Retrieval Practice in History

Storm days are the new snow days. It’s been three years since most of us prepared a full cohort of students for a full suite of public exams, so I’ve been revisiting my old lessons and revision planners. Here are my best retrieval practice activities, presented without exemplars because most of them are not currently fit to be seen and if I have to wait until they are, this post won’t be published until March winds – early or otherwise – have well and truly flown.

Please do add your favourites in the comments. I’m always looking for new things and we have more revision lessons than usual this year.

1. Find and Fix grids

This provides a series of nine statements that students correct. I include a mixture of SPAG mistakes, date mistakes and factual mistakes. Students are told how many mistakes there are across the grid. My top tip here is to keep a list of common errors from marking assessments and mocks, so that you can test these twice as often as other facts.

2. Find and Fix paragraphs

As above, but students have a paragraph to correct instead of a grid. This allows for targeted essay practice – spot the mistake in the structure, improve the analysis, have the right facts been selected etc. If you’re printing it for all students, you can differentiate by creating a few different paragraphs. The sample answers in examiner reports are a goldmine for this because there are plenty of pre-written paragraphs to choose from, usually of varying quality, and then you just have to add a few mistakes as you type them. Or dictate them – I’ve taken to using the voice-to-text function for things like this now.

3. Piggybacks, but make it History

I picked this one up from a Science teacher, who explained that students are given a retrieval quiz that requires knowledge recall from 3 days ago, 3 weeks ago and 3 months ago – and these are called piggybacks because pigs gestate for 3 days, 3 weeks and 3 months.

I can’t usually be as precise as 3 days, 3 weeks and 3 months (hats off to you if you can) so I tend put together a grid of nine recall questions that cover content from the current topic, the previous topic and the one before that. It’s scored on a sliding scale, so students get 1 point for the most recent knowledge and 3 for the most distant.

4. Expand the answer

Something pinched off my old HoD, Ian, who would put the briefest of answers to an exam question on the board and invite students to add 20 words to improve it. The word limit helps keep them focused on recalling relevant knowledge, rather than faffing around with stylistic devices, and has the added bonus of fitting onto a mini whiteboard for easy whole-class checking.

5. Threes

A starter for when I am tired and in a hurry. Students are invited to name three of something in several different categories, which I usually select from the spec. So, for Medicine on the Western Front, I might have the categories places on the Western Front; common ailments; common wounds; effects of gas attacks; treatment areas; new medical techniques; context of medicine in 1914; and sources available about the Western Front. Depending on the class, I might use this same set of categories a few times but shorten the amount of time students have to complete the exercise as their recall improves. The first time, I might ask them to write their answers and then add to them when we feed back; later, they might just have to write down any they couldn’t remember.

6. This time or that time (or, this factor or that factor)

I provide a list of key facts and students have to organise into the correct time period. This is particularly helpful for revising the thematic study, where students often seem to stumble on the chronology. Similarly, providing a list of changes and/or continuities and inviting students to categorise into the different factors affecting change (for Edexcel Medicine these are Individual and Institutions, Science and Technology, and Attitudes in Society) is another way of giving them the basics and asking them to do a slightly more sophisticated recall task.

7. ‘Two features’ tag teaming

This one is based on the ‘Describe two features’ question from the Edexcel qual. Students begin by identifying two features for a list of topics, again usually taken from the spec (as in example 5) and usually from across a range of topics – even those where the ‘Describe two features’ question doesn’t appear on the exam. Once they’ve identified two features, they swap with a partner, who has to add supporting information for each one. I quite like this one, because students get competitive with each other and scrape the dustiest recesses of their mind palaces for the most obscure features they can think of.

8. Choose your source

I’ve a habit of trying to put sources into as many GCSE lessons as possible, even for topics where sources aren’t on the paper, just to ensure that practice is regular and confidence grows – ‘miles under the skis,’ as a ski instructor once told me, is the best way to get better and I apply this advice liberally in teaching. Just lots and lots of the same thing. Sourcework is a retrieval practice activity as well, because students need knowledge to contextualise the sources they’re seeing. I frame this as, ‘Which source would you use for an enquiry into xxxx and why?’

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