First posted on Tales From The Reach on 20 March 2023.
As we approach the summer exams, it might be worth setting different types of retrieval tasks in order to improve pupils’ recall and retention of previously taught content.
Although I regularly insist pupils complete past papers and certain types of exam questions as part of their revision, which is ‘very effective’ according to Dunlosky et al. (2013), Bjork (1994) suggests that a certain amount of variability in activities and tasks is both desirable and impactful on learning and achievement. He states that, ‘…increasing the variety, types and range of exercises’ has an effect on learning (ibid. p.190). Varying practice can be seen as a ‘desirable difficulty’.
The 25 activities listed below can be set as stand alone revision activities or as part of a wider revision programme. The first 20 are general learning activities whereas the last 5 are ‘learning games’. They are listed in alphabetical order, despite the first 20 activities being separated from the 5 games that follow.
- Card-sorts: Although a tad labour intensive for teachers, Boyle and Jackson (2009) suggest card-sorts can exercise recall by being paired, grouped or organised in order to correctly match keywords to definitions or facts to elaborations as well as demonstrate links between variables, such as causes and effects or similar associations and sequences (for tangible examples, see Jones, 2022, April 18).
- Completion tasks: Whereas a worked example, or modelled answer, explicitly demonstrates what a completed task or answer looks like, a completion task consists of a partially complete example that learners must finish. In a sense, the partially completed steps, text or diagram will act as a retrieval cue and the missing components of the example/answer are the ‘target’ to be generated (see Jones, 2023).
- Concept-maps: Unlike mind-maps and spider-diagrams (see below), concept-maps connect multiple facts, concepts and/or theories as opposed to connecting lots of simple ideas to one central point of reference. Pupils need to connect each fact, concept or theory recalled to any other relevant facts, concepts or theories used instead of merely branching away from a single fact or idea. The final product is more of an interconnected net than a set of ideas all linking back to the initial prompt (see Jones, 2018 for an illustrative example).
- Cryptic crosswords: Crosswords 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, which is a specific keyword or term that goes in the squares assigned to that clue (see Jones, 2022, May 22, for further examples).
- Elaborate and extend: Scaffold elaboration by providing a sentence as a cue for the information that needs to be recalled. Pupils simply need to write additional sentences that extend and add more detail to the initial prompt (see Jones, 2019 (@Katejones_teach), for examples).
- Elaborative-interrogation: A pupil is given, either verbally or in written form, a fact-to-be-remembered and then generates an explanation for it. The pupil uses questions like ‘how?’ and ‘why?’ to further elaborate on the cued fact and, subsequently, deepen their understanding of it. (For a more detailed discussion, listen to the Learning Scientists’ podcast on elaborative-interrogation (Weinstein & Sumeracki, 2017).)
- Flashcards: This is a common strategy and one that is seen as highly beneficial to learning in comparative studies (Dunlosky, 2013). Their use allows a pupil to generate a correct answer from a cue that could incorporate any of the ideas above. Flashcards can also use visual cues, incomplete sentences, or foreign words as a prompt for the target word (with the emphasis on generating the translation in the latter).
- Low Stakes testing: Pupils can complete quiz questions, especially multiple choice questions, on paper or online. For instance, questions or quizzes can be set through popular online websites and apps, including Blooket, Quizlet and Kahoot as well as subject specific sites, such as Times Tables Rock Stars or Spanish Express. Alternatively, you can make your own online quizzes via Google Forms. Importantly, Dunlosky et. al. (2013) suggested practice testing has ‘very effective’ impact on learning.
- Mind-maps: A mind-map centres on a single concept or theory, which is written in the centre of an empty piece of paper. Pupils then link associated words, concepts or examples by simply writing them down and connecting them with simple lines, which can be thickened to emphasise the importance of the connections made (Buzan & Buzan, 1994; see Jones, 2018 for examples).
- Mnemonics: Pupils make memorable phrases to help remember key information, For instance, ROYGBIV is used for the colours of the rainbow or spectrum (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet). Mnemonics can be used as an aide for retrieval practice or as a preparation task prior for a soon-to-be taught lesson or test.
- Paraphrase: Pupils can put quotes, statements, definitions or relatively straightforward concepts given out by teachers into their own words. If used as a practice task, they should be prompted simply to recall the information taught in lessons. If this is set as a preparation revision task, pupils can read information or text and rewrite the information in a simplified form (as they might do in the actual assessment or exam).
- Read → Cover → Copy: As it ‘says on the tin’, pupils read over something previously taught, then cover it up or put it away; this allows pupils to see how much they can remember – word for word or as exact definitions.
- Reflect → Write: On a blank sheet of paper, pupils write how much they can remember about a given topic. They can try to link ideas and concepts together, and then check their work with appropriate resources or later in class or at home to see how accurate they were. Of course, if set as a practice task, the reflection can be organised as an exam style response where particular analytical or evaluative skills are applied.
- Revision clocks: Pupils simply draw a clock in the centre of a piece of paper or page of a book, draw lines coming out of the clock (as many as desired) and then recall the information they are revising (this should, of course, be done without notes). Pupils write or elaborate what they are recalling in the relevant section. Importantly they must time themselves on each section – hence the reference to the clock is not just pictorial (see Jones, 2019 (@Katejones_teach), for further discussion – Jones credits Becky Russell (@teachgeogblog) with this idea).
- Spider-diagrams: In a similar vein to mind-maps, spider-diagrams start with a single word, concept or theory in the centre of the page. However, whereas mind-maps (see above) should stick to single words as ideas branch out across the page, a spider-diagram will incorporate more information, perhaps in sentences or even short paragraphs, and will have nodes coming off of each hierarchical line, which in turn will have its own sub-branches (see Jones, 2018 for an illustrative example).
