The importance of Retrieval in learning and Revision

In just over one week I will be trying to get all the external exam students in my school to start to focus on their revision.   It is never easy to work out when is the right time to start the focus on this but with just 10 teaching weeks to go – the time seems to be about now.   Many students seem to think that revision is something that can be done at the last possible minute.  However, for revision to be as effective as possible it needs to be planned, strategic and needs to constantly recap over familiar ideas and concepts.


The more that I learn about Retrieval Practice the more convinced I am about how important this strand is within learning.   Over the last couple of years, I have become increasingly focused on how the brain actually learns stuff.   I have noticed the differences that often occur between boys and girls in the way that they prepare for exams and how this can sometimes have quite surprising outcomes.    I have changed tack with some of the ways that I support the learning of my classes.  I have changed my schemes of work and how I teach things to incorporate more opportunities for retrieval to take place in both a structured (with cues) and unstructured (without cues) manner.   I have tried to improve my own professional knowledge by jumping onto online training sessions and have read widely in this area to investigate topics of the brain, memory, learning, creating good habits, retrieval and sleep.

Adam Boxer notes that “As soon as you learn something new, you start to forget it.  This is a normal and natural part of human cognition, and it happens to us all.  In school, this is a particularly vexing phenomenon, as we want students to remember everything that we teach them.  In response to natural processes of forgetting, there are many strategies that students use to try and bolster their memories.  Most of the common strategies like reading notes or a textbook, highlighting, summarising texts or writing mnemonics are not particularly effective at strengthening memories and combating forgetting”[1]


I have been thinking recently about the differences between revision and retrieval.  Are they things that actually oppose each other or support each other?   The reality is that we sometimes see them as competing entities and not both tools that can be used to help embed and encode knowledge.    In some ways I see that Revision is the process of going back over the notes/ information that has been learnt previously.   Retrieval is when you try to recall or remember something that you have learnt previously.  Revision starts with a stimulus (a book, a page, some notes, a youtube video) but Retrieval starts with a memory.  But,  it is often just an attempt to go over the same stuff that we have gone over before.   Retrieval is all about trying to build and strengthen the links between our Long Term (LTM) and Working Memory (WM).   The more that we force the transfers of knowledge (or dredge those memories up) from deep within our LTM and bring them to the surface of our WM for use in an answer to a question etc – the better we will be at retrieving these memories.   The more we practice – the quicker we will work.  Free recall is often the most challenging act of retrieval because cues are absent[2].  Prof Jared Cooney-Horvath notes that, “the more effort required by an individual to dredge up a memory without external support, the stronger the memory will become” (Jones, 2020)[3]  For example, if I force my students to complete as many past paper questions as possible – each practice at answering a different question is making the students drag up the relevant memories to answer the question.   However, the important element is always in trying to work out how much of what we write/remember is actually relevant in answering the question. We need to go over the answers and learn to plug the gaps in our knowledge and learn from our mistakes and misunderstandings.    Kate Jones calls this building up the retrieval strength and I like the concept behind this – that we are gradually, over time, flexing our memory muscles and gradually refining our knowledge into a schema that is accurate and that can be recalled rapidly, even under the intense pressure of an exam.   Robert Bjork talks about how using your memory shapes your memory – so the reminder is that if we don’t use the memory we will lose it! (check out the short video here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=69VPjsgm-E0&t=17s )

As teachers (and as the lead adults in the room) – our job is to manage this process – sometimes without the pupils/students even knowing that they are doing this.    We have to set up the opportunities for retrieval (and revision) to happen.  Yes – it is something that pupils need to do for themselves, but we need to set the climate for this to happen.   The strategy that helps to embed the learning comes from us.    The push to start, the check over the quality of the notes, the quick reflection on how the learning is going – these all play an important part in the stimulation and motivation of the learning from the pupil.

Reflective teachers are always evaluating their own performance and trying to improve.  One key question that teachers should be asking of themselves as they plan and deliver lessons with their students as they plan the learning journey is this  – by the end of your course will your learners be able to answer these questions for themselves?

  • What can you actually remember about a topic? (Without hints and then WITH hints) 

  • Are you remembering the most important stuff? Have you identified what the key Target memories[4] are?

  • Are you getting distracted? Do you know the difference between information you NEED to know against information that would be NICE to know? 

  • Can you show the application of your knowledge through Past Paper Questions?

Is it the case that retrieval works better in a group or class setting and revision works better on an individual level?   There would be some that might argue both for and against but the reality is that there are different activities that can be done linked to both that can be achieved across BOTH of these situations.   Both are useful and effective ways of working, but retrieval helps learners to work out what they do and don’t know which can help reduce workload as learners will have a clear picture of what the missing pieces of their knowledge will be.

Maybe the deeper question – especially for students who are trying to plan for exams is one of just how effective are the different strategies that you intend to use as part of your revision package?   Are we teaching our students enough self-analysis to know that one thing works better than something else?   Do they know what are the different things that work best for them?  Often teacher promote techniques like reading notes and highlighting that actually give a false sense of completion to a student.   They think that just because they have spent time ‘in revision’ that this is all money in the bank.   They need to make sure that the revision strategies they are using are actually helping to add to the knowledge and are not just a form of window dressing.

This weekend I am travelling over to London for the InnerDrive Teaching and Learning Summit and I am hoping to have my ideas and concepts further strengthened in this area!  Will keep you updated!

[1] Boxer, A (2022)  Retrieving Better, Carousel learning

[2] As noted in Evidence Based Education (2023)  Retrieval practice:  Myths, mutations and mistakes

[3] Jones, K (2020) Retrieval practice 2:  implementing, embedding and reflecting, John Catt Educational

[4] Kate Jones notes that Target Memories are those key ideas/concepts that we ask students to recall – are they focusing on the right things?


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