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Retrieval practice, retrieval roulette, schema, spacing and even a nod to Rosenshine.

January 29, 2020

This is the third blog in the CogSciSci symposium on retrieval practice in the classroom. You should read the introduction to this symposium here and the follow up blog here by Adam Boxer.

This blog focuses on using Adam’s Retrieval Roulette as the source of retrieval practice and why I believe it is the best resource I have ever used. Pretty much every lesson I teach starts with 6 questions…..

I am going to talk through 2 tweaks that help me get the very best out of Retrieval Roulette. One (hopefully) improves schema formation and the other (hopefully) improves long term retention by thinking carefully about the spacing of the questions once a topic has been completed.


The only part of retrieval roulette that takes any time at all is inputting the questions in the first place. Once complete, the retrieval roulette question tab looks like this. I would recommend including the topic title for each question and as far as possible, match the order of the questions to the order that you will teach.

picture 1

In this example (my lesson starters are always the quiz 6):

picture 2

My previous topics go from q1 to 91. The current topic (Controlling Chemical Processes 2) has been going for a few lessons. The total content runs from q 92 to 108 but the number only goes up to 101 for the lesson because that is the content covered so far.

The randomly selected (within my stated parameters) questions look like this on the board with 3 questions randomly selected from 1-91 and 3 from 92-101:

picture 3

As the topic progresses I simply change the end number of the topic questions. Later in the topic it would look like this:

picture 4

This would be the question set up when I finish the topic. After the lesson is completed I have officially finished the topic. So far, so good. For how to use RR from the horse’s mouth, click here.


Tweak 1- schema building

The 3 current topic questions are very useful for schema building. However, they are chosen at random from within the parameters that I have set. If I am conscious that there is a nugget of knowledge/concept or two (or three) that we have covered in recent previous lessons that they need to build on in today’s lesson then I can manually type the numbers of the questions here:

picture 5

For example, if today’s lesson is about under what circumstances in a nuclear power plant would the control rods be lowered and under what circumstances would they be raised, then recall and understanding of q102, and q103 would be particularly important.

picture 6

This means I can explore these answers in more detail and my checking for understanding plays a critical role. My pupils need to be able to recall and understand these so we can successfully build on it in today’s lesson. This is building the type of schema that I want them to have. So retrieval roulette can ensure they have the prior knowledge ready and available to further build into a beautifully formed schema. These 6 questions beautifully combine Rosenshine’s daily review (first 3 questions) and weekly & monthly review (last 3 questions).


Tweak 2

Once the topic is complete, the standard way of using Retrieval Roulette would be to include the just finished topic (qs 92-108) within the interleaved questions by changing this to 108.

picture 7

However, I want to build in some time for my pupils to forget the recently finished topic. I will use my spacing graph (more here) to calculate the time I need to leave between finishing the topic and revisiting it with a spacing lesson.

picture 8

In this example, I have finished the topic Controlling Processes 2 on March 4th. This leaves 69 days until the exam on May 15th. This means the optimal time to revisit it would be after 11 days.

picture 9

So, I want to hold off from including questions 92 – 108 until after I have had my spacing lesson on 15th March. The reason for the delay is that I want:

  • The pupils retrieval strength to decrease for the topic
  • On March 15th, retrieval will be effortful but hopefully still successful for much of the content. This is because retrieval strength has dropped but (hopefully) not as far as zero.
  • When pupils successfully retrieve something with a low retrieval strength they get a boost in the retrieval strength and (crucially) the storage strength of that information. See here for a full explanation by Veronica Yan. This is why spaced retrieval practice is a desirable difficulty.
  •  As a consequence (after successful retrieval), the information’s retrieval strength decreases more slowly and even if retrieval strength drops to zero, the higher storage strength means it will be more easily relearned (because storage strength does not decrease).

picture 10

So, in the lesson following the completion of the topic of Controlling Processes 2, the retrieval roulette looks like this:

picture 11

This way the 6 questions will all be from previously covered topics but won’t include the recently finished topic of controlling chemical processes 2. This gives time for forgetting (or for retrieval strength to decrease).

As I move through the new topic (Materials for a Purpose 1) the retrieval roulette looks like this:

picture 12

Current topic coverage goes from q 109 to 115. Crucially, questions 92 to 108 are still not included in the Retrieval Roulette.

Then on the 15th of March I do my spacing lessons with the pupils. This is a retrieval activity. It looks like this  (for more on this read here and here) :

picture 13

The very next lesson, questions 92 to 108 join the interleaved questions in the retrieval roulette. It looks something like this:

picture 14

I am happy for questions 92 to 108 to come up randomly from now. I have had a spacing gap to allow retrieval strength to drop. The spacing retrieval task will therefore have allowed for a big boost in storage strength.

As a department we also upload all the topic questions to quizlet. This makes sure pupils do retrieval practice at home for homework as well as part of a coordinated revision package.

Just one final anecdote (if I may). In Monday’s year 11 parents’ evening a pupil told me how useful she found the questions at the start of the lesson in making sure she remembers the content from the whole year. Retrieval roulette is doing its job.

  1. This relates to secondary maths rather than science (I’m a maths teacher), but I have just released a retrieval practice app that records correct/incorrect responses and then picks questions according to individual need. For an incorrect response, the practice takes place straight away and then at a spacing of 1 day, 1 week, 1 month, 3 months and then it is eligible for random selection after 6 months. In our case there is no exam date – we are trying to build knowledge/skill base over the long-term. University of York cognitive scientists have advised on application of the cog science, although I think we all appreciate that there is no definitive answer. However, the data we generate and capture will go some way to enabling us to research optimum spacing in due course. Obviously we need funding in place to do this and we have had one failed attempt for PhD funding so far.
    The app is ARC Maths and the website is There could be scope for a science version because we use handwriting recognition rather than multiple choice, although it would probably lend itself best to the maths bits of science. (I also wonder whether it couldn’t be a useful tool to expand vocabulary – not sure.) However we probably need to focus on getting greater use in schools first and demonstrating impact for maths – slightly tricky at the moment with all that is going on.
    Would appreciate some follow-up discussion via email.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Embedding Retrieval Throughout Your Teaching – CogSciSci
  2. A model for sequencing in Biology – part 2 – A Common Biologist
  3. Retrieval practice in the classroom: a CogSciSci symposium – CogSciSci
  4. Using Desirable Difficulties to make learning easier- Links to Videos | mrbenney
  5. KS4 Science DoNow – Reb’s Reflections
  6. A collection of retrieval practice research and resources … – Love To Teach

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