- Thinking quilts: Pupils are given a grid with key words and/or concepts and they must recall the meaning of these and add small explanations or definitions in the grid. However, they must then code – perhaps through the use of highlighters – key categories within the subject, such as time periods in history or grouping keywords into sub-unit areas of study (see, for example, Karen Knight’s ideas – @KKNTeachLearn) .
- Word fills: Some people question the use of gap/word fills as they are often used as banal time fillers. However, if they are used constructively to scaffold the generation of meaningful words or terms, then evidence suggests there is a positive impact on learning. For instance, studies looking at the recall of specific words within texts have found that participants who were required to generate contextually relevant ‘target words’ in a paragraph had better memory for those words than for target words that were simply read in the text (DeWinstanley & Bjork , 2004; Little, Storm & Bjork, 2011).
- Word fragmentation completion: Word fragments include some of the letters of a previously taught word with blank spaces for missing letters. For example, in GCSE Religious Studies pupils should really know the Five Pillars of Islam in Arabic, so I might include the following as part of a retrieval strategy prior to a written answer: “s_a_a_a_” (shahadah), “s_l_h” (salah), “z_k_h” (zakah), “s_w_” (sawm) and “h_j_” (hajj).
- Word pairs (or pair associates): These teach pupils how to think about the relationship between specific words. Simple classroom activities, again used as precursors to more elaborate tasks, could include generating ‘target’ words from an associated ‘cue’ word, for instance ‘heaven – ____?’, the answer being ‘hell’.
- Word stem completion: Pupils are given the first few letters of a word and are tasked to complete the word as quickly as possible. In sociology, my pupils often have to complete key terms at the start of lessons via word stems, such as ‘ano___’ (anomie) that have been taught in previous lessons.
In addition to the above, there are all sorts of games you can use for revision and retrieval practice activities. They can be used as starters, breathers from more serious activities or even as a plenary. You will, however, need to check the accuracy of any questions or definitions that pupils come up with to avoid misconceptions and misunderstanding.
- 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. Obviously, the letters in the hexagons will act as cues for the retrieval of key words, terms or ideas. These can be completed as a class, in teams, pairs or even as individuals. See a template here.
- Catchphrase: This can take a bit of time to prepare, but you could always find images that can relate to a piece of previously learnt content that prompt the recall of key information, especially key terms. Using a slide presentation, this could take the form of the TV show Catchphrase where the overall image is hidden behind smaller squares with subject specific questions on them. If the pupils get the question right, that square disappears revealing more of the image underneath. There are many templates, like this one, available via a Google search.
- 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. Then you go around the class asking pupils to read out one of their definitions and the other pupils tick off the words accordingly. The definition cues the retrieval of the keyword.
- Guess the famous person: Get pupils to describe a famous person’s work (in literature, science, sociology etc.) or a historical or topical figure, perhaps in teams, as others try to guess who it is. This can include their key ideas, research or their influences on the subject studied as a whole.
- Guess the keyword: 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. Here’s a basic example.
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 (although never underestimate simply questioning – this is so obvious that questioning isn’t included in the above). 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.
A number of the activities have been published before, particularly in Jones (2017) and Jones (2023).
Bjork, R. A. (1994). Memory and metamemory considerations in the training of human beings. In J. Metcalfe & A. P. Shimamura (Eds.), Metacognition: Knowing about knowing, 185–205. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Boyle M., Jackson P. (2009). Using card sorts. UK physical sciences centre ‐briefing paper. University of Hull.
Buzan, T. & Buzan, B. (1995). The mind map book. London: BBC Books.
DeWinstanley, P.A. & Bjork, E.L. (2004). Processing strategies and the generation effect: Implications for making a better reader. Memory & Cognition 32, 945–955.
Dunlosky, J. (2013). Strengthening the student toolbox. American Educator, 37(3), 12-21. Available online: https://bit.ly/40WhJvk [retrieved 02.04.23]
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.
Jones, A. (2017). Teaching sociology successfully: A practical guide to planning and delivering outstanding lessons. London: Routledge.
Jones, A. (2018, April 10). Mind-mapping, spider-diagrams and concept-mapping: Do you know the difference? Mr Jones Whiteboeard [blog]. Available online: https://bit.ly/3ZyZr26 [retrieved 02.04.23]
Jones, A. (2021). Homework with impact: Why what you set and how you set it matters. London: Routledge.
Jones, A. (2022, April 18). In defence of card sorts: 6 ways they can aid learning. Mr Jones Whiteboeard [blog]. Available online: https://bit.ly/3Mb8kf3 [retrieved 02.04.23]
Jones, A. (2022, May 2). Criss crossing in the classroom: Crossword puzzles as a strategy for retrieval and retention. Available online: https://bit.ly/3GdbOtQ [retrieved 02.04.23]
Jones, A. (2023, March 9). Think, McFly, Think! Get pupils thinking with the generation effect. SecEd Magazine [online edition]. Available online: https://bit.ly/3mINkl4 [retrieved 02.04.23]
Jones, K. (2019). Retrieval practice: research & resources for every classroom. Woodbridge: John Catt Publications Ltd.
Little, J. L., Storm, B. C., & Bjork, E. L. (2011). The costs and benefits of testing text materials. Memory, 19, 346-359.Weinstein, Y. & Sumeracki, M. (2017). Episode 6 – elaborative interrogation [podcast]. The Learning Scientists. Available online: https://bit.ly/432klta [retrieved 02.04.23].
Picture credit: Pixaby (used under a Creative Commons Licence)