed by a higher order quiz, and therefore retrieval should have varying complexity too. What I’ve found is this is far from easy to do. It’s easy to generate 10 factual recall questions, much less easy to design a multiple choice question which really challenges students thinking and tackles misconceptions head on. This aligns with much of how my teaching has changed over the last few years moving to a teach to the top approach, as outlined by Tom Sherrington and Mary Myatt amongst others. Myatt says: “We have a tendency to make things too easy for many of our pupils. Why? It is partly because we don’t want to overwhelm them. Yet pupils are saying that they relish the challenge of demanding work: work that makes them think; work that means they know more and can do more.” (Back on Track) In consequence, I have been trying to implement some different retrieval strategies, some of which I have shared on twitter, and thought it might be helpful to collate them all here, explaining my rationale and how it worked in practice.

  1. I’ve started using much more retrieval practice based on The Writing Revolution. Reading The Writing Revolution has undoubtedly changed my practice. I’ve reflected a lot on how I have been telling students to run by writing paragraphs and even essays in Year 7, before establishing the right conditions to walk; looking at sentence structure and word choice. You can read my post about my thoughts here, and I have therefore tried to implement some of the suggestions as retrieval practice. Because, but so, scrambled sentences, fragments, If this is the answer, subordinating conjunctions and appositives are all activities which could be used for retrieval, and which test knowledge but also really get students to think hard about vocabulary and sentence formation.

The example above of but, because, so worked really well with my GCSE classes after a lesson on medieval surgery. If you want to read more about this technique, Kristian Shanks has written an excellent blog here and Greg Thornton has a brilliant how to guide here.

Scrambled sentences is another strategy which has has worked well, although this has been a process! The first time I used it with no prompts and it was just too hard, so I’ve started to bold and highlight the first and last words in the sentence, I’ve often modelled the first one and have then discussed with the class what words might go next logically, and over time this has helped. I also think that keeping the sentences short in the first instance works well! As with all good scaffolding, I hope to remove this hints the more practised the students become.

Below is an example of fragments used for retrieval, which has also worked really well, really challenging students to use their knowledge in a productive way.

And finally from the Writing Revolution, I’ve tried subordinating conjunctions such as those above, which students surprisingly said they really enjoyed the challenge of.

2. Another related retrieval practice idea I have tried, is that of asking students to think hard about misconceptions in their studies. This is a great thought process to got through as a teacher, particularly after an assessment or the reading of books before whole-class feedback. This definitely got my students thinking and provoked a really good discussion. In the right column, I asked them to back their thoughts up with evidence, so for number one, the fact that monasteries were actually quite clean, with filtering of water, lavatoriums and an emphasis on good hygiene, as well as mentioning events such as the 1388 Statute of Cambridge where Parliament made efforts to get people to clean up the streets or face a £20 fine, would all challenge this statement. This is also a retrieval exercise which I think works well alongside, think, pair, share and encourages elaborative interrogation.

3. Finally, I’ve been making more use of multiple choice in my retrieval practice. Again this takes quite a lot more thought about possible misconceptions, but has produced some really good discussion. The first set I tried were pretty standard but I really use this as a basis for elaborative questioning. For example, when we go through the fact that Q1’s answer is c, I will then go on to ask what a and b would be, what they have in common and why it might be easy to get them all mixed up.

However, after seeing Blake Harvard’s blog about maximising the effectiveness of multiple choice questions, I decided to have a go at, as he suggests, making more use of the wrong answers, and focusing on just one misconception. I thought this was a powerful idea. It is however, definitely an exercise I recommend you working through yourself first, as when I tried it initially, I realised it couldn’t work the way I had set it up so had to edit it! I picked a common misconception by students in the medicine topic, which is understanding the different impact Pasteur and Koch made to medicine in relation to germ theory and created a multiple choice question based on that. The first stage is for students to students to choose the correct answer, then they have to provide a memory aid, for example a simple sketch to help them remember the correct answer. Then I asked the students to write the letters of the incorrect answers down the side and have a go at a related question about each of the incorrect answers. Again, Blake’s blog gives some great suggestions here which I just adapted to make work for this example. Students then had a go at these, and an example is below. I then showed my answers and modelled how I had thought through them and we discussed what other possible answers might look like. Just concentrating on one key misconception in this way actually allowed the students to do some really challenging thinking and utilised the wrong answers in a multiple choice question effectively. Another example is also below.

All of these strategies are very much a work in progress and probably could be refined. I would also very much say there is a place for pure factual recall; I do a weekly factual quiz based on homework retrieval grids for example. However, trialling these strategies has shown me there is something very powerful about the more challenging examples of retrieval and the interrogative process which happens afterwards in discussion. I will continue to use and share examples like this I create if people find it useful.



2 thoughts on “Retrieval practice – My next steps

  1. amazing resource, thank you so much for sharing, level of sophistication in developing practise in invaluable. Pushing our boundaries as well as the students’


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