Whenever a practice becomes mandated there seems to be a tendency for it to lethally mutate. When I first started writing about retrieval practice (or the testing effect as we used to call it) many people were surprised by the finding that attempting to dredge something up from memory was a more effective way to learn it than simply restudying it. Today, this has become something new teachers are routinely told as part of their initial training and has been accepted as incontestable. The result is that teachers are told that lessons must contain retrieval practice and schools often specify when and how such practice must be enacted. The depressing but wholly unsurprising consequence is that a great deal of what is referred to as retrieval practice is a either time wasted or, in the worst cases, actively unhelpful to students.

Part of the issue is that teachers are told retrieval practice is a good thing to do without having the underlying theory explained. It used to be believed that when stopped using information it gradually disappeared from our memories over time. In 1992, Bob and Elizabeth Bjork suggested a New Theory of Disuse: information didn’t disappear, we just couldn’t remember it. This might sound like splitting hairs – if you can’t remember something what’s the difference? – but, when you think about it, the difference is pretty important: not being able to recall something that’s ‘in there somewhere’ is very different to not being able to recall something that is not there. If it’s in there somewhere, they may be a way to access it. The Bjork’s posited that each item in long-term memory has both a storage strength and a retrieval strength. Storage strength is our ability to recall something right now; retrieval strength is our ability to recall something elsewhere and later.

This led to the counterintuitive finding that attempting to improve retrieval strength in the here and now actually reduces storage strength elsewhere and later, whereas practice that attempts to improve storage strength also results in better retrieval strength in the longer term. Many still find this confusing. Essentially, teaching that focus students ‘demonstrating progress’ over the course of a lesson is much less effective than teaching that focusses on regularly trying to recall previously taught content. This explains why students can produce a slick performance at the end of a lesson by recalling what they have just been taught only to have forgotten it all by their next lesson. The struggle involved in dredging something up from long-term memory strengthens our ability to fluently recall that information again in the future. This is what Bob Bjork called ‘desirable difficulty’.

A desirable difficulty is where inducing an element of struggle into current performance results in stronger future recall. But, crucially, for a difficulty to be desirable it must also result in success.

This is where a lot of so-called retrieval practice goes wrong: students are asked a question which they fail to answer. In lesson after lesson, students write down ‘do now’ questions from the board, wait for teachers to reveal the answers and then write down the answer. There is no struggle and no success, just a meaningless time wasting exercise.

What do they learn from this? All too often, what they learn is a) that recall tasks are a piece of mindless box ticking admin at the start of lessons that they simply have to suffer through or, even worse, b) that, right at the start of a lesson, they have – yet again – failed. These failures compound, often resulting in the belief that students are ‘rubbish’ at the subject. Needless to say, this is no one’s interest.

Here then, are three simple suggestions for getting the most out of retrieval tasks.

1. Retrieval should be easy

Wait a minute, surely if we’re trying to induce desirable difficulties, shouldn’t retrieval be hard? No. The last thing we want is to increase the amount a failure students experience. Failure is only ever a useful learning experience when built upon a firm foundation of success. You need enormous self-belief to contend with set backs; if set backs are you’re normal experience, one more is just further evidence you’re not good enough. But more than that, retrieval needs to result in success in order to be beneficial. The ‘difficulty’ comes from having to remember something you haven’t just been told. If last lesson students learn that Malcom’s is Duncan’s eldest son and rightful King of Scotland and are then asked next lesson, Who is Malcolm? they should have a reasonable chance of remembering something about him but many inevitably won’t. A better retrieval task might be to ask students to fill in the blank in this sentence: The name of King Duncan’s oldest son is M _ _ _ _ _ _. Even that momentary pause before remembering the name will help build retrieval strength. If, when I check students Mini Whiteboards, some students are still unable to answer, what should I do? Just give them the answer? Ideally, I’d keep revealing letters until they got it (Malc _ _ m.)

It’s also important that we don’t go beyond the evidence when designing retrieval tasks. As Dunlosky et al, 2013 tells us, evidence for retrieval practice is largely gleaned from experimentation into “relatively simple verbal materials, including word lists and paired associates”. (p.32) This means, retrieval tasks are likely to be effective for getting students to acquire definitions and small chunks of information, but less effective at improving performance at complex tasks.

If students can’t answer retrieval tasks quickly and easily on a mini whiteboard, the task is probably not effective retrieval practice. Of course, that’s not to say shouldn’t should be asked and expected to tackle challenging tasks, just that these are not effective retrieval practice

2. The information retrieved should be useful

Arguably, all knowledge is useful but what I mean by this is that the information we ask students to retrieve should be stuff we will ask them to regularly use. I get students to use subordinating conjunctions most lessons so it’s really useful for them to recall what they are. If Macbeth is their set text for English Literature, remembering the name of Duncan’s eldest son is useful. But, asking Year 11 students to remember plot details of texts studied in Year 7 is almost certainly not useful. I frequently see students asked to recall what amounts to trivia; stuff that’s ‘nice to know’ but not stuff that will be used or useful.

When designing retrieval tasks, think about both how often students will use the information and what utility the information will have if it’s successfully recalled. The grid below might help to design better retrieval tasks:

Ideally, retrieval tasks will focus on frequently used and very useful information and avoid information that is not useful and rarely used.

3. Retrieval tasks should be regularly repeated

Once we have selected a body of simple, useful information we want students to fluently recall, we should ask them to recall this information again and again until it is thoroughly embedded. Sometimes schools require teachers to set retrieval tasks consisting only of information from previously learned topics, sometimes there’s a requirements to select only information that will be used in the coming lesson and, more frequently, teachers are instructed to ensure there’s a balance between the two. I would advise avoiding such strictures: teachers need to understand the need for students to master currently useful information and to recall previously mastered topics. In the first instance, if some students have struggled to answer a question today I would definitely ask them the same question tomorrow. Ideally, I will continue to ask the same question until all students are answering it effortlessly.

Once students find it easy to complete a task like ‘The name of King Duncan’s oldest son is M _ _ _ _ _ _ ‘ the next step is to remove the scaffolding until they can reliably answer, ‘Who is Malcolm?’

This flow chart can be a useful tool for deciding what to do in response to students ability to recall information:

Over time, students begin to forget this mastered information so they will need to be asked again at regular intervals. How regular should these intervals be? According to Nicholas Cepeda et al (2008), that depends on how far into the future we want students to recall the information. Here’s a table of their findings:

In a perfect world, it would amazing to have a package that enabled teachers to flag questions to recur after optimum intervals. Although it can’t currently do this, Carousel Learning is probably the most effective tool I’ve found for helping teachers to use retrieval tasks which conform to these three principles.