Who says retrieval practice kills creativity?


It’s extraordinary how much traction the idea of retrieval practice has gained throughout the edu-Twitter community in the last 6 months. The Learning Scientists  continue to inspire more and more educators to make simple tweaks to their teaching practice to incorporate their potently researched ideas in the classroom. Further to this, blogger maestros like Blake Harvard (https://t.co/GiLADwF3Rq) are always coming up with new ideas and reflections on just how well these work in a classroom setting. I find myself more and more often delighted at how much positivity I receive in response to my takes on retrieval practice in particular. Recently, I was asked to write a ‘Thought for the Week’ by my Deputy Head Academic; I was of course inclined to write a very short summary on spaced retrieval which included some simple suggestions for classroom implementation and prompts for reflection. I was delighted so many colleagues took the time to read it and comment on it’s potential utility. I attach the summary here:

Here I consider how ideas which involve imagination and creativity (of course combined with spacing) have a huge part to play in successful buy-in from students and success in transferring knowledge to long-term memory.

  1. For me, making retrieval practice particularly memorable is really important. If that means making tenuous links to draw in as many topics as possible by using reindeer as a subject, then so be it! The week before Christmas, I was clearly very tired and had the idea to make retrieval practice festive. As such, I produced the following resource (completed model answer below).

It was certainly different, but the students really liked it. I, of course, maintained the conditions that they were used to. They were working in silence, on their own and were writing so much correct information from memory that they would otherwise not have been able to do a few months previous. They then used the model answer to supplement what they had written, again in silence to maintain focus (I added the silent self-assessment element having indulged in Dylan Wiliam’s chapter on Assessment in ‘What does this look like in the classroom?’). This filled me with confidence that our routine weekly retrieval quizzes were serving a real purpose and actually working. Who knows whether they will remember the reindeer, but they will certainly have gained even more knowledge from the task than they previously had.

2. The next idea is fairly simple again, but forces students to think outside the box, combining retrieval with elaboration and dual coding. It doesn’t take that long to prepare, but again, students found it really useful in terms of making links between topics and recalling copious quantities of content from long term memory. Once again, while observing students completing this task, I was astonished at how much their subject knowledge had improved since they started completing retrieval tasks on a weekly basis.

I am currently on the lookout for further schematics that I can deface with elaborative questions and probe deeper into students’ long term memory than ever before!

3. The newest application of spaced retrieval that I have come across on edu-Twitter is that of the retrieval practice challenge grid, which uses a points system to make retrieval competitive. Better still, we are retrieving content from different times of the year; ingenious! For me, this is something that will work (and is starting to work) with my Y7s and Y9s who don’t necessarily understand the benefit of silent formal retrieval such as my older students partake in.

4. My last favourite idea to share on this blog post (hopefully you’re still with me!) is that of the key word hexagon. Originally I used this without adding retrieval and dual-coding into the mix, but of course one can do this simply! Better still, when marking the work, write elaborative questions for the students to answer as part of feedback to gain deeper and further understanding!


Retrieval may seem like potentially a dry, mundane concept, but it doesn’t have to be at all. By talking to the students about the benefits, they feel inspired to incorporate the idea into their own studying. Moreover, by being creative and making the tasks a little more exciting and different, student buy-in is greater and they get a lot more out of it. Be creative with this! It doesn’t have to be dull; students will thank you for it in the end!

Until next time!

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