Workshop summary #2; “Spacing & Retrieval Practice with Cooperative Learning”

What is retrieval and how is it supported by Cooperative Learning in relation to assessment strategies, test-enhanced learning, desirable difficulty, and connecting knowledge to larger concepts  – ‘learning’ as it is designated in the 2019 framework?

[5 minutes to read]

From the event “Spacing & Retrieval Practice with Cooperative Learning” at Bluebell Primary. First instalment here.

retrieval bringing out of the box


At its heart, retrieval practice reverses the traditional teaching process of putting something into the learner’s head. Instead, learners are asked to pull specific knowledge out of their heads and examine what’s in there.  For example, the very first Cooperative Learning Interaction Pattern (CLIP) we used in the workshop, Catch1Partner, requires learners to mingle to discuss and then swap tasks with a string of partners. These discussions follow direct instruction and modelling by the teacher.

This simple CLIP is the bread & butter of most schools I have worked with. A well-rehearsed class can launch a Catch1Partner in less than 10 seconds and the activity itself may last as little as a couple of minutes. The beauty is, of course, that these schools don’t need to change anything in their daily practice as all Cooperative Learning Interaction Patterns, by enforcing accountability and equal participation, automatically call on each and every learner to simultaneously explain what they know.

As with all CLIPs, Catch1Partner dictates learner interaction, but not subject content, so tasks may be based on any range of materials, from subject-specific flashcards to whiteboards with learner’s own suggested solutions.

retrieval cards
Original cards from the workshop. Those with a yellow border are open questions. (The one on the right is adapted from Dr Niki Kaiser’s presentation at VNET’s recent curriculum conference). All others have the answer on the back for instant corrective feedback (See the two on shapes, top right corner).

Desirable difficulty

Note that the struggle to recall answers is seen as ‘desirable difficulty’ because the challenge itself improves memory and learning. Much like muscles, memory is strengthened through exercise. On that note, you should demonstrate how to elicit answers, rather than simply giving the answer. Again, direct instruction and modelling of language comes into play. We referred to the EEF’s “reversed triangle” for teaching assistants, found in this post. It is brilliant for effective peer-to-peer learning.

Retrieval vs. assessment

Even though retrieval does of course identify gaps in the learning, the point Ed made is that retrieval is an actual learning strategy, as opposed to being an assessment tool. In fact, research demonstrates that retrieval is a more potent learning strategy than many common techniques, such as lecturing, re-reading, or taking notes [1].

At this juncture, you might ask “why use Cooperative Learning instead of quizzes and mock exams,” which also practice what was learned. There are many answers to this question, but here we will consider the two arguments that I find most convincing: ad hoc test-enhanced learning and deepened understanding through explanation and/or corrective feedback and negotiation.

CL and memory

Test-enhanced learning can be exciting

Research shows that what is termed “test-enhanced learning” does improve learners’ understanding and retention of classroom material [1]. I hope you agree there is a limit to the mock-tests you can squeeze into a day. However, you can stage and run any number of CLIPs and reuse materials endlessly – rewired on the fly to match the needs of the moment – and assess learning instantly through unobtrusive monitoring.

Try it with a quiz sheet. Five minutes to individually answer questions, get up, find a partner, compare your answers and find out where they differ and why. Monitor, ask in plenary where the main points of controversy were, then collect if you want to mark them, or give them the key to self-correct as you wish. (With Cooperative Learning, you don’t need to print anything. Just show the quiz sheet on your interactive whiteboard, and get them to answer in their books).

Drilling for deep understanding

Highly relevant to the Ofsted quote above, retrieval practice through Cooperative Learning also helps increase understanding and connecting to . Cooperative Learning is brilliant here because the targeted communication with a range of talk partners lets learners adapt their knowledge to new situations.

We should note the difference between Catch1Partner and the Word-Round (described in the first instalment). Unlike Catch1Partner, Word-Round does not admit direct dialogue, but rather builds up knowledge using each team member’s contribution as a discrete block.

Word-Round sample starter speech bubbles


Here again, direct instruction comes into play: Aside from presenting what they got, our delegates at “Spacing & Retrieval Practice with Cooperative Learning” were asked to “Share what you didn’t get” and told “You may reflect on someone else’s question” following the slides introducing Cooperative Learning. One of the questions that came was “I understand Cooperative Learning gives 5 months of additional progress, but I am not sure of in what area?” As no-one in the team picked up on it, this was then addressed in a 1-minute plenary following the activity.

Further to this, all CLIPs support memorisation because the emotions generated by social encounters support memory. As the brain is drawn to novelty and remembers in episodes, the brief, controlled experiences facilitated by CLIPs set the ideal stage for memorisation. Finally, regular information processing helps empty short term memory to make room for more learning.


Next instalment:

What is spaced retrieval practice?

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1) Roediger, et al, Test-Enhanced Learning in the Classroom: Long-Term Improvements From Quizzing,” Journal of Experimental Psychology, Vol. 17, No. 4, 382–395 (2011).

Slide) Cranney, et al, “The testing effect, collaborative learning, and retrieval-induced facilitation in a classroom setting,” European Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 21:6, 919-940(2009).


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