Retrieval Practice, by Kate Jones

Why I read it…  Quizzing and retrieval practice was, I suppose, an instinctive part of my teaching without knowing much about the benefits, or how to properly use the concepts. In 2016, I became exposed to a wave of research through conferences and books, which I’ve been pursuing ever since. The elements of retrieval practice (the act of recalling learned information from memory) were of high interest to me, so I was delighted when Kate Jones released this book to high acclaim. And it is worth all of the praise!

In summary:

Firstly, if you’re not familiar with the term or concept, retrieval practice is the act of recalling information from memory, and indeed attempting to strengthen that original memory. As Jones quotes from Robert Bjork, ‘using your memory, shapes your memory’. If we want to learn and remember things for the long term, to be recalled at will, it is essential that we strengthen these memories through our teaching approaches and tasks. Here, the term retrieval practice encompasses the various, evidence-based methods we can use in the classroom (and outside, for non teachers!) to improve our ability to remember and recall information.

You could be forgiven for assuming that retrieval practice, or its key concepts, might just about fill a single blog post. But Jones proves how multi-faceted and complex retrieval practice can and should be. It is not merely starting your lesson with a quiz, or indeed a standalone topic; it feeds into all elements of our teaching, and is all part of that great ecosystem of learning.

Jones has researched the book brilliantly; the first 74 pages cover what research suggests about retrieval practice, breaking down different studies and the views of experts. Once we arrive at retrieval task ideas, we understand the concept well enough to appreciate HOW they will aid student learning, and how to use retrieval practice in a variety of ways.

Key takeaways:

  1. This is part of the puzzle, not THE puzzle. While Jones demonstrates how retrieval practice links to everything we do in the classroom, she is clear that it is not a silver bullet alone. The handy infographic on chapter one is an excellent visual display of how it is just one piece of the puzzle.
  2. Low effort, high impact. Sustainability is important for teachers; regardless of impact on learning, strategies that we adopt must not be onerous in planning or delivery. Jones discusses a shift during her career (that many of us can relate to) from cumbersome planning for tasks, to focusing on tasks that are easy to create and adapt for future use. The ideas in the book reflect this principle: low effort, high impact.
  3. Involve everyone – here, Jones cites Tom Sherrington and his advice that our retrieval tasks, unlike questioning of individual students, or checking a couple of students’ work, should involve all of the class. How? By creating tasks that allow students to access the answers after, and / or self-check them. Then the whole class can compare their understanding or knowledge to the answers, rather than us unwittingly checking the knowledge of a few. The tasks provided in this book adhere to the ‘involve everyone’ principle.

Favourite quote:

It’s a salad analogy, because it made me chuckle, and because it makes perfect sense!

‘Just like a one-off salad won’t change your physique, a one-off retrieval quiz won’t guarantee information can be retrieved from long-term memory. Retrieval practice, like exercise, must be consistent, regular and the level of challenge should be appropriate with desirable difficulties. A salad alone does not make up a healthy diet, in the same sense that retrieval practice shouldn’t be used as the only strategy to support teaching and learning.’

Favourite moment:

My favourite thing about this book is that Jones constantly reflects on how retrieval practice can be used in conjunction with other deliberate teaching methods. You feel as though you’re learning a huge amount about one topic (which you might expect when you buy a book on it!), but the real thrill is that you’re actually learning about so many other disciplines, areas of research, and methods of teaching. Retrieval Practice is packed with wisdom, research, practical ideas, and the voices of many experts.

Question and reflect

  • When we make retrieval quizzes and recap prior knowledge, do we understand how multi-faceted retrieval practice can be, and vary our tasks accordingly?
  • Have we prioritised the concepts of retrieval practice so that they are an integral part of our curriculum and planning?
  • Are we using retrieval practice to help our students improve their ability to self-test and recall their knowledge independently? We can design and explain tasks that students are able to use on their own, to keep the amazing benefits of retrieval practice alive when they are outside of our lessons.

Read this if…

You want to find out more about how a range of educational research can fit into sensible and sustainable teaching methods, particularly on retrieval practice

You want to find a wide-ranging bank of resources that link to, and build upon, the theory you learn in the first half of the book

You want to improve your teaching. Simple as that!

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