Retrieval buy-in

Helping students do what works

Hey πŸ‘‹

Hope you had a nice break and are feeling peckish… this week, we’re kicking off a new Snacks series on effective revision, co-authored with memory psychologist William Wadsworth.

Big idea πŸ‰

Retrieval practice has the potential to be powerful when it comes to revision. However, despite our efforts to educate students on this approach, it isn't always embraced wholeheartedly. And so, we must also put in place steps to overcome what Wadsworth calls retrieval resistance.

Retrieval is the act of pulling information out of memory rather than putting it in. Such as quizzing ourselves with flashcards or writing down everything we can remember about a topic (in contrast say to re-reading something). This act of pulling information out tends to strengthen our understanding and memory much more than just putting it in again.

However, this idea isn't always intuitive. Most humans tend to assume that re-reading is more effective than retrieval. This kinda makes sense... re-reading requires less effort, and we can't really make any mistakes... as a result, it just feels superior. However, this absence of effort is exactly what makes it less effective.

Nor is this idea always fully embraced even when understood. A recent study by Wadsworth & Hibble (2023) found that 45% of students still rely predominantly on re-reading or note-taking.

As a result, as well as helping our students to understand that retrieval is effective, we also need to get ahead of the emotional resistance they will inevitably encounter by:

  1. Convincing students that retrieval works for them. By explaining the science, using trusted role models to deliver the message, and getting them to experience its power (eg via homework).

  2. Messaging that making mistakes is to be expected. And even a good indicator that you're pushing yourself. Just make sure they can correct and re-practise any mistakes asap (eg by flipping over a flashcard to see the right answer).

  3. Flagging the risk of unconscious procrastination. When faced with challenging tasks, we can easily find ourselves adopting sophisticated avoidance strategies, such as spending way too much time making the flash cards in the first place or creating beautifully illustrated mind maps!

Helping students to 'get in front' of these issues will reduce the risk of resistance and increase the chances they benefit from retrieval, and all the satisfaction that comes with making faster progress.

πŸŽ“ For more, check out this review of effective study strategies and this free resource pack on retrieval resistance from Will.


  • Retrieval practice has the potential to be a powerful revision approach.

  • However, even when students understand it, then don’t always embrace it.

  • We also need to convince them that it works for them, that it's okay to make mistakes, and that they should be wary of getting distracted by preparation activities.

For double the links (this week: the bad side of teacher autonomy, CLT and information entropy, and the negative impact of ChatGPT on learning) and more, sign up to Snacks PRO β†’ join here

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Peps πŸ‘Š