Diversifying retrieval practice: simple ideas that can be used to recall subject knowledge

First posted on the Herts & Bucks TSA blog on 23 January 2019

A lot of educational research and books are now focusing on retrieval practice activities as a way to improve long-term memory. Many of the practices advocated centre on starter activities (or settlers/”Do Now” activities), which are small activities used at the beginning of lessons to engage, recap on previous learning and/or link previous learning to the next stage of the curriculum/syllabus. These activities are an excellent way of checking learning, revisiting content and linking knowledge with basic understanding. Simple starters that can check basic knowledge of key words, terms and concepts include:

  • a set of questions based on previously learnt content;
  • multiple-choice quizzes;
  • true or false quizzes;
  • anagrams – with knowledge based hints;
  • letter stems generating recall of key words, terms or phrases;
  • (a cautious use of) word searches – so long as understanding is checked by Q&A afterwards;
  • cryptic crosswords – that check understanding;
  • or even games (see below).

These are easy to create using websites on the internet, such as Discovery Puzzlemaker and Kahoot!

Cryptic crosswords are my personal favourite activity from the list above, as I feel the cryptic questions on content previously taught facilitate a deeper understanding of the knowledge being sought than closed questions. Cryptic crosswords can also get pupils to both interpret and analyse the meaning of the questions by making connections between the cryptic clue and the subject knowledge being alluded to. However, these would need to be pitched at the right level in terms of your classes’ ability and context.

For an example of a cryptic crossword, see the crossword below that explores Christian teachings on the nature of God in Religious Education. It is used in a mixed ability GCSE class; after a couple of minutes, hints are placed on the board.

screen shot 2019-01-22 at 14.00.31If you prefer getting pupils to think more abstractly or theoretically as part of their retrieval practice (as opposed to answering straightforward closed or mildly open questions), using photographs and pictures to engage them in discussion is a good way to introduce interpretation and application skills whilst recalling relevant subject knowledge. This can also bridge the key skill of knowledge retrieval with the skills of knowledge explanation and application. For instance, pictures of social deprivation, such as run-down city centres, vandalism and graffiti, can get pupils interpreting what social issues are depicted and debating why the situations are of importance in subjects such as geography, citizenship and sociology. Of course, discussions or written answers would need to be scaffolded with the correct key words, terms or concepts in order to keep discussion or written answers focused on the subject knowledge being retrieved.

Retrieval Games

In addition to the above, there are all sorts of games you can use for as retrieval practice activities. They can be used as starters, breathers from more serious activities or even as a plenary. The activities suggested below are from sociology and RE, but can be adapted for almost any subject or topic. You will, however, need to check the accuracy of any questions or definitions that pupils come up with to avoid misconceptions and misunderstanding.

  • Guess the sociologist: getting pupils to describe a famous sociologist’s work, perhaps in teams, as others try to guess who it is. This can include their key ideas, research or influences on the subject as a whole. At the end of term, pupils could even create a sociological version the famous board game Guess Who?
  • Guess the key word: this can be done in pairs, teams or as a class. The idea is similar to the game Pictionary as students draw words, concepts or theories as others try to guess what they are drawing. This can also be done by using simple word-fill sentences; for example, in RE I ask pupils to complete this sentence, “Key differences between Sunni and Shia Islam include the 6 __________ of faith and the 5 ___________ of religion”. Guessing games can involve mime and actions, too.
  • Catchphrase: this can take a bit of time to prepare, but you could always devise images or find symbols that can relate to a piece of previously learnt content that pupils need to use to recall key information, especially key terms. Using a slide presentation, this could take the form of the TV show Catchphrase.
  • Blockbusters: like the popular game show, pupils answer questions to complete a path across or down a board or screen of hexagons. Unlike the trivia questions on TV, they can be focused on subject knowledge. These can be completed as a class, in teams, pairs or even as individuals. See a template here.
  • Definition bingo: pupils draw a 3 x 3 grid. Then, as a class, they suggest 14 useful words on a topic area. These are written on the board. Each pupil then randomly fills in their grid with 9 of these words. Next, in pairs, they come up with a definition for the words on the board. Then you go around the class asking pupils to read out one of their definitions and the other pupils tick off the words accordingly.
  • Keyword relay races: here the teacher (or pupils) write key words or terms on the board. Then you need to split the class into two teams before giving a red and blue pen to each team respectively. Next, you call out the definition at which point a pupil from each team races to circle the right word; then they pass on the pens to the next team member.
  • Walkabout Bingo: give the pupils a grid with 9 to 12 squares on it. In each grid write questions on the subject knowledge being recalled. Then get the pupils to walk around the room asking each pupil in turn a question. The rules are that they can only use a pupil’s name once and cannot use their own. The first to fill the grid with names is the winner – but be sure to check the accuracy of the answers to avoid misconceptions and misunderstanding.

Lastly, at the end of term you can always get pupils to make their own board games. An easy game I get pupils to create is a sociological Snakes and Ladders, where students can design the board on the concepts of, for example, life course analysis if they are revising the topic of family and households or even try to have squares that explain meritocracy (where you go up) or the myth of meritocracy (where you go down) if they are revising a unit on education. Similarly, in RE, pupils can make Buddhist Snakes and Ladders where key Buddhist teachings on morality are used to go up ladders (good karma) or down snakes (bad karma). If pupils create games, such as a Monopoly board based on urban criminology (in sociology), they will need use their so-called “higher order thinking skills” to conceptualise how the game will work too.

A word of caution

By having a variety of activities, you can make knowledge retrieval engaging and diverse and more than a simple set of questions – which are still important – each time pupils are required to recall important information.  Nevertheless, a word of caution should accompany any advocacy of the above ideas; their use should be used to maximise recall – in some subject areas or topics they may be less effective than others. Furthermore, you should consider the nature of your pupils – will they engage in these activities in a serious and constructive way? If not, stick to basic questions.

Photo credit: Pexels (used under a Creative Commons Licence)

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