Review: Retrieval Practice (Kate Jones)

This resource by Kate Jones (2019) is a concise overview of all things retrieval practice – theory, research and classroom implementation.

It begins by defining the term…

‘… the act of recalling learned information from memory (with little or no support) and every time that information is retrieved, or an answer is generated, it changes that original memory to make it stronger’

…then outlining some of the theory behind retrieval practice (e.g. multi-store model of memory, working memory model, etc). Take home points from the intro for me were:

  • Retrieval practice is aka ‘the testing effect’ in educational research.
  • Testing is not just assessment – it forms part of learning.
  • Reviewing notes, textbooks etc is more part of the encoding process – it is not retrieval as this should occur without support.
  • Retrieval activities should be low effort, high impact.

Chapter 1 delves into the research highlighting the benefits (or not) of retrieval practice, and also dispels myths – notably that retrieval practice is about memorising facts and suits a knowledge-rich curriculum. The chapter is well-organised, with the author anticipating questions a reader might raise, and using some listicles (with references) that make it an easy read. Think ‘blog posts spliced together’, just like I said with the Rosenshine’s Principles in Action book  – another from John Catt Publications that I reviewed here. In fact, the Principles of Instruction are mentioned in Chapter 1.

Agarwal’s site gets a mention somewhere in this chapter. To be fair, you can find most of the info in Chapter 1 on that site (see research section) but Jones’ summary is an easy read.

  • Best bit in Chapter 1 is probs the case study from British School – while small scale, it is a kinda ‘see, this works in practice’.
  • Reference that surprised me was a list of revision strategies from Dunlosky including ‘forming mental images while reading’, which sounded more like encoding than retrieval or even revision. Gonna read original study I think.
  • Bit that I’m not that keen on a lot of time with these John Catt books are the visuals, infographics, etc. They rarely add much, sometimes lack clarity I think, sometimes just unnecessary:

Chapter 2 goes into retrieval practice in the classroom – ideas for implementation. This was useful, although at first I was a tad disappointed! The anticipation I had from Chapter 1 of ‘this is gonna be a game changer!’ pretty much became ‘this is like TEFL bread and butter’. I think I read later in the book that Jones was a language teacher before which didn’t surprise me. But look, I’m not taking away from the resource at all because:

  1. despite being familiar with most of the classroom ideas in Chapter 2, that is not to say I use them well, regularly enough, etc. It was a good nudge to get sharper and more systematic in my planning.
  2. there are always new ideas, or a new take on an old one. I liked walkabout bingo and relay race for example.

Is this resource telling people what they already know, just in relation to a buzz concept? That’s how a colleague put it to me, although I disagree. You might be familiar with every resource shared in the book, but not with the underlying theory – if theory is sound, that is. Jones alludes to the importance of the TPACCK model (mentioned in this recent development task) at the right time in Chapter 2. It made me realise that I don’t always understand the ‘why’ that underpins the ‘what’.

Chapter 3 threw me a bit. It linked retrieval practice to the ‘science of learning’– things like cognitive load, dual coding, and so on. I remember studying these things from my MSc in Cognition, and I consider them as a materials writer, but I’m no expert. At first, this section seemed to relate more to encoding and storage than retrieval. I feel like it could have been made more explicit that one purpose of retrieval practice might be to identify gaps (ie going back to that ‘testing is part of learning’ bit in Chapter 1) or that the focus is on using the tasks mentioned (timelines, diagrams, mind maps, etc) at a different stage of the learning process than they might usually appear. What I mean is, thinking about all the meaning-building tasks we do in ELT to check comprehension or interpretation, especially the more visual ones like storyboarding, I guess Jones suggests these are worth using further down the line, with a slightly different purpose.

I felt like that chapter could be tightened. I think it could be misleading as is. Or I just don’t understand it, which is more likely!

Chapter 4 included resources for revision strategies, along with some (better!) infographics or bullet pointed explanations of key terms (interleaving, spaced practice, etc). Most revision strategies were familiar – flashcards, roll and retrieve, etc, although the emphasis was more on how to use these systematically/purposefully. I tried out one task in class a few times, the ‘thinking and linking grid’. I was quite excited about this and felt like I was using it at the right time too – where knowledge of the topic (a story) was fairly secure. Here is the resource as appears in the book, not one I used:

You can probs see that some answers might lead to incongruity, tenuous links, etc, depending on the vocab you use. Basically, my learners weren’t a fan. They found it too challenging, but I can see it working in other contexts. I perhaps got it wrong on that occasion.


A nice intro to a topic I’m still getting to grips with. It certainly helped and I have more direction now, both for implementing the ideas and why I might/should be doing that in relation to memory and language learning.

It’s worth a tenner. Book 2 is just out, I’m thinking it’s a maybe.

Pooja Agarwal’s website a good starting point for the topic in general if you want to save money.   

Rating: 4.2/5

Categories: General, reviews

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2 replies


  1. Some regular EAL activities – ELT Planning
  2. Review: Teaching WalkThrus – ELT Planning

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