Revision and study skills: Retrieval practice

Written by: Helen Webb | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Research shows the positive impact that using retrieval practice can have on outcomes. Helen Webb discusses her work to apply this strategy in the classroom and encourage her students to use it as part of their revision

Earlier this year I was lucky enough to watch a presentation by Yana Weinstein and Megan Smith (now Megan Sumeracki) – aka The Learning Scientists – at ResearchEd Rugby (#rEDRugby).

The Learning Scientists are American cognitive psychological scientists who are aiming to increase the awareness and use of effective study and teaching strategies. The main focus on their website is to communicate the science of learning. Primarily, they focus on six strategies for effective learning, which are all strategies backed by research that improve learning. The six strategies:

  1. Spaced practice: Spacing out your studying over time.
  2. Retrieval practice: Practising bringing information to mind.
  3. Elaboration: Explaining and describing ideas with many details.
  4. Interleaving Switching between ideas while you study.
  5. Concrete examples: Using specific examples to understand abstract ideas.
  6. Dual coding: Combining words and visuals.

Inspired by their work, this article focuses on retrieval practice, a strategy with decades of research supporting its effectiveness, and summarises how, using their resources, I am introducing and embedding the concept into my own classroom practice this year.

All the ideas, resources and links to the research that this article is based upon can be found on the Learning Scientists’ website (see further information)

Retrieval practice

Retrieval practice involves bringing information to mind from your memory. The process of retrieving makes information easier to remember at a later date compared to simply studying your notes. It also increases your ability to use and apply the information to new situations.

Retrieval practice is not a substitute for direct instruction, it is a strategy that helps students reinforce information and helps them to use information more flexibly.

My aim

While, like many teachers, I have always used a variety of retrieval practices in the classroom, I have had varying success over the years in encouraging students to study this way at home, many of whom prefer the repeated reading of revision guides which, according to the research, has very limited impact on their learning.

My aim was that by introducing students to the evidence and rationale behind my teaching strategies, and teaching these study skills explicitly in my classroom, together with the immediate impact of direct feedback to demonstrate their increased learning, students may be more willing to adapt their own revision practice.

Ultimately, I hope to see rapid gains in the quality of independent study made by students and subsequently in the progress they make.

Setting up

I downloaded and printed the free posters that explain each of the six strategies for effective learning and created my own study strategy display board in my classroom.

Early in the term I showed each of my key stage 4 and 5 classes the introductory video clip, entitled The six habits of highly effective students, and explained that these were going to be study skills that I would be focusing on in the coming weeks.

I also asked students to reflect on how effective they considered their own revision skills to be based on this video and to consider at least one way that they could improve their independent study with immediate effect.

To give more gravitas to each of the learning strategies I was introducing, I made sure that I made repeated and specific reference to the skill being learnt. I showed further relevant short video clips from The Learning Scientists’ website explaining each individual concept as I re-introduced them throughout the year and also periodically handed out the free bookmarks that not only summarise individual strategies but also served to flag examples of each strategy in their own work for future reference.

Introducing the ideas

The Learning Scientists encourage teachers to introduce the idea of long-term learning to students, particularly with reference to the benefit of learning for exams and content that builds upon previously learned information – and then set up opportunities to practise retrieval in class so that they know what to do at home.

I personally introduced the concept using a concrete example of my own: I explained to students that when I am preparing to teach a new topic I will try to map-out all the concepts visually, from memory, so that I am clear in my head that I know what all main ideas, key points and examples are and how they all connect. Afterwards, I will check against the specification and textbook to see if I have missed any important details.

Mixing retrieval with elaboration

I then explained to students that I practise explaining the tricky concepts to myself in as much detail as possible with as many examples as I can think of. If I get stuck or if I am not confident that I have explained it correctly I will refer back to my notes or textbook and double check, then I will repeat the process. I also reiterate the value of recalling information verbally as you can move rapidly through a much larger volume of information compared to when you have to write it all down. It is also a nice activity to do if you like to study with the help of a friend.

Moving retrieval into home study

After modelling my own two examples of retrieval practice, I asked students to have a go on their own in class, with my supervision. With all books and notes away from their desks, I asked them to recall everything they could about a particular topic in their books.

A degree of differentiation was needed, with some students requiring prompts and/or templates to get started. It was also necessary to emphasise that this is a strategy to help them identify what they know already and what they still need to learn, and not to worry about having a perfect piece of work or relying too heavily on collaboration with a partner at this stage.

Note: This assessment for learning (AfL) activity also helped me to gauge where students’ current understanding was too.

Check the accuracy of retrieval

Immediately after this recall activity students had to check their work for accuracy and missing information against their class notes or textbooks. To illustrate this process I asked the students to use a different coloured pen to annotate their work and write a key at the top of the page. For example, black pen for what I already know and green pen for “gaps in my knowledge”.

Personalised quiz questions

After identifying areas in the topic that needed further revision I asked students to write themselves a series of questions that would help them to learn this information at home. I asked students to write the answers at the bottom of the page so they could be easily covered up during the testing process. The quizzes generated made for a great personalised starter activity for the following lesson too.

Creating and sharing your own tests

Either providing students with or asking students to create simple quizzes for each other to complete also worked well to encourage retrieval practice.

Many of my own students like to use the online versions such as Kahoot or Quizlet. Quiz apps that directly support students’ revision guides are also excellent if they are available for your subject. I have also created my own homework quizzes, using Google forms, that not only automatically track student progress throughout a topic and reduce marking workload, but also improve student learning through retrieval practice.


Students can create flash cards with questions to answer, key terms to define or tasks to complete, each with the answers on the back. Like the personalised quiz questions, this task can be individualised during a revision lesson, as only flash cards need to be made where gaps in knowledge have been found. Students can also spread their flash cards out and make connections between the ideas.

Practice papers

Regularly integrating past exam questions into lessons has many benefits, however, while introducing this specific example of retrieval practice in class I had to make explicit that the first attempts must always be done from memory before making subsequent attempts using their notes, revision guide and/or mark scheme.

It is also useful at this stage to make sure students are fully aware of how to get hold of the appropriate past papers and questions for their specific exams for home study.

Practice varied retrieval skills

As a starter activity, I will often ask students to recall their understanding of a concept covered in previous lessons using words, diagrams or illustrations on a mini-whiteboard. This activity is not only good retrieval practice, it is also a very useful AfL strategy that can be used to pitch the lesson appropriately.

I have also used students’ flash cards from previous topics to not only revisit and interleave previous knowledge but to also improve students’ ability to make connections in their learning by stating how these ideas linked to new lesson content.

Review retrieval practice

I found it useful to periodically refer back to the six effective teaching strategies, and remind students that retrieval practice works best when you check your work for accuracy afterwards and that it is a difficult strategy, particularly in the short-term but it will improve students’ learning and the progress they make.

  • Helen Webb is an experienced science and biology teacher with a professional interest in developing CPD for teachers. She works at Lutterworth College in Leicestershire. You can follow her @helenfwebb. To read Helen’s previous articles for SecEd, visit

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