Helping students to retain information is a fundamental challenge in education. In Queensland, this challenge has been made especially salient by the introduction of a new senior curriculum and assessment program.
It includes externally set exams covering content from the two years of senior schooling, and in Maths and Science this change was keenly felt due to the introduction of an external exam worth 50 per cent of a student’s final grade.
Coolum State High School – a large, rapidly growing school on the state’s Sunshine Coast – was one of many schools that recognised the need for a shift in pedagogy to support retention. Coolum partnered with The University of Queensland (UQ) and the Science of Learning Research Centre (SLRC), joining the SLRC Partner Schools Program (PSP) in 2020 to investigate one promising technique for improving retention: Retrieval Practice.
The SLRC Translation Team, located within the School of Education at UQ, worked with Coolum’s research team throughout 2020 to establish their evidence base, engage with the literature, design the project, and analyse and interpret their findings.
What does the research say?
Retrieval Practice has been shown to support the retention of information in long-term memory (Roediger & Karpicke, 2006). Cognitive psychology distinguishes three key functions of memory: Encoding – putting information into memory; Storage – keeping information in memory; and Retrieval – accessing information in memory.
Through Retrieval Practice – deliberately bringing information to mind – memory for particular pieces of information is strengthened and the ability to quickly and accurately retrieve it again in the future is improved (Rowland, 2014).
There are many ways in which retrieval can be practiced, including taking quizzes or practise tests, drawing concept maps from memory, doing a ‘brain dump’ of information known about a topic, exchanging questions in pairs, and self-testing with flash cards.
Any activity that involves the deliberate retrieval of information can be considered Retrieval Practice and can enhance learning (Blunt & Karpicke, 2014; Kang et al., 2007). Retrieval Practice has thus become recognised as a highly effective technique that can promote learning in a range of disciplines and contexts (Dunlosky et al., 2013).
Investigating frequency of retrieval practice
As part of their SLRC Partner Schools Project, the research team from Coolum State High School engaged with the literature on Retrieval Practice to build an evidence base for their project. Whilst the evidence indicated that Retrieval Practice was a powerful learning technique, it was less clear about how frequently the strategies needed to be used, particularly across different age groups, and also about how effective it could be across diverse subject areas, with most research being conducted in areas such as Science, History, and languages.
Therefore, for their Partner Schools Project, the Coolum State High School team set about answering the following research questions:
- Is there a difference in effectiveness between weekly and fortnightly Retrieval Practice for improving retention?
- Do the effects of Retrieval Practice, and its frequency (i.e., weekly versus fortnightly), differ across student age groups?
- Is there a difference in the effectiveness of Retrieval Practice between subjects (e.g., Maths versus literature)?
- Can Retrieval Practice be effectively used for subjects such as Literature and Psychology?
The project involved 300 students – 200 from Year 8 Maths and Humanities, and 100 from Senior Modern History, Psychology, Literature, Maths, and Geography.
The Coolum research team developed three groups of ‘facts’ for each year level and subject area – these ‘facts’ were content knowledge or concepts that were important in the relevant subject. Within each subject and year level, these facts were randomly divided into three sets of equal size – Set A (tested weekly), Set B (tested fortnightly), and Set C (tested once at the end of the term).
The Retrieval Practice activities were done in the same classes at the same times each week, so as to increase consistency in the procedure. The level of difficulty across all three sets was designed to be as similar as possible. Data later suggested they were of similar difficulty, with similar rates of correct answering across the three sets the first time each was tested.
Findings in the Coolum State High School context
The results of the study confirmed that Retrieval Practice was effective in improving retention. This finding is in line with a great deal of existing research, so was reassuring but not particularly surprising. However, a number of other findings were more novel:
- In Maths and Humanities (Year 8) and Psychology (Year 11) weekly Retrieval Practice resulted in more improvement than fortnightly.
- In Literature (Year 11) fortnightly practice caused a greater improvement than weekly.
- In Senior Geography and Senior History, no significant difference was found between weekly and fortnightly practice.
- Retrieval Practice can be effective across a wide range of subject areas.
The advantage of weekly over fortnightly practice in Year 8 Humanities and Mathematics was a point of much discussion amongst the Coolum research team. Whilst the team had a hunch that weekly practice would be more effective, the advantage of weekly over fortnightly was larger than anticipated. Perhaps this is a reflection of greater difficulty experienced by the younger students to retrieve information due to the breadth of subjects they undertake and therefore the varying content that they encounter in a week.
Broadly speaking, the Coolum State High School project into Retrieval Practice found that younger students benefitted from weekly practice and senior students from fortnightly practice. Research suggests that the ideal frequency of practice probably depends on the difficulty of the material and the learner’s current level of ability (Cepeda et al,, 2008; Mettler et al., 2016). Almost all individual students benefited from any form of retrieval practice over none at all, even if they performed relatively poorly on the practice tests. The project also illustrated that retrieval practice can be effective in a variety of subjects.
An unexpected outcome of the study for the Coolum research team was the impact it had on their own teaching practice.
The team reported that, as they developed the three sets of facts for each curriculum area, it forced teachers to distil the essence of the content, to identify the important knowledge and skills of the curriculum and how tasks could be designed to encourage students to retrieve that knowledge and skill.
Teachers reported finding this process clarifying. The Coolum research team thus found that the benefits of Retrieval Practice are evident for student retention of knowledge, but also for teacher clarity.
Future work and how to get involved
In 2021, Coolum State High School is expanding their work in Retrieval Practice across the whole school, recognising the power of this evidence-based approach to supporting student learning. If you would like more information on their project, please contact Jeanette Samson on firstname.lastname@example.org.
The SLRC Partner Schools Program is open to all schools across Australia. It generally runs across the academic year but there is flexibility, depending on the needs of each school. If you would like more information on Program or how your school can engage with the Science of Learning in your own context, please contact Dr Stephanie MacMahon at email@example.com.
Thanks must go to the staff and students at Coolum State High School for their support of this project. In particular, we would like to thank Troy Ascott (Principal), the Coolum Research Team (Terry Proctor, Kate Pascoe, Belinda Lohmann, Sean Sweeney, Sally Vellar, Joel Hughes, and Jeanette Samson), and the Year 8 and Senior students and staff involved.
Blunt, J. R., & Karpicke, J. D. (2014). Learning with retrieval-based concept mapping. Journal of Educational Psychology, 106(3), 849-858. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0035934
Cepeda, N. J., Vul, E., Rohrer, D., Wixted, J. T., & Pashler, H. (2008). Spacing effects in learning: A temporal ridgeline of optimal retention. Psychological Science, 19(11), 1095-1102. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02209.x
Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4-58. https://doi.org/10.1177/1529100612453266
Kang, S. H., McDermott, K. B., & Roediger III, H. L. (2007). Test format and corrective feedback modify the effect of testing on long-term retention. European Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 19(4-5), 528-558. https://doi.org/10.1080/09541440601056620
Mettler, E., Massey, C. M., & Kellman, P. J. (2016). A comparison of adaptive and fixed schedules of practice. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 145(7), 897-917. https://doi.org/10.1037/xge0000170
Roediger III, H. L., & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). The power of testing memory: Basic research and implications for educational practice. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1(3), 181-210. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1745-6916.2006.00012.x
Rowland, C. A. (2014). The effect of testing versus restudy on retention: a meta-analytic review of the testing effect. Psychological Bulletin, 140(6), 1432-1463. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0037559
As a school leader, how do you keep abreast of research on effective teaching practices?
As a teacher, how confident do you feel to analyse and interpret educational research? What forms of evidence do you use to inform your classroom practice?