Retrieval practice and recovery curriculum

I’ve recently started a new role as Subject Leader for Geography at a new school, and as with many Subject Leaders or Heads of Department, I am finding myself thinking a lot about how to ensure our students can ‘catch-up’ on the curriculum time they have missed, while also continue to progress at the required rate.

My school are taking this incredibly seriously and there have been lots of discussions on how we can use the time we have effectively, especially with exam groups. One of the most important factors we need to consider is filling the students with the confidence that they have the time to complete the required curriculum content, while also providing them with time for revision.

When I started in my new position in September, one of the first things I discussed with my department was the structure of our recovery curriculum, how we were going to assess and address knowledge gaps, and how much revision versus new content we were going to cover in our lessons. Together we looked at the figure below, taken from James Durran’s blog (, which enabled us together to decided on which strategy would work best for our department. We decided to use the third strategy: new content begun straight away, with a sustained parallel period of revision.

As my previous two blogposts have highlighted, I am a big advocate of retrieval practice under ‘normal’ classroom circumstances, but I feel that it now plays an even bigger part in us being able to provide a strong recovery curriculum for our students. Retrieval practice has numerous different benefits in the current COVID-19 climate, some of which include:

  • Formative assessment – many of us are having to find new ways of assessing student learning and looking for gaps in their knowledge. Retrieval practice through low-stakes quizzing is an effective way of doing this, and avoids students being assessed in a high-pressure environment.
  • Revision – we are all likely to feel under pressure with the time we have left to complete the required curriculum before the summer exams in 2021, let alone build in time for revision. Using spaced retrieval practice (as outlined in my previous post) enables us to do small chunks of revision and re-cap content every single lesson, reducing the pressure and hopefully instilling the students with confidence.
  • Activating prior-knowledge – avoiding cognitive overload in lessons is crucial, especially as some students may already be feeling worried and anxious. Through activating prior-knowledge, this frees up the working memory to learn new content, hopefully enabling students to engage better with the new material delivered in the lesson.
  • Addressing knowledge gaps – through the use of retrieval practice, we can identify knowledge gaps. We can then use the same method to address these gaps. For example, if I see from one of my low-stakes quizzes that many of my students are struggling to remember the key processes that occur in the river, I will recap this when feeding back immediately after they have taken the quiz. I can then ask similar questions next week in a quiz to re-address those gaps.
  • Giving students ownership of their revision – helping them to see where their strengths and weaknesses are and which parts they need to go away and revise.

It is important to reiterate at this point that the students will likely find retrieval practice New materialchallenging, especially after the long-period they have had out of school and if you are asking them to recall information from a year or more ago. They will need lots of encouragement, possibly a little scaffolding, but most importantly we as teachers must help them to push through and remind them that the struggle is what makes it work. In about a month or so, once they are in the routine, they will find it less difficult, but hopefully still a challenge.

The final step in using retrieval practice is encouraging students to use it metacognitively, and begin to self-regulate more effectively. My previous blogpost highlights how to do this in more detail, but essentially we need to encourage them to evaluate their own strengths and weaknesses, and use this to inform their revision at home. Ideally, once they are on board with using retrieval in the classroom, we should be encouraging them to use retrieval practice as one of their main forms of revision at home, reminding them that the act of trying to retrieve the information actually embeds it further into their long-term memory.

So how am I currently using retrieval in my classroom? Well, in every single year group from Year 7 to Post-16 I start every lesson off with retrieval. For KS3 it is likely to be questions on topics they have studied recently, or topics they studied last year which link in with their current topic. For Year 10, they are having six retrieval questions recapping recent lessons, but as we progress through the year, I will move to my three sets of two questions which I am using now with Year 11. Year 11 have two questions from the last couple of lessons, two from a topic they studied towards the end of last year and two from a topic they studied at the start of last year. I use the same template every lesson, and they are slowly getting into the habit, and are definitely appreciating the small chunks of time spent recapping previous topics.

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