Retrieval practice and spaced practice

Retrieval practice and spaced practice


During my first post, I outline some of the many benefits of retrieval practice and why it should be used regularly in lessons to enhance students’ learning. In this post, I am going to discuss the importance of spacing out retrieval and how this supports memory retention.


Building schema 

One of the reasons I have put so much time and effort into embedding retrieval practice into my teaching is because of the impact it has on students’ long-term memory. One of the most frustrating parts of teaching is when students seem to have a concrete understanding of something when they are introduced to it but have forgotten it by the next week. Retrieval will support with this, but in order to really strengthen students’ ability to recall information and apply their learning to new situations, the key is by building their schema – their interconnected web of knowledge. In order for this to truly have an impact, retrieval practice needs to happen regularly – as spaced practice.

Let’s look at the hierarchy of learning techniques as outlined by the Education Endowment Foundation (2019). In the figure below (developed by Kate Jones using the EEF, 2019 report on metacognition) we can see that retrieval and spaced practice are highlighted as the two most effective learning techniques. When combining them together we enhance learning even further.

Figure 1: Hierarchy of learning techniques

Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve is also used regularly to show the impact of spaced practice, highlighting that our memories weaken over time and that this drop in retention happens very soon after learning. Therefore, the regular reviewing of information is critical to help with knowledge retention. However, the regular reviewing of information using retrieval practice not only supports knowledge retention, but enhances it.


Retrieval and spaced practice

So, why do retrieval and spaced practice work so well together? When we learn something and form a new memory these new memories have contextual features – information about the time and place the memory was formed. When students then try to recall this memory, they also reinstate the context in which the memory was formed. For example, if a student is completing a piece of homework and is trying to recall the formation of a waterfall, they may remember the teacher showing a video while explaining the process. This contextual information helps the student to recall this information. When the student recalls this information in a different context – for example at home drawing a sketch of a waterfall forming – this generates a new context, adding to their memory and linking the two contexts together, developing their schema. This means that next time the student tries to recall this information their memory is stronger and retrieving the information will be easier (Karpicke et al., 2014). The more they do this, the more their schema will strengthen and the easier it will be to recall the information. Imagine being lost in a dense forest; the first time you find your way out is challenging. The next time is slightly easier as you have already beaten a path. The next time is easier again. And again. And again, until finally the path is so well-trodden that you barely have to think about it to find your way out. This is one of the reasons retrieving information is much better for learning than re-reading information. When we re-read, there is no need for the memory to reinstate the context of where the information was first learnt, and therefore the memory does not strengthen; the challenge is what strengthens our memory!


Practical ways to use retrieval and spaced practice

I use retrieval practice at the start of nearly every lesson with my students, asking questions from a range of different topics they have studied in order to space out their practice. In a future blog I will outline some key strategies I use, but my favourite one is very simple: six questions, two from the start of the year (or a previous year), two from a previous topic and two from the last few lessons. In this way I am encouraging regular spaced retrieval practice, modelling to the students the most effective way for them to revise. If students are struggling with their retrieval, I provide them with prompts about the context in which we learnt the information, encouraging them to reinstate the context. I have regular conversations with them about the power of retrieval and spaced practice alongside these starter activities (see Figure 3). I also ensure every student has a retrieval tracker at the start of their books. Once they have marked and corrected their questions, they identify the areas they get wrong as key areas for them to revise. They then bring in their revision resource the following week, which I check alongside their tracker to ensure they have completed it – more on this in my next blog!

Examples of contextual cues · ‘We compared the difference between primary and secondary impacts of an earthquake when looking at our Japan case study.’


· ‘We had a go at balancing equations on our mini-whiteboards last week.’

· ‘We learnt this key term just before completing the practical on electricity.’

Examples of conversations around the importance of retrieval with students · ‘Remember it’s important to not look back in your books for the answer. Trying to remember and getting it wrong is still strengthening that connection in your memory.’


· ‘This may be a little difficult because we haven’t looked at this in a while, but that should show you the importance of regular spaced revision.’

· ‘Re-reading is not helping your memory; the struggle and the challenge is key to strengthening your memory.’

· ‘Each time you remember something, it is making that path to the memory stronger.’

Figure 2: Examples of conversations to have with students



Jenny Campbell is the Subject Leader of Geography in a comprehensive secondary school academy in Coventry. Jenny has a PhD in Physical Geography, specialising in Quaternary climate change, and a Master’s Degree in Teaching Studies, where she developed a student-centred approach to metacognition and retrieval and spaced practice. Jenny is driven to inspire students from all socio-economic backgrounds, regardless of barriers to learning and their starting point, to have an impact on the world in which they live. A lover of teaching & learning, Jenny is a firm believer in research-informed teaching, and she is always looking for innovative improvements to refine her practice.

Complete Revision & Practice provides a revision guide, workbook and practice paper in one book, now with interactive recall quizzes, updated practice questions and video solutions.
Find out more about GCSE 9-1 Complete Revision & Practice