9 Ways to Do Retrieval Practice in the Classroom

In a recent article for TESOL Connections, I provided an introduction to retrieval practice. This is a technique where students pull information out of their long-term memory without referring to their notes. Research suggests that retrieval practice is an excellent way to ensure that students remember more of what you teach them.

This blog post focuses on doing retrieval practice in the classroom and provides some ideas and classroom activities.

These three simple activities originate from Agarwal and Bain’s (2019) marvelous book, Powerful Teaching:

Two Things: Students write down two things they remember from the current lesson (or any previous lesson).

Quick Quizzes: Students answer three quiz questions based on something they learned earlier.

Brain Dumps: Students are given several minutes to write down everything they can remember from a previous lesson (listening or reading exercises are good, too).

These three activities are from Jones’s (2019) insightful book, Retrieval Practice:

Cops and Robbers: Students write everything they remember from an earlier lesson on the left side (the “cops” side) of a sheet of paper. After a few minutes, they stop, stand up, and circulate to find more information from other students, which they write on the right side (the “robbers” side).

Walkabout Bingo: Students receive a 5 x 5 grid in which each box contains a review question. Students cannot answer the questions themselves, but must walk around the classroom and ask other students for answers. They must write the answer and the student’s name in the box, then find another student to answer the next question. The first student to finish the grid shouts “BINGO!” and wins the game.

List It!: Students receive a prompt based on a previous lesson (e.g., “List as many nouns as you can that collocate with do” or “List as many things as you can that you see in a kitchen”) and must list as many items as they can within a predetermined amount of time.

Finally, here are three activities I created that combine retrieval and language use:

Retrieval Role-Play: Students write down expressions that they recently saw in the coursebook. Afterwards, students perform a role-play in pairs in which they try to use as many of the expressions as possible.

Translated Dictation: After retrieving some English vocabulary from a previous lesson, students take turns dictating sentences in their first language, incorporating two words (also translated into their first language) from their vocabulary list. The partner writes the sentence down in English.

Sticky Note Quizzing: The teacher puts four sticky notes on each student’s desk. Students write their names and a quiz question on each sticky note and then stick the notes to other students’ desks. Students must answer the questions they receive and return them to the classmates who wrote them.

It’s crucial that students do retrieval practice without books or notes. Also, students need feedback after retrieval, so make sure that you provide answers.

If you want to learn more about retrieval practice, check out Powerful Teaching and Retrieval Practice. If you already utilize retrieval practice in your classroom, please share any ideas or activities with us in the comments section, below.


Agarwal, P., & Bain P. (2019). Powerful teaching. Jossey Bass.

Jones, K. (2019). Retrieval practice. John Catt Educational.

About Hall Houston

Hall Houston
Hall Houston currently teaches at National Taipei University of Nursing and Health Sciences in Taiwan. He has a master’s degree in foreign language education from The University of Texas at Austin. He has conducted presentations and workshops for Cambridge Assessment and British Council. He is the author of numerous articles and several books about ELT, including "Provoking Thought" and "Creative Output."
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