Retrieval practice… in practice

The work of EBE Advisory Board member Robert Bjork has had a huge influence on us. As part of our mission to help teachers use the best available evidence to inform their decisions in the classroom, our training draws heavily on the research of Professor Bjork and his team at the Bjork Learning and Forgetting Lab at UCLA. Furthermore, Robert’s work on retrieval practice is a key component of our Assessment Lead Programme.

At the September 2018 ResearchED conference we were fascinated to hear how Claire Hill of Dover Grammar School is applying the principles of Bjork’s work in the classroom and we’re very grateful to Claire for sharing her approach in this blog.


Bjork (1994) suggests that introducing desirable difficulties into the learning process can greatly improve long-term retention. Bjork goes on to offer several examples of how teachers might introduce these desirable difficulties in their teaching:

  • Varying the conditions of practice
  • Providing contextual interference e.g. interleaving
  • Distributing practice on a given task
  • Using tests as learning events

This blog aims to explain how these desirable difficulties may be translated into practice.

Firstly, we introduced ten-minute recall sessions at the beginning of every lesson, which meant we could test students’ knowledge effectively without creating extra workload. This approach was a way of varying the conditions of practice, distributing practice, and using tests as learning events, all in one simple change to our lesson routines. To then provide contextual interference, using some of the principles of interleaving, these sessions would not necessarily be based on the text being studied in the lesson; they would be based on knowledge taught in the lesson, week, month, term, or even several terms before. So, the beginning of a lesson might involve a recall task focused on Macbeth, then the main body of the lesson would be focused on Jekyll and Hyde. With these ten-minute recall sessions in every lesson, we could have mini revision sessions for every unit, almost every week.

Ten-minute recall sessions can take myriad forms, but here are some examples that were particularly effective for our students:


Multiple-choice tests

We try to construct these tests based on what we’ve read on Daisy Christodoulou’s blog where she outlines the application of Dylan Wiliam’s research in Principled Assessment Design. Questions have 5-6 possible answers and have multiple correct answers, for example this question from a Year 7 test:

Which of the following words are adverbs?

  1. Play
  2. Quickly
  3. Beautifully
  4. Lovely
  5. Gently
  6. Exceptional

Or, this one from a Year 10 test on Macbeth:

Which of the following characters are killed at the hands of Macbeth?

  1. Banquo
  2. King Duncan
  3. Lady Macbeth
  4. Macdonwald
  5. Macduff

Often, like the examples above, these questions lead to interesting discussions to help students better understand more complex concepts. The Year 7 example offers an opportunity to discuss adjectives and adverbs beyond the usual trick of looking for words ending with ‘ly’ by including ‘lovely’ as an example of what Daisy Christodoulou describes as an ‘unambiguously wrong, but plausible distractor’. In the Year 10 example, this question invites a discussion about character development and the significance of certain deaths in the play. As can be seen in these examples, MCQs also allow plenty of opportunities to address common misconceptions, adding to their effectiveness as a teaching strategy.


Filling in the blanks (KOs)

We now have knowledge organisers for every unit we teach, but it is the collection of knowledge organisers we developed for the GCSE poetry anthology that I think has had the most impact. After studying and exploring the poems in detail, students learn the information on the KOs for homework, usually one poem or section at a time. The poems are organised by theme – ‘difficult relationships’, ‘familial relationships, and ‘love’ – to help with recall and comparison. During the ten-minute recall sessions, students are given blank versions of the KOs and they fill in as much as they can remember. They then look at the original KO and add anything they missed in a different coloured pen. By the time our students sat their exams, they could fill in nearly all of a blank KO without looking at the original. By using two different coloured pens the teacher could very easily identify students’ progress and follow up with students who perhaps didn’t have the most effective revision technique. We still looked at the whole poems regularly, but we found that by extracting the key ideas, contexts, themes and quotations, students had a better foundation for understanding the whole poem and in doing so gave them the confidence to go further in their exploration and analysis.

knowledge organiser

Familial relationships knowledge organiser


Filling in the blanks (QT)

Students were also given lists of quotations divided by theme or character and learnt these for homework. During ten-minute recall, they would complete quotation tests where some of the key words in the quotation (the ones that would be most helpful for their essays) would be blanked out. For Macbeth, that might be: Look like ________  but be __________’. In the first few tests only one or two words would be blank. By the time of the exams, students could list up to fifteen quotations per theme or character without any aid.


Quick-fire quotations

To save photocopying, we would also simply ask students to take a scrap piece of paper and write down as many quotations as they could remember. However, we gave structure to their recall by giving them specific themes or characters they needed to recall quotations for. We would then keep narrowing the focus to give students plenty of opportunity to practise identifying more discerning and judiciously chosen quotations. For example, students would be asked to recall quotations or references said by or about Mr Birling. This would then be narrowed down to asking for specific references or quotations that demonstrated Mr Birling refusing to change his views, or him showing insecurity, or examples of his arrogance, or evidence of his capitalist ideology.  This helped students to recall information quickly but also to consider the relevance and judiciousness of their choices. This also helped students to think more about characterisation or about thematic links between characters and contexts.


Interleaving homework

Technically not a ten-minute recall task, but the principle is similar. Whilst we studied Jekyll and Hyde in lessons, students’ homework would be to write essays on Macbeth or An Inspector Calls, or on the occasional Language paper question. Students were then constantly writing responses answering different types of questions on different texts – something they would have to do in the exam. Students then not only constantly revised and practised tasks for all of the units we studied, they also practised having to shift from one type of exam or text to another in a short space of time.

These methods contributed to students writing well-developed, insightful essays using quotations and references that were discerning and judicious to give more interesting responses. This was due, in part, to students being able to quickly recall the knowledge they needed and therefore spend more time constructing a well-crafted argument. We also found that students used these methods when revising independently – no more random highlighting and no more claims that ‘you can’t revise for English’. Instead, they would take extra copies of blank KOs, or create their own fill-in-the-blank quotation tests, or construct their own essay questions based on the themes and ideas from the quick-fire quotation activities.

So, by applying some of the principles of desirable difficulty as suggested by Bjork:

  • We saw a significant increase in how much knowledge students could retain
  • We reduced workload by having tests that we could use to monitor progress without having to do any marking.
  • We saved time by being able to focus on essay practice rather than content in the weeks before the exam, therefore time was better spent in lessons and we reduced the need for extra revision sessions.
  • We saved time in the long term by creating fairly simple but effective resources that could be recycled year after year (or until the specs change again).


All of the resources described in Claire’s blog are available at, a resource sharing and CPD provision platform, by teachers for teachers, funded by voluntary donations and sponsorship. Many of the resources uploaded to the site are based on research-informed principles and you will find lots of fantastic resources to help you create desirable difficulties in your classroom, whilst reducing undesirable workload difficulties for you.


Retrieval practice and assessment

If you’d like to enhance your schools’ capacity, knowledge and skill to design robust and reliable assessments then take a look at our Assessment Lead Programme.


About Robert Bjork

Robert A. Bjork (PhD, Psychology, Stanford; BA, Mathematics, Minnesota) is Distinguished Research Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles. His research focuses on human learning and memory and on the implications of the science of learning for instruction and training. You can read more about him in this blog introducing him as a member of our advisory board.

You can hear from Robert and Elizabeth Bjork directly in this podcast as they speak to EBE Director of Education Stuart Kime about their work on desirable difficulties.

  • lynn

    Thank you for sharing all these useful, time saving and beneficial ways of helping students by making sure they really know what they have been taught. I agree many shorter revision tests can definitely benefit students more than longer more intense tests based on more material.

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