The learning process: Part 9

This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in November 2017.  You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.  

You can access the full archive of my columns for SecEd here

This is part nine of a 10-part series.  Catch up with the series so far.

As we have discovering in this series, we can do three things to help our pupils learn: we can create a positive learning environment. we can make pupils think hard but efficiently, and we can plan for deliberate practice.

In the last few articles, I have argued that, once new information has been encoded into pupils’ long-term memories, we have to help reduce the likelihood of them forgetting it and increase its storage strength so that pupils can access that information at a later stage. We also have to help pupils improve the retrieval strength of that information so that pupils can recall it with ease and efficiency as and when needed.

We do this by ensuring pupils repeatedly practice what we’ve taught them and by making sure that each time they revisit prior learning the task is as hard as it was the first time they learnt it. This, I explained, is called deliberate practice, and two forms of deliberate practice – spacing and interleaving – work best of all.

But what else can we do to help increase the storage and retrieval strength of the information we’ve taught our pupils?

One answer is to test them. But “test” and “exam” are four-letter words that provoke anxiety. Perhaps it’s time to replace “test” with another, less offensive, four-letter word: “Quiz.”


In 1909, a doctoral pupil at the University of Illinois demonstrated that practice quizzes improve pupil performance, and more than 100 years of research has shown that taking practice quizzes (versus merely re-reading study notes) can substantially boost pupil learning.

Consider two pupils who have just read a chapter in a textbook. Both pupils review the most important information in the chapter, but one pupil just reads the information again, whereas the other pupil hides the information and attempts to recall it from memory.

Compared with the first pupil, the second pupil, by testing herself, is boosting her long-term memory. Unlike simply reading a text, when pupils correctly retrieve an answer from memory, the correct retrieval can have a direct effect on memory.

But that’s not all – practice quizzes can also have an indirect effect on pupil learning because when a pupil fails to retrieve a correct answer during a practice quiz, that failure signals that the answer needs to be restudied. In other words, practice quizzes can help pupils to make better decisions about what needs further practice and what does not.

Quizzes in practice

So how might pupils use quizzes to best harness the power of retrieval practice? First, pupil learning can benefit from almost any kind of practice, whether it involves completing a short essay where pupils need to retrieve content from memory or answering questions in a multiple-choice format.

Research suggests, however, that pupils will benefit most from quizzes that require recall from memory, rather than from tests that merely ask them to recognise the correct answer from a list of options.

Although they may need to work a bit harder to recall key materials (especially lengthy ones) from memory, the pay-off is greater in the long-term.

Pupils should also be encouraged to take notes in a manner that will foster practice quizzes. For instance, as they read a chapter in their textbook, they should be encouraged to make flashcards, with the key term on one side and the correct answer on the other. Also, when taking notes in class, teachers should encourage pupils to leave blank space on each page (or on the back pages of notes) for practice quizzes later.

In both cases, as the material becomes more complex (and lengthy), teachers should encourage pupils to write down their answers when they are testing themselves.

For instance, when they are studying concepts on flashcards, they should first write down the answer (or definition) of the concept they are studying, and then they should compare their written answer with the correct one. For notes, they can hide key ideas or concepts with their hand and then attempt to write them out in the remaining space; by using this strategy, they can compare their answer with the correct one and easily keep track of their progress.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, pupils should continue testing themselves, with feedback, until they correctly recall each concept at least once from memory. For flashcards, if they correctly recall an answer, they can pull the card from the pack; if they do not recall it correctly, they should place it at the back of the pack.

For notes, they should try to recall all of the important ideas and concepts from memory, and then go back through their notes once again and attempt to correctly recall anything they did not get right during their first attempt.

If pupils persist until they recall each idea or concept correctly, then they will enhance their chances of remembering those concepts in an actual exam. Pupils should also be encouraged to “get it right” on more than one occasion, for example by returning to the deck of flashcards on another day and relearning the materials.

Using practice quizzes may not come naturally to pupils, so we should play an important role in convincing them of the power of practice quizzes and in teaching them how they apply to the content we’re covering in class.

Quizzes in class

Not only can pupils benefit from using practice quizzes when studying alone, we can also use practice quizzes in the classroom. The idea here is that we choose the most important ideas and then take a couple of minutes at the beginning or end of each lesson in order to quiz pupils.

After all our pupils have answered a question, we can provide the correct answer and give feedback. The more closely the practice questions test pupils on the same information that will be tested in the exam, the better pupils will do.

Once we have taught pupils curriculum content and they have practised it in spaced and interleaved ways, and then have been quizzed – or have quizzed themselves – on the information, they should be encouraged to engage in some elaborative interrogation…

Elaborative interrogation

Imagine a pupil reading an introductory passage on photosynthesis: “It is a process in which a plant converts carbon dioxide and water into sugar, which is its food. The process gives off oxygen.” If the pupil were using elaborative interrogation while reading, she would try to explain to herself why this fact is true…

In this case, she might think that it must be true because everything that lives needs some kind of food, and sugar is something that she eats as food. She may not come up with exactly the right explanation, but trying to elaborate on why a fact may be true, even when the explanations