By Andrew Atherton

Retrieval of information can take many forms, some more effective than others. In this article, Andrew Atherton takes us through his methods for making retrieval generative, building students’ capacity for retaining complex and challenging information, avoiding the limitations caused by the focus on retaining simpler facts.

The last several years has witnessed an explosion in the interest in retrieval practice within classrooms, and for good reason. With an incredibly robust evidence base dating back to at least the 1880s and Hermann Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve, to more recent work by Bjork and Bjork on desirable difficulties (2014) as well as featuring in the almost as popular Rosenshine’s ‘Principles of Effective Instruction’, retrieval practice is now a routine part of many lessons.

However, as with most, if not all aspects of teaching, what matters most is the way in which the strategy is enacted on a day-to-day basis. A recent EEF study on retrieval practice, for example, found that the impact in the classroom was perhaps not as effective as one might have hoped or assumed.

Examining this outcome in a 2019 article, Professor Robert Coe suggested this discrepancy between aspiration and practicality could be traced to the way in which retrieval practice might be embedded into lessons. It might be, Coe suggests, that teachers are generating retrieval based purely on factual recall (which is often easier and less time consuming) rather than requiring students to interrogate the information they are recalling, or perhaps even that the chosen questions lack challenge.

Coe’s post issues a timely reminder that an aspect of retrieval that ought not to be overlooked is its capacity for more generative thinking. But, what might this look like in the classroom?

In my own subject of English, one model of retrieval practice might be gap-fill exercises where students need to learn and recall missing words for key quotations or information relating to context.

There is certainly nothing wrong with this. Knowing such information and being able to quickly recall key quotations is crucial.

However, if this kind of retrieval is the only type being used routinely, then this is likely what Coe had in mind when he considered the potential limitations of the way in which retrieval practice might be enacted.

It’s also probably fair to say that these kinds of exercises don’t necessarily characterise the kind of affective, connective, synoptic thinking that typically characterises the study of English.

Here, then, are three practical strategies for making retrieval more generative within the study of English.

1. Connect It and Link It

The basic premise of both of these strategies is to offer students the opportunity to connect often disparate words together, but it is endlessly variable. You might, for example, simply present the class with three words, maybe from the same text but even better from different texts, and ask them to think of as many ways as possible that they can be connected. This could then lead into a really rich discussion in which you explore with the class the different connections they were able to create, as well as the justifications for how the different words or images connect together. Or, you might present a whole list of words and ask students to select any three and again to think of as many connections between them as possible.

Taking this underpinning idea, “Link It” asks students to create a chain, where each block, containing a quotation from a studied text, connects to the ones before and after it in some manner.

The justification for the connection can be anything the student can imagine, perhaps thematic or stylistic, but it must be a quotation from the text and they must be able to explain how it connects.

In order to add complexity, you could pre-fill some of the blocks, constraining the choices students have at their disposal as now they need to think of a quotation that connects in some way to the one you have supplied. As well as being great fun, the benefit to both of these is that students are thinking about images or words in entirely new and not previously considered contexts, making the retrieval more effortful as well as potentially illuminating new connections, either stylistic or thematic.

It also provides a great opportunity for really rich discussion, where students are asked to explain how and why they connected in the way that they did, helping students to rehearse ideas and exposing others to new ways of thinking about the text.

2. What is Your Favourite Word?

This is a great strategy that offers students lots of opportunity to revisit and rehearse ideas within a studied text and takes next to no time for the teacher to prepare.

It begins with you asking your students to write down their favourite word or image from a specified text. They can pick any word or image and will be expected to justify their choice in whatever manner seems interesting to them. It’s completely low stakes and upholding that favourite maxim of the English classroom: there’s no right answer.

This also requires some initial retrieval since they need to retrieve from memory, without notes, a favourite word or image. Once students have had enough time to do this, there is then any number of directions you could take the activity, all of which require students to connect their initial choice to another word or image in new and interesting ways.

For instance, we could ask two students for their words and ask a third student to connect them in some way or for all to write down a possible connection. The third student in this scenario is doing a lot of cognitive heavy lifting by being asked to consider a connection between what is likely to be two disparate words or images from within the text. It is likely the two words may not have been considered next to each other before and so by thinking about them in this new, realigned context the student is able to reframe their previous conception of the image.

The alternative, of course, is that the two words are already naturally connected, but this is good too as it allows further rehearsal of familiar lines of argument.

Another variation might be to gather four or five favourite images and then ask everyone to write a short analysis that explains the ways in which they connect. This is a great way to maximise what Doug Lemov labels ratio (the number of students thinking hard at any given time), since everyone is required to do the writing.

You could then transition this into an opportunity for live modelling (where you do it too and verbalise your thought process) or live marking (where you offer in-the-moment feedback on a couple of the examples students have just produced).

Equally, you could ask two students for their words and ask everyone to write down all the ways they could connect those two words, again shifting into the potential for live modelling or marking.

3. Thinking with What How Why

Increasingly popular, “What How Why” is an alternative to PEE that prompts students to think about what the text or author might be doing, how they are doing it, and why they are doing it in that way. However, as well as offering a way to write about texts, it also provides a series of conceptual prompts or scaffolds to help students think about the given text.

Indeed, one could argue that What, How, Why is most effective when seen as a thinking tool first and a writing tool second, otherwise we potentially risk conflating it with a single paragraph of writing (like PEE) rather than a series of questions to explain students generate ideas.

In order to embed this shift from writing first to thinking first, we can use the basic structure of What, How, Why as a form of generative retrieval.

We might do this as simply as asking students to jot down from memory ideas about a given text, scaffolded around what, how and why questions. This might be in bullet point form, given it’s the retrieval of ideas that matters most, or indeed as a more extended written activity. It might you supply several possible ‘what’ or ‘why’ options and then ask students to offer possible ideas as to ‘how’ the writer achieves this or even ask students to debate which of the ‘what’ or ‘why’ options seem to them most compelling.

You could also, in the fashion of the elaborative-interrogate, use these prompts as a way in which to scaffold peer discussion where students ask each other questions about a given text or image based around a series of ‘how’ or ‘why’ questions.

All of this could then lead into more extended writing opportunities, again using the prompts to cue student thinking, but in and of itself it offers lots of opportunity for a more generative kind of retrieval, embedding the language of what, how and why into classroom discourse.

In all of these examples, and there are of course many, many other examples we might have explored, retrieval is being thought of as an activity that not only activates previously studied information, but does so in such a way as to prioritise and promote connective and generative thinking both across and within texts.

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