Why a third of every lesson is retrieval practice


I still see and hear people talking about revision being at the end of course. Following lock-down learning I’ve seen people say that they need to have to time to revise with year 11 before the 2021 exams. I won’t. I will be teaching them up until their exam. In fact, when we went to lock-down learning, during a department discussion, one of our biggest concerns was not necessarily them not learning the new content, but them not having the usual retrieval practice. We know how powerful it is and without it, students would forget what we’ve already taught.

So why are people still worrying about and planning for revision at the end of the course? If this is what you did as a student and then what you’ve done since you’ve become a teacher, it’s difficult to shake off. However, cognitive science research (still) suggests that this doesn’t match how long term learning works with the use of memory. I have previously blogged on how I think this should be done (Ditch revision blog) however it has now become a large chunk of every lesson I teach, taking about 20 minutes of a every 1 hour lesson.

Some people might be horrified giving up a third of a lesson to previous content rather than new content. However I think, not only is it worth it, it’s essential to long term learning.

If you’re unhappy about this lesson time allocated to ‘revision’ and want to do revision at the end of a course, work out how much time you plan to give, then divide it up over the year. I’ve heard people say that they finish their course at Christmas and then do revision. Work out the hours spent from then until the exam and it may well be the same amount of time. But in this case, it’s WHEN the revision is done that matters. Leaving it until the end just isn’t a great idea. Whilst it does work (research shows that massed practice does have impact) it doesn’t work as much as long term spaced practice. The difference is significant (see Carpenter etc al (2012)). So why wouldn’t you space out the revision time?

Here is how I spend the time with key stage 3 and GCSE….

Key stage 3

Every key stage three lesson starts with a 1-10 quiz/test. Students are given a piece of scrap paper, they write 1-10 on it and I ask them questions. I don’t ever plan these questions before as I want a life and there’s really no need. I pick up a student’s book and ask questions from the start all the way through to the last lesson.

These are subtly differentiated. Some are ‘easy’ questions and some more difficult. Each lesson I challenge the students by differing the question angle. For example:

Test 1: What did we say last lesson that Hindus believe all living beings have?

Test 2: Hindus believe we have an ‘atman’, what is a atman?

Test 3: What is the Sanskrit word for soul?


  • The students love them. They love having a test every lesson! They tell me. You can see it in their body language and hear it in their voices.
  • They know exactly how my lesson begins. On the rare occasion it doesn’t, they ask why.
  • The students can start writing it out straight away. If needed I can put the first few questions on the whiteboard to start them off whilst waiting for other students
  • It doesn’t matter if a student was absent last lesson, in fact this helps them. They can do the previous questions and then listen to those that they missed when absent.
  • The questions differentiate without loads of work for me
  • I’m a lazy teacher. I don’t spend hours planning these or writing them onto slides. I could do but I don’t think it’s worth the time for much extra benefit. I prefer it to be responsive as I can choose the questions using the students’ notes from previous lessons which may be different for different classes.

However these are not tests for diagnosis of who knows what; I don’t know who is remembering what. It’s not the purpose of the quiz. The purpose is for long term memory not for assessment.

This is where they are stored…



There are four variations of GCSE lesson retrieval activities. As above, they have random questions as one type. I know which areas they lack confidence in or need reminding so I include them. I will also pick topics that connect to the topic of that lesson, if introducing new content.

For example, a lesson on the Trinity would include a few foundation questions such as:

  • What is the incarnation?
  • What does Genesis 1:1-3 say was present?
  • In John 1, what is the ‘Word’?
  • ’Who’ was present at the baptism of Jesus?

All of these pull together the key ideas of Jesus, God and the Holy Spirit, ready to explain the complex concept of the Trinity.

The second type of retrieval is keyword and keyword/quotation tests. See here for details of what these are.

Thirdly are short ‘exam questions’. We are lucky to have some simple 2 mark questions on our GCSE that require two correct answers. In the department we come up with a double sided A4 sheet of these questions. We mix them up to include topics from a long time ago, more recently, last week and last lesson. We deliberately include topics that we know students struggle to remember. We repeat these each time so they get a few closely-spaced repetitions to help embed them and then leave some time in-between the next time.

Finally, when we do exam questions we include a mixture of questions from previous topics to help students to remember how to apply their knowledge to the exam answer format. And of course, their year exams include a mixture of topics.

All of this IS revision. It is fully embedded into what we do every lesson. The students know what it is and why we’re doing it. I often remind them of this. They need to be clear that this is for their benefit in the long term.

No revision

So, I never set students ‘revision’ for homework (we use quizzes instead) or really expect them to revise. I refuse to run any ‘revision’ sessions at the end of year 11. Instead, I offer my room on Thursday & Friday lunchtimes for ALL GCSE students from year 9-11 starting in September, to come and do some quizzing or to ask me a question but I will not be spoon feeding them or repeating lessons.

We teach them how they can do retrieval practice at home if they want to but I believe that we should plan our curriculum carefully based on the assumption that they won’t do this ( I know some people won’t like this but it’s the reality with some students. We can’t just pretend that they will do it).

I’m still advocating to ‘ditch revision’ as we know it and instead consider using considerable lesson time for retrieval practice to ensure that students have learnt and can remember what they’ve learnt in the long term.  Why wouldn’t you?

Carpenter, S. K., Cepeda, N. J., Rohrer, D., Kang, S. H., & Pashler, H. (2012). Using Spacing to Enhance Diverse Forms of Learning: Review of Recent Research and Implications for Instruction. Educational Psychology Review, 24(3), 369-378. doi:10.1007/s10648-012-9205-z

2 thoughts on “Why a third of every lesson is retrieval practice

  1. Pingback: Retrieval Practice: Blog – teachingandlearningblog

  2. Pingback: A collection of retrieval practice research and resources … – Love To Teach

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