Retrieval Practice for Exam Revision

“Sir, I don’t remember learning this. It was a long time ago!”

“I’m trying to cram for these exams but it is a lot of information to remember….”

These are just some of the statements that I hear from students in April/May of each year as the final preparations set in for their Junior and Leaving Certificate exams. Some students are scattered with their revision, with pages upon pages of written and typed notes. The overwhelming sense of stress about the exams can often lead to “cramming” the information, hence trying to store the information in their long term memory as quicky as possible so they can regurgitate for the exams and move on!

Unfortunately, this leads to more stress and students can feel a sense of disengagement, fear of failure and hopelessness with studying. However, simple changes in their revision strategies could hold the key to their success – one such approach is using Retrieval Practice.

What is Retrieval Practice?

Professor John Dunlosky is well known in education, particularly for his research relating to learning strategies. Dunlosky (2013) rated a number of strategies, one of which was practice testing (retrieval practice). Dunlosky stated that this technique proved to be the most effective as it helped students enhance their learning and comprehension, as well as increasing student achievement and student confidence. Essentially, retrieval practice involves transferring information from short term memory into a more automatic long term memory for students over time, thus helping with revision for exams.

There are many different ways of embedding retrieval practice in the classroom using technology. For example, using online quizzing tools such as Quizlet, Google Forms, Kahoot and Mentimeter to name but a few. However, many other retrieval tasks can be incorporated with minimal use of technology – and from my own experience – can sometimes be even more effective!

Retrieval in Practice!

At the start of the academic year, my colleague, Annette Gildea, introduced me to the concept of retrieval practice. This involved using simple daily tasks in lessons to aid student learning over a long period of time. We explored the concept of “retrieval grids” as a scaffold for incorporating more retrieval strategies in class. These retrieval grids were created using Google Slides as seen below.

Retrieval grids made using Google Slides

Each grids consists of 9 questions. Each question varies in terms of difficulty and are assigned points. For example, questions in the purple grids are assigned 1 point, yellow grids are 2 points and green grids are 5 points. Students were asked to answer as many questions as they can in 3 minutes. I often set a points target, for example, reach 10 points or 15 points in the 3 minutes. Once the timer has ended, we reviewed the questions and the answers to see how many points students have scored.

“Progression, not perfection!”

It was important not to use the grids as a form of summative assessment, but rather for formative assessment. Students may not be able to answer all of the questions the first time, and that is completely fine!

In my class, I ask for a show of hands how many people got above 10 points, 15 points etc. depending on the class group. As the days continue, I spend 3 minutes at the start of each lesson to review using the retrieval grid. One of the more effective questions I ask is “how many students performed better today than yesterday?”, and almost every time, students had performed better. Over time, students are storing the information from their short term memory into their long term memory and developing confidence in their revision. Retrieval practice is not limited to grids, but has also worked quite well for in class for drawing and labeling diagrams, exploring the scientific method and linking concepts together (in science lessons). It has also helped to develop computational thinking skills as well as many Junior and Senior Cycle key skills respectively.

Retrieval practice has been extremely valuable for my students. Such a simple technique has really enhanced the learning environment in my lessons throughout this year, and as students prepart for their exams, I can see the benefits of using retrieval grids and other strategies. Student confidence has increased, eagerness to learn and student achievement has improved! I can’t imagine starting a lesson without the use of retrieval practice in some form – even if to seek prior knowledge at the start of a topic. I’m looking forward to exploring more strategies for next year to further enhance student learning.

For more information on incorporating retrieval practice in your lessons, I highly recommend resource books from Kate Jones: Retrieval Practice: Research & Resources for every classroom (2018) and Retrieval Practice 2: Implementing, Embedding & Reflecting (2021).

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