Retrieval practice: Six tips for teachers

Deputy head Kristian Still explains how teachers can make the most of testing to improve the learning process

Retrieval practice helps learning writes Kristian Still

Back in the day, teachers taught, tested and readily chastised those who failed to reach the pass mark.

More recently, what has crept up on teachers is the idea of assessment (or testing) as learning, rather than testing of learning. This is sometimes called test-enhanced learning or retrieval practice and has recently been supported by extensive research that demonstrates its benefits.

A considerable amount of research from both cognitive and educational psychology demonstrates testing is a robust learning strategy with both direct and indirect benefits for learning.

“Testing identifies gaps in knowledge, improves metacognitive monitoring and provides feedback to learners.”

Directly: testing requires retrieval of knowledge, and retrieval of knowledge aids retention, supporting the recall of knowledge long term. Testing also leads to better organisation of knowledge, improves transfer of knowledge to new contexts and promotes future learning.

Indirectly: testing identifies gaps in knowledge, improves metacognitive monitoring and provides feedback to learners (and teachers) about what they know and still need to learn. What is more, testing also increases attention during learning, encourages better note taking and reduces anxiety during exams.

How to leverage the benefits of test-enhanced learning for your pupils:

  1. Prioritise and sequence information you want your pupils to learn and remember (be clear about discounting non-essential information too).
  2. Write high-quality questions to test pupils’ knowledge (as a teacher, this is an important skill worth refining). Match and multiple-choice questions are excellent recognition-recall question types for learning information. Question-answer flashcards, fill-in-the-blank and finish-the-sentence are also excellent free-recall question types for knowledge retrieval.
  3. Testing is “desirably difficult.” Start with recognition-recall and plan for low failure rates. Test repeatedly, but always use feedback to promote access to the correct answer. Only after a steady, yet uneventful first ten to fifteen episodes, will the direct and indirect benefits kick in. When testing knowledge, move to free-recall question types.
  4. Leverage the benefits of pupil self-assessment. Simply, pupil self-assessment is incredibly efficient, builds pupil agency, promotes pupil metacognitive monitoring capabilities and builds pupil confidence and motivation.
  5. Test regularly and routinely, as learning, at various points in the lesson. Set quizzes as prep beyond the lesson (test when pupils return to class).
  6. Lead test-enhanced learning in your classroom. Instruct routines, direct attention, and celebrate successes. During the lesson, recognise and celebrate where knowledge creeps into the lesson, because I promise you it will.

“Learning is a process, not an event.”

Routine micro-quizzes of just four or five flashcards are tasks and relatively ‘simple’ to instruct. After all, it is impossible to think hard and retrieve information/knowledge and not be focused on the task. What is more, these same flashcards can also be used to check for understanding and, in time, used to test knowledge retrieval.

Why invest your class time on test-enhanced learning?

Learning is a process (not an event) and test-enhanced learning responds to the fact that our memory is dynamic, adaptive and interdependent. Drawing on both the direct and indirect benefits of testing, on repeated retrieval, spacing, feedback, metacognitive monitoring and the reciprocal success-motivation gains, test-enhanced learning has the potential to improve the learning outcomes in almost every classroom and for every pupil.


Kristian Still is a deputy head academic at Boundary Oak School, an independent private school in Hampshire. He has over 20 years’ experience as a head teacher and senior leader. His new book, Test-Enhanced Learning: A practical guide to improving academic outcomes for all students is out now.