The Power (and Fun) of Retrieval Practice Games

This is the third post in a short series on small but fierce tools that can boost your writing instruction without reshaping your whole curriculum. For the original entry, click here.

One of my favorite topics to teach my students about is the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve (for more on it, click here), which lays out a clear case that our brains are designed to forget, not remember, most things. This is the kind of foundational brain science that should come in a user’s manual for our brains that we receive at birth, but since such a thing doesn’t exist, I make it a point to discuss it in pretty much every class. I do this because once we understand why we forget (and how normal and natural it is), it becomes easier to devise strategies to remember the things that really matter.

The core strategy that Ebbinghaus gives us when it comes to improving our memory is strikingly easy: If we want to remember something, we should revisit it multiple times on multiple different days. This importance of revisiting topics when it comes to encoding something into long-term memory lies behind so many of the things I do. It is why my students use feedback cycles where they revisit feedback from me at least four or five times and why when we set student goals, we return to them weekly. It is also why in these newly cold, middle-of-the-semester weeks in early November that I turn over and over to one particular tool: Retrieval practice.

For those who don’t know what retrieval practice is, it has been around for a long time, but it it is well defined in Powerful Teaching by Pooja Agarwal and Patrice Bain. They define it as the act of trying to find or retrieve information from one’s mind (pg. 4-5). This might not seem like much, but if used well it is a high-powered teaching move. What makes retrieval practice so powerful is that each time we struggle to try to retrieve something from our memory, that effort acts as flag to the brain that this information is important since we are returning to it. In response to that flag, the brain then strengthens the connections where that information is, making it more accessible in the future, almost like a thumbnail added to a desktop. 

Retrieval practice makes logical sense, and yet, even with the success of books like Powerful Teaching or educators like Blake Harvard passionately promoting it, purposeful and regular usage of it is still relatively rare in practicing classroom. This is likely because we teachers often have so much to cover that pushing relentlessly onwards seems the only way to fit it all in. So, even as we know that revisiting previous lessons would be ideal, we continue to move ever onwards, as if we are all Persephone and one glance backward could spell our doom.

I know that I am plenty guilty of this endless push at times, which is why I always use this early November time to pause and to revisit everything we’ve covered, and since it is near the end of that brutal October/November push, I often do it as a series of games that use this same basic structure:

1. Create a Class List

Retrieval practice in its pure sense is trying to recall something previously learned. So to start our retrieval games, I always simply ask the students to create lists, first in groups, and then as a class, for a topic. Here is one from yesterday on what we have learned about writing thus far in the class.

2. Play With It

Once we have made a list, it is time to both retrieve and interleave (or combine and use the information in different ways, which is another memory accelerator discussed in Powerful Teaching) the information by engaging in a bunch of silly challenges. Here are a few examples from yesterday:

The first challenge was just straightforward retrieval practice.
For this second challenge we did it “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” style, which means students threw out suggestions and we picked one random thing as a class to describe using our strong word choice moves. Yesterday the class chose to write about pumpkin in my room that had unfortunately rotted over the weekend.
For our third game we picked something super dull (they chose brushing their teeth) that they then had to make sound exciting and epic using purposeful repetition tools.

3. Students Then Reflect

Lastly, to conclude, students retrieve the information one last time by writing a short reflective letter about how well they know the material and what they can do to know it better in the future. Here is the prompt we used to do that yesterday with the writing lessons:


This year is busier than ever, but much like I often talk about with feedback, if we try to cover everything, we run the risk of covering nothing as well as it should be covered. So, if you are able, think about stopping and playing a retrieval game! Plus, it is worth noting that kids really love these silly challenges and I love the simplicity of planning these lessons, which allows for a much needed deep breath for both parties between quarters.

I’ll be off for a few weeks as I finish a manuscript, but if you have your own retrieval practices that you like to engage in, please let me know. I’d love to share them with readers!

Yours in teaching,


5 responses to “The Power (and Fun) of Retrieval Practice Games”

  1. […] to forget and its solution–revisiting information through spaced retrieval practice–is why I like to have periodic retrieval games in my classes. It is also why I focus so much on reflection in my instruction and use feedback cycles. Even still […]


  2. […] the teacher acts as the responder. Much like not playing the role of editor in papers or engaging in retrieval practice, this approach is so often a win-win for teachers and students because it can take work off the […]


  3. […] understanding. Plus retrieval is great for games, which can add a layer of joy to your classes. See here for a post on […]


  4. […] can be a major struggle for many students. In the past, I’ve talked about how the use of retrieval practice and feedback cycles can help students hold onto and better understand the most important […]


  5. […] issues with our memory are why practices like retrieval practice or instituting a feedback cycle are so important when designing instruction, and they are also why […]


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