Getting SEN learners to reach their potential at GCSE – retrieval practice?

Last year I struggled with GCSE additional science.  My students lapped up the content, they answered exam questions at the end of each lesson but they really struggled to remember the sheer range of information they are expected to recall when we reached the end of the course.

I was talking to a senior leader from another academy within our multi-academy trust (I’m so grateful we have a sharing and collaborative ethos) and she was talking about retrieval practice.  As an experienced special school teacher, I know the value of repetition (or repetition, repetition, repetition as we call it) but I have never read any research on the subject.

A quick Google search revealed retrieval practice is a technique in which summarised content is repeated several times at intervals with the intention of strengthening recall at the end.  This has been taken into classrooms in the form of retrieval practice where students recall or remember information a number of times to strengthen the memory.

That’s when I remembered that one of the perks of being a member of the Chartered College of Teaching is access to research journals (and to be honest it is the first time I’ve found my membership of the Chartered College useful!).  A quick search through my email account and I was online searching for research papers, something I haven’t really done since my student days.  Interesting papers were downloaded as PDF files, thrown into Evernote and annotated – I wish I’d had that facility when I was an undergraduate…

A quick search of research papers, Google and Twitter tells me that I’m a little late to this party.  There is plenty of scientific evidence to suggest that sretrieval practice works but not a lot to tell me what would work best with my students who all have special educational needs.

So what did I learn from my reading that would be useful in my setting?

Effects from retrieval practice appear to be persistent across all stages of development (Vlach & Sandhofer 2012) and it can be seen in other species too (handy for some of my groups!) – I should have realised this from my dog training.

Those participants who used a toolbox or scaffold to model the key concepts do better than those who have free study time (important if you are setting homework tasks!) – Egan 2012

The spaces between learning activities could be as little as ten minutes (Vaz 2014) and as much as days (Bergey 2014) or weeks (Lockyer 2017)

Three lots of stimulation (learning) is enough to significantly strengthen a synapse and lead to increased recall (Vaz 2014) and this technique could have benefits for learners with ADHD as students are more engaged, although I would love to see more detailed research on this to determine the reason, if one exists (Vaz 2014)

Final thoughts

Nearly every paper confirmed there are benefits in recall from retrieval practice  The difficulty for me as a teacher is having enough time to build this approach into my teaching.  I have to teach an entire GCSE (including mandatory practicals) in a year and finish teaching this course sufficiently early to revise with my learners (who won’t or can’t revise at home/independently).

Of course, I won’t need as much revision time at the end of the course if retrieval practice has the desired effects but it still makes delivery tight.

I have two double lessons of 100 minutes each and once we have enough content to revisit, I intend to dedicate 30 minutes a week to revision (retrieval practice – recap) which students will complete in a separate book. I don’t know how successful this will be but the results will be an indication.


Bergey, B.W., Cromley J.G., Kirchgessner, M.L. & Newcombe, N.S. (2014) Using diagrams versus text for spaced restudy: Effects on learning in 10th grade biology classes, The British Journal of Educational Psychology, 85, 59-74

Egan, R. (2012) Understanding the effects of different study methods on retention of information and transfer of learning, Electronic Journal of Research in Educational Psychology 10(2) 659-672

Lockyer, S. (2017) Spaced Learning: The final frontier in revision. Impact, Interim Issue

Vaz, A.C. (2014) Spaced Learning: Making space for neuroscience in te classroom, e-TEALS: An e-journal of Teacher Education and Applied Language Studies, 5, 1-17

Vlach, H. & Sandhofer, C.M. (2012). Distributing learning over time: The spacing effect in children’s acquisition and generalization of science concepts Child Development, 83, 1137-1144