Long-Term Learning Strategy: Retrieval Practice

This is the first in a series of posts highlighting classroom strategies that support long-term, profound learning, rather than short-term, superficial learning.  This post articulates the strategy of Retrieval Practice.

Within Article V: Organizational Transformation we hold that: V.j Profound learning (owning the knowledge) as opposed to superficial learning (short-term memory) comes more from engagement and commitment than from various forms of compliance, coercion, sanctions, or rewards.  I challenge you to consider the classroom as a micro-version of the larger system and within that learning organization, the educator can create the conditions and capacities most conducive for [students as] leaders, [students as] teachers, and students [themselves] to perform at high levels and meet the expectations of new learning standards.  When establishing these conditions, we can incorporate opportunities for students to make connections among content (with a focus on the relevancy in the connections) as well as empower our students with this strategy as a learning tool.

If you have asked yourself any of these questions below, I encourage you to try Retrieval Practice with your students:


How do I support students to make connections or recall valuable content class-to-class?

How do I support students in becoming self-managers of their learning?

How do I support students in becoming advocates of their own learning?

First, Retrieval Practice is not assessment.  Rather, it is a strategy or structure to support students to exercise their memories.  Give them time to forget, then encourage them to remember.  Coincidently, in alternating block schedules at many high schools that resemble higher-ed’s Monday/Wednesday/Friday or Tuesday/Thursday classes, time to forget is par for the course!  Two days is perfect to use these prompts to jog the memory and reach back a bit further to stretch the thinking to make connections.

Retrieval Practice may occur every day the class meets.  Our elementary friends have class structure figured out, stemming from attention span and learning needs for young children.  I encourage all educators, especially our secondary ones, to reflect on the structure of their class period and adjust plans to make room for this powerful strategy.  Think you don’t have time to add one more thing to your lesson plans?  Consider Retrieval Practice as an investment in time!  What if all of your students remembered the most important content from not only yesterday’s lesson, but a lesson two weeks ago?  Now that would save you some time for sure!  And, what if down the road, your students were so self-sufficient as learners to use Retrieval Practice for their own studying?

Writing Retrieval Strings

I use the term Retrieval Strings here due to the related content included in the set of questions/prompts that flows from one to the next, in the form of a string of intentionally written questions.  Using the High Priority Learning Standards as a lens, consider the most valuable content in terms of endurance, leverage, and readiness for the next grade level/course to include in the Retrieval Strings.  Then, draft a string of questions or prompts that are related but not necessarily dependent upon one another – we do not want to lose any students for the remainder of the activity if they are unable to retrieve one piece of content.

Alex Laney has designed Do Now Activities and advises that 20% of the questions relate to content at least two weeks old.  In the examples below, the final two questions/prompts fit this criteria.

Warning about the samples below: Since Retrieval Practice is utilized daily for learning, the entire set of questions/prompts in the images below would not be used every day.  Only include content that has been part of learning experiences thus far.  By the end of the unit of study, a more vast (but not necessarily too lengthy) set of questions/prompts is used, such as these below.

Screen Shot 2017-10-08 at 7.07.43 PM

Screen Shot 2017-10-08 at 7.07.52 PM


Classroom Environment

Select the most appropriate format to deliver the Retrieval Strings for your students and the content in the current unit of study.  Options include, but are not limited to, whole class questioning, think-pair-share, written journaling, and responses via technology tool.

Depending on the content, draft images or refer to anchor charts in the classroom to scaffold visual imagery for the students.  When I hear linear parent function, or quadratic parent function I think of the image on the right in the examples above.  Without these visuals in my own mind’s eye, I would struggle to be able to respond to the Retrieval Strings with automaticity.


Even though Retrieval Practice is not assessment, feedback is appropriate.  This feedback, in the form of correct/incorrect or a brief explanation related to the content, supports the students to take responsibility for learning through self-correction.

Want to Learn More?

I encourage you to check out www.RetrievalPractice.org as well as the content related to Retrieval Practice in Doug Lemov’s Field Notes.    In addition, Jennifer Gonzalez offers insight on her site, Cult of Pedagogy, including an interview with Dr. Pooja Agarwal.  These resources served as my own inspiration to explore Retrieval Practice and begin drafting Retrieval Strings, such as the examples included in this post above.

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