Retrieval practice: A whole school focus

Retrieval practice: A whole school focus
Janina Stromfield, Curriculum Leader of Science at Sackville School has recently been accredited as a Lead Practitioner. In this blog she explains why she focused on retrieval practice and how Lead Practitioner Accreditation helped her to embed this beyond her department and achieve whole-school impact.

As we emerged from the Covid-19 pandemic, there was an urgency to put recovery plans in place. The buzz in education was all about ‘catch up’ and the various government mandated plans, strategies and approaches were rushed out, giving schools a plethora of choices. Many of these plans, however, were either too workload-heavy, unfeasible or simply lacking evidence of effectiveness. The academic research and opinion pieces from people actually working in the education sector suggested an alternative approach – focusing on quality first teaching. This, I could get on board with.

It seemed to me that a whole school focus on one strategy that was useful both inside and outside the classroom as a learning tool, would enable consistency in learning for our students, something that had been lacking throughout remote learning. At this time, retrieval practice was trending in education and as one of my colleagues put it ‘I know I should be doing it but I am not entirely sure what it is’. In reality, retrieval practice is straightforward, something that effective teachers were already doing, and importantly, has the backing of a large body of research, including several applied studies.

I was on the Lead Practitioner (LP) accreditation journey and this meant that I had a structure to think about my own professional development and the ‘push’ to take this focus on retrieval practice beyond my own department and ultimately beyond my school. The LP standards ensured I developed beyond my main focus, particularly in the coaching element, which was of great benefit to myself as well as those I coached.

Lead Practitioner – Discover

Once I had decided that my focus would be retrieval practice, the next step was implementation, which would involve professional development of my colleagues. I followed the stages outlined in the EEF report Building Effective PD and these formed the basis of six, one-hour professional development sessions over the year. I also established and led a team of colleagues who worked with me to help ensure that consistency of building knowledge, motivating staff, developing teaching techniques, and embedding practice was a regular feature in all curriculum areas. Kate Jones in Retrieval Practice 2 gives many examples of how retrieval practice looks within different subjects and I felt it was important that each individual curriculum area should have a high degree of autonomy in what this looked like in their area.

For our building knowledge phase I presented to staff at each of the sessions beginning with the cognitive science behind retrieval practice and some of the research carried out on the effectiveness of this strategy. Moving through the year I built on this by considering how retrieval practice can be used at all ages, how different techniques have different pros and cons, how it can aid literacy, what it does for exam performance under stress and how we can lower cognitive load by simply calling retrieval practice ‘retrieval practice’. All of these sessions were underpinned by research which is something we have been developing as a school.

In order to motivate teachers and enable them to develop their teaching techniques there were specific actions at the end of each session. The first was simply to try some of the different techniques within a subject specific area in order to determine and discuss which worked best. This was followed by more specific actions such as making literacy retrieval practice techniques; using retrieval practice throughout year 11 mock periods; using retrieval practice techniques with younger year groups; and teacher dialogue with theory classes, explaining to their classes what retrieval practice was doing for them.

Embedding practice is always the most difficult part of a project. Designing the programme to last for a year was a good way to ensure it was not a technique that was easily forgotten. This was combined with learning walks, retrieval practice was a focus for senior leadership in lesson visits and faculty progress reviews. In this academic year retrieval practice has developed as a focus for the whole school development plan and students have had assemblies on what it is and what it can do for them. In addition, reminders are on our whole school bulletin and there is a focus on ensuring that it is a specific section of schemes of learning, giving us the sustainability of this approach.

It’s hard to know when you have truly been successful with a single project in education as there are so many variables involved, but the LP accreditation process gave me confidence that what I was doing was worthy of recognition at a national level, and this made me even more enthusiastic about the work.

In student questionnaires in May of the first year, a typical response to ‘Why do you find retrieval practice helpful’ was answered with ‘I find it helpful because it helps me remember things I’ve forgotten or it makes sure that I don’t forget some things’. This speaks volumes compared with a survey of the same students in the previous September where all answers to ‘what is retrieval practice?’ were ‘idk’ (or ‘I don’t know’ for those of us who use whole words when typing). We have not yet finished our journey but have made a substantial start which has given us a solid foundation to build upon.


  • Education Endowment Foundation (2021) Effective Professional Development, Three recommendations for designing and selecting professional development.
  • Jones, K (2021) Retrieval Practice 2
  • Moreira, Pinto, Starling and Jaeger (2019) Retrieval Practice in Classroom Settings: A Review of Applied Research

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