Retrieval practice

By Gemma Moine. Posted

An effective learning strategy and an evidence-based teaching technique, Gemma Moine explains how she uses retrieval practice in her Computer Science classroom

In recent years, educational research has praised the findings of cognitive psychology research on retrieval practice, the idea that bringing information to mind can boost learning. It’s been revealed that the mechanics of the memory has a large impact on learning. Understanding research and translating this into the classroom is key, but it can be very difficult for teachers to put into practice when workloads are high and time is precious.

The majority of retrieval tasks undertaken in my classroom have been taken (‘magpied’) from amazing teachers posting examples on social media and adapted for Computer Science. I highly recommend you research further into the topic using the original source links provided for further examples and ideas. This article aims to give teachers a toolbox of simple retrieval tasks that can easily be embedded into the classroom. Tasks are ordered in preparation time to help teachers decide which ones they may like to trial in the classroom.

Brain dumps

How: One of the easiest retrieval practice tasks you can incorporate into the classroom with minimal preparation are ‘brain dumps’. Students have five minutes maximum to write down as much as they can recall on a specific topic given by the teacher. Answers can be written on paper or – my favourite – writing straight onto the desk with board markers. Students love a bit of desk graffiti. 

Extend: Another useful task is for students to identify areas to revisit by highlighting missed areas on the brain dumps on their knowledge organisers or mind maps. This could be extended further to a homework activity where students are required to make flashcards on identified missing topics and then test one another at the beginning of the next lesson. 

Original idea: Magpied and adapted from @RetrieveLearn

Take Three

How: A super-quick and easy-to-embed retrieval task is Take Three. Ask students to write down on paper three things they learned last lesson, last week, or last term. Give students the opportunity to think-pair-share what they have written down.

Extend: Ask students to find peers with written comments from the same topic (or where there are linkages between topics) and discuss.

Mystery object

How: Place an object on the desk and ask students to recall as much as they can remember about the item. It could be a stick of RAM, an old network switch, two different types of wires, input/output devices, or an old floppy disk! Students write down what they can recall and compare that to mind maps, knowledge organisers, or notes.

Workload: Contact your IT network manager for old computers or spare parts.

A mystery object exercise

Fill in the blanks

How: Another quick and easy retrieval task is to take a knowledge organiser or mind map and cover keywords. Students then try to recall what is missing. It is a slight cheat as the students have visual prompts present so perhaps this is more of a guided retrieval practice. I tend to use this as a follow-on from a previous lesson’s retrieval practice task where gaps in knowledge and understanding were identified.

Workload: Laminate knowledge organiser and mind maps in advance to make them reusable, then use stickies or page flags to cover the words.

Talk to the duck!

How: Many Computer Science classrooms have adopted debugging code with the aid of the faithful rubber duck. Make the duck part of an easy retrieval task by asking students to talk through what they learnt last lesson, week or term with the duck. By bringing that information to mind, it is changing the way that information is stored and it’s easier for students to recall later. 

Workload: Use a screwdriver to remove the squeak and save teacher headaches!

Emoji links

How: Students link emojis to sections from a theory topic – this should take no more than five minutes to complete. Emojis should be purposefully selected, with a few random emojis to see what fun ideas the students can come up with. This retrieval task is also a nice example of incorporating dual coding in the classroom.

Extend: This task could be extended as homework, with students using a different-coloured pen to find further links using their knowledge organisers, mind maps, notes, or flashcards. 

Workload: Reduce the teacher workload by setting the challenge as homework, to design the emoji grids based on a given topic.

Emoji links

Flash cards

How: Following the Leitner flash card method using spaced practice and recalling by writing answers down before turning flash cards over to check answers, is an effective method for retrieval practice. Impact Wales has an amazing poster to help guide students through this process, but students can use envelopes to store different piles. This task should take no more than 3-5 minutes of lesson time and is an excellent method to help prepare students for revision.

Workload: Students should create their own flash cards. The process of writing the flash cards helps reinforce learning. 

Great packet race

How: Students race across the map, claiming states as they answer questions correctly. The map is generic and can be played on any topic. If played on a teacher’s board, students can work in teams to answer questions. The game can also be printed and students can play in small groups. Questions and answers can be prepared, or students can use their knowledge organisers, mind maps, or flash cards to generate questions.

Workload: Use retrieval grids mentioned later in the article for the teacher question bank to reduce workload. 

Extend: Set as homework the task to annotate the map after the game, linking the name of tech states to theory topics and keywords. 

Original idea: Magpied and adapted from @SPBeale, adapted by @BSAKComputing.

