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Building Learning that Sticks: Principles from Cognitive Science

How can we develop learning that sticks? Read about some key principles from cognitive science in this article for teachers.

In this article, the Chartered College of Teaching’s Head of Online Learning and Community, Hannah Tyreman, outlines the key research evidence that forms the foundation for this week’s learning.

As teachers, it’s important that the new ideas and knowledge we develop in our pupils is retained over time, not just in the short term. An understanding of three key principles from cognitive science can help us to maximise the extent to which our pupils actually remember their learning over the long term.

Retrieval practice

‘The ‘testing effect’, widely referred to now as ‘retrieval practice’, is a well-known psychological phenomenon whereby people remember things better if they are tested on them. The benefits don’t stem simply from getting feedback on right or wrong answers – although that can help too. It appears that the process of retrieving information from memory actually helps it to be consolidated. In other words, a test can make the memory more secure and less likely to be forgotten.’ (Firth, J et. al. 2017)

Teachers will find familiar the scenario of teaching something in one lesson and returning to it three weeks later to discover that pupils have no memory of it. Retrieval practice perhaps holds some answers, so what are the key learning points?

  • First of all, take some time to define what it is that you will want pupils to remember about a certain topic. This should be made up of the core pieces of knowledge that enable them to move forward in their learning, apply to problem solving scenarios, or remember for an exam. It is this knowledge that you will ask them to retrieve on a frequent basis.
  • Once you’ve identified the knowledge students will need to be able to retrieve, you should take some time to construct a range of suitable activities that will enable pupils to engage in low stakes retrieval on a regular basis either at the start of lessons or as part of homework. Retrieval practice commonly takes the form of quizzing but it doesn’t have to. Any activity that requires a pupil to retrieve knowledge will work: cloze activities where pupils have to insert the correct words into gaps in a piece of text or on a diagram, create a mindmap from memory, write about what you know on a topic for 2 minutes on a blank piece of paper and review, explain a concept to a peer.
  • Where you’re choosing to use multiple-choice questions as retrieval practice, it’s important that the question is posed differently each time it’s used so as not to merely build familiarity with the question itself. It’s important for each of the answers (4 is usually a good number) to be equally plausible to aid you in revealing any misconceptions but also to be of adequate challenge to pupils. It’s often recommended that multiple-choice questions are written with colleagues to check their validity. Creating a bank of questions collaboratively also helps to reduce workload.
  • Retrieval should be low-stakes wherever possible meaning that it shouldn’t feel like a test that can be failed and places unnecessary pressure on pupils. Instead, do the quiz on scraps of paper, whiteboards or with a stylus and tablet. It is the practice of the retrieval that is thought to be effective, whether the answer is correct or not.


Elaboration is quite a broad concept and is defined by a number of researchers in different ways. On this course, we’re concerned with elaboration as an approach that can help pupils to organise and connect their ideas and learning to build deeper meaning and understanding (Bellezza, Cheesman, and Reddy, 1977; Mandler, 1979).

A variety of activities can help pupils to elaborate on existing learning. Let’s take a look at some of the examples presented in ‘Understanding How we Learn: A Visual Guide’ from Yana Weinstein, Megan Sumeracki and Oliver Caviglioli. Each of these techniques is best applied when the existing learning base is strong, rather than with a brand new topic where pupils won’t have developed enough knowledge to be able to answer the questions fully.

  • Elaborative interrogation – Pupils are asked (by themselves, a teacher, or a peer) how and why questions about a topic and seek to answer each of them. How does x work? Why does that happen? Why did they do that? In answering these questions, pupils are ‘making connections between old and new knowledge, making the memories easier to retrieve later.’
  • Self-explanation – Pupils use this technique when solving a problem. It is therefore best applied in maths and science although applications elsewhere are not excluded. As they solve a problem, they narrate what they’re doing out loud…. ‘now I’m going to do x, then I’m going to do y.’ This is similar to what you’ll have seen in Week 2 where we looked at hw a teacher might take a ‘think aloud’ approach to modelling a solution in class.

We’ll learn more about elaboration when we explore some case studies from schools where technology is being used to encourage pupils to make connections, and elaborate on existing learning.


What’s important when we’re exploring retrieval practice are the accompanying concepts of interleaving and spacing.

The effect of retrieval practice has only been seen to be obvious over a few days or more. The gaps between one retrieval practice and another is known as spacing. It’s important to apply spacing to retrieval practice, no matter what form it takes. Whilst retrieval of knowledge will be recycled across the term or year, it’s helpful to distribute these opportunities to practice across a number of days, weeks and lessons. In one lesson you may choose to recap the previous week’s learning. You then don’t offer another retrieval opportunity on the same piece of knowledge until five lessons later. This is in order to leave room for the process of forgetting that takes place between the two opportunities for retrieval.

If you are interested in learning more about spacing, this article by Jonathan Firth outlines some concepts of retrieval practice and spacing and shares how memory isn’t just a case of training for exams.

© Chartered College of Teaching
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