Skip To Main Content
How two international schools are integrating retrieval practice into their teaching
  • Classroom Teaching
  • Schools

Written by Charles Wood, International Director, CENTURY Tech; Ben Cooper, Principal, Wellington Academy - Al Khail; and Christopher Watson, Deputy Head, Doha College

Every teacher will have experienced teaching a great lesson on a new topic, during which the students appeared to be highly engaged and were able to answer every question correctly, only to return to the same class a few days later and find that the students have forgotten everything that was covered.

What often happens is that as students go from one question to the next in a lesson, the information stays in their working memory. If they get distracted, they are able to simply look at their notes to remind themselves of what they need to do. The information is not prioritised by their long term memory, so when they leave the lesson, the information they were taught isn’t reliably stored in their memory.

However, by providing students with frequent and consistent opportunities to retrieve information, we can help them to convert more of what they learn into their long term memory. During the recent COBIS webinar ‘How Neuroscience and Technology are Promoting Lifelong Learning at International Schools’, Ben Cooper and Christopher Watson shared how their schools integrate retrieval practice into teaching.

GEMS Wellington Academy - Al Khail

Before we teach anything new, we do a quick diagnostic to figure out the children’s starting points. Once the teaching has taken place, we then get the children to return to a similar (but not identical) diagnostic to figure out what they are able to retrieve and what they have forgotten so that we can revisit those areas.

We don’t encourage teachers to do those diagnostics right away – there's little point in assessing children on what you just taught the day before, because the chances are they will probably remember about 75% of it. Weeks later, though, you’ll probably see that they'll remember very little of it unless the information is frequently retrieved.

The most difficult things about this are figuring out when is the right time to assess and how we can provide opportunities for students to regularly retrieve information without it overloading our teachers. For us, CENTURY has already and will continue to play a key part in that process. 

We have found it really useful on CENTURY that once a nugget (micro-lesson) has been completed, the platform will automatically reset it in a few weeks, meaning that the student will automatically be exposed to opportunities to go over previously learned content.

To ensure that we’re providing enough opportunities for retrieval practice and to help us decide which content to prioritise, we’ve split our medium term plan into two. Before, what teachers focussed on was planning out what they were going to teach, for example the lesson objectives for the week, whereas now there’s an additional section that is used to plan out purposeful retrieval opportunities throughout the week.

We also have specific fluency targets for each year based on what learners need to know to move forward, for example things like multiplication fluency for Year 6 pupils, and we weave retrieval opportunities into that medium term plan to make sure that students are confident with them even if they haven’t been explicitly taught in a long time.

Doha College

As a High Performance Learning school, there are three things we’re really focusing on. One, the type of behaviours we want our learners to develop for them to be successful, two, the types of thinking skills we want them to have, and three, the learning process that is most efficacious to enable students to learn.

This ties in with Daniel T. Willingham’s quote ‘memory is the residue of thought’. By challenging children to recall knowledge and think harder and more deeply about what they have learned, we aim to strengthen their synapses and help them maintain more of what they learn in their long term memory. 

We have built a number of retrieval opportunities into our teaching. For example, we have both an ‘Entry Ticket’ and an ‘Exit Ticket’, the former of which challenges children to actively think about their learning from the day before.

We also have a weekly review, an example of which you can see in the top image above, which we use to interleave different topics from throughout the week so that the children are challenged to think about different concepts to solve questions. These reviews include multiple questions of increasing difficulty on the same concept to help pupils develop mastery.

The other two images are of what we call a retrieval clock, which is created after about 3 or 4 weeks of learning a specific topic. It can be used to get pupils to think about all of the things they’d learned across that period of time, and it includes prompts and scaffolds to help jog their memory. The idea with the retrieval clock is to activate different pieces of knowledge that make the overall learning experience much more memorable.