Great packet race

10 minutes on…

How: Students have ten minutes to list, explain, or compare one specific topic. Students also need to annotate an image which nicely incorporates dual coding, and plan how they would answer an exam-style question. 

Extend: Students can complete as homework their final exam-style question/answer.

One of the ‘10 minutes on’ sheets

Quizizz – self-marking quiz

How: Create a free teacher account on quizizz.com and make a bank of quizzes on each topic needed. Questions are multiple choice – allow for pictures and up to five possible answers. The quiz can be set as a live game, homework, or solo game, and can be played by students using a pin code or shared via Google Classroom or Remind. Quizzes should take 3-5 minutes for students to complete and the system self-marks. Quizizz also has a new feature called ‘Classes’ that allows for teachers to track students’ progress. 

Workload: You can search for existing quizzes on Quizizz to save and edit if needed. Once quizzes are saved they can be reused with very little preparation needed.

Quizizz is a useful tool that allows for self-marking, whilst also letting teachers track progress

Retrieval grids

How: This task involves a little more planning, but retrieval grids are a flexible tool for low-stakes retrieval and feedback. Each box is colour-coded to represent whether the knowledge was learnt last lesson, last week, last month or way back! Simply add questions on one slide and answers on the following slide. Display the grid on the teacher’s board or students’ screens, then students individually fill in their answers on a printed blank grid or directly into their books. The answer grid can be displayed and students self-mark their work.

Workload: It can be time-consuming preparing this retrieval task, but you could set up a template at the beginning of the academic year with 20 blank question-and-answer slides. As you work through topics, you can add questions to different slides. 

Extend: Ownership can also be taken from students themselves. My sixth form students were each given a blank template at the beginning of the year and asked periodically to update their own versions. You can also print and laminate the questions and answer grids back to back, and use periodically with individuals.

Original idea: Magpied and adapted from @87History.

Retrieval grids require a little more planning, but they are worth the effort

Go fetch!

How: This retrieval task is a high-energy one that gets students moving around the classroom. Complete the template squares with a description or a key fact on part of a topic. Students race to find the corresponding answers on snippable sheets placed around the classroom. The answers are glued or written into the corresponding box, and students can add extra details for bonus points. 

Extend: Make it a little harder and do not include all the answers on the snippable sheets. 

Original idea: Magpied and adapted from @SPBeale.

The ‘Go Fetch’ activity involves placing answers around the classroom, and gets people on their feet!

Thinking quilts

How: Students use the quilt topics along the bottom to identify related keywords on the main grid. Links between the grid and the topics should be the same colour, with some key words potentially sharing several topics. Students then use the grid to answer the exam-style questions. The task does have visual prompts and is not a complete recall task, but is an excellent revision resource. 

Extend: Blank spots can be left for students to fill in additional keywords from their own recall, or a blank topic can be left along the bottom for students to identify.

Original idea: Magpied and adapted from @KKNTeachLearn.

An example of a thinking quilt

Noughts and crosses

How: Display a simple noughts and crosses grid on the teacher’s interactive board. Split the class into two teams and get each one to write down five questions. Each team takes turns to answer questions, and if correct, places the team’s allocated symbol, zero, or cross in a chosen space on the grid. The winning team is the one with three symbols in a row. Alternatively, students work in pairs with their own printed grid and play between two.

Speed it up: Previous homework could be for students to bring three questions and answers to the lesson, then the team selects five questions to use, or students could use their flash cards as question banks.

Original idea: Magpied and adapted from @BsaktL

Top tips

  • Make tasks universal, so the activity can be easily modified across topics.

  • Simplicity is key – quick to complete so it does not dominate the lesson.

  • Tasks should involve everyone – each activity can be completed individually, in pairs or small groups.

  • Duration – each task varies between 3-10 minutes. Students may well take longer at first, but once the task has been used a couple of times in lessons, the pace should quicken.

  • Teachers – tasks need to be low-stake and should not require recording of results. It’s important to circulate tasks to observe any common misconceptions.

  • Feedback - this is, of course, essential; without feedback, students don’t know what they got correct or not! This does not mean more work for the teacher, though – the students should self-mark by comparing their answers to mark schemes, knowledge organisers (which are single A4 documents that as a rule that contain key basic facts and knowledge on a given topic), mind maps, flash cards or notes.

Further reading

Retrieval practice is such a powerful technique – if you want to learn more about the topic, I would highly recommend the following books: Make It Stick by Peter Brown, Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel, and Powerful Teaching by Pooja K. Agarwal and Patrice M. Bain. 

Finding time to read can be difficult, so I would also recommend searching online for chapter summaries on the books. The retrievalpractice.org website is brimming with techniques and further information on the topic. 


https://twitter.com/BSAKComputing

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