Arnie Skelton, Managing Director, Effective Training & Development Ltd

RETRIEVAL PRACTICE IN ACTION: So what is retrieval practice?

Essentially, it is anything that encourages the learner to recall their learning, then self-check for accuracy.

It has a lot going for it – there’s a lot of research showing how retrieval practice aids learner recall, retention, comprehension and motivation.

So how do we do it?

What follows are 4 of my personal favourite retrieval practice activities, which I’ve developed and used over the years, always to positive effect:

1: 2 packs

You need two packs of playing cards. One sits on your desk, only to be used at the end. The second pack sits in your pocket or easily accessible somewhere close to you. Initially you hand out one, two or three cards (it doesn’t matter what’s on the face of the card) to learners.

At this stage, the learners haven’t a clue what’s going on – so someone will ask. It’s up to you whether you tell them straight away, or let it run, and ask them to guess. If you let it run (advised), they will notice (or look for) a pattern emerging, and offer their ‘solutions’. So you have their interest, attention and curiosity. Eventually someone guesses correctly, or you tell them. You have a system (which system is entirely up to you). For example:

  • Someone asks a legitimate question = 1 card
  • Someone answers your question = 1 to 3 cards, depending on the level of question and/or quality of response (eg one for a description, 2 if they can give an example)
  • Someone answers someone else’s question = 2 or 3 cards

And so on. The key thing – you have to be consistent (if you aren’t, or you forget to allocate a deserved card, they’ll be on you like a rash!). In my experience, well over half the class will want to play – but at this stage, they don’t know what they are playing for – is there a prize, or not? And how is it won? I prefer not to tell them, until the ‘reveal’ at the end.

Then at the end of the session, or when all the cards in the pack have been allocated, you go to the second pack, and randomly cut the pack to turn over a card. And whoever has that card – wins. It’s up to you what prize you give (there has to be one, but in my experience it doesn’t matter what it is) – and of course, it means anyone with a card can win – irrespective of how many they have – though the more they have, statistically, the greater their chance of winning (you can build maths into this quite easily).

2: Rotational quiz

Most teachers run quizzes from time to time – but this is a quiz with a difference – because it’s run entirely by the learners. Divide them into teams – for the purpose of this explanation, they are A, B and C. They all set a quiz for the other 2 teams – eg 10 questions about what’s been learned so far this term.


So A runs their quiz, answered by B and C. B runs theirs, answered by A and C, then C does theirs, answered by A and B. What’s lovely about this is what I call the repetition of recall. Each team will access-recall the content 4 times: once in preparing their questions; once in asking their questions; then answering B and C’s questions….and of course, more teams = more recall opportunity, and embedding opportunity…

3: 16 boxes

Each learner team has a single sheet of blank A4 paper, which they fold in half, then half, then half again, to make an imprint 8 boxes on each side = 16 boxes. Choose a starting person in the team. They have to write in one of the boxes something they’ve learned from the session (or period under review); they then pass it to the next person (clockwise); they do the same, and so on, until all 16 boxes have been filled.

Key point: the information in the box – the specific learning point – can only be mentioned once.

So each person has to come up with something different. And to check this, they HAVE to read what’s already been written – another opportunity for embedding recall (and of course, for checking). I like to end this session by asking the winning team (it’ usually done against the clock) to read out their answers, as happens in a bingo hall – and I repeat the answer (and if it’s correct), shout ‘check’….

4: Pictionary Relay

This is my all time favourite, but be warned: it can get boisterous! It’s based on the commercial game ‘Pictionary’, where in pairs, one has to draw a word, and their partner has to guess it. No words can be used in the drawing. And that’s what happens here. Again the learners are in teams.

As teacher you have a set of words to give to the teams, and someone in the team has to draw the word (usually on flat flip chart paper) for the rest of the team to guess. All the words relate in some way to what’s been learned. So far, so good. But here’s the relay part. Everyone in the team has a sequential number – 1,2,3,4 etc. At the start, each team’s number 1 comes out from their team to where you are as teacher.

You give them the word, and they go back to draw that word for their team. Now, whoever guesses the right word, it is the next person in sequence (in this case number 2) who comes out to get the next word (of course to get the new word, they have to give the correct answer to the old word).

This process ensures everyone in the team gets a turn at drawing. It’s fun, fast and furious, and highly competitive….the winning team is the one that completes all the words in the fastest time, or whoever’s got the most words within a given time…

Arnie Skelton, Managing Director, Effective Training & Development Ltd

These activities are just 4 of my personal favourite retrieval practice activities, I’ve got loads more. They are extracted from my more extensive collection, called BIAR (Building Learner Interest, Attention and Recall) – This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. me if you’d like to purchase my pack of 88 such activities!

To hear more from Arnie subscribe to his podcast series "Top Ten Tips for Teachers and #FE Managers the Podcast Series" or visit his Newsroom on FE News.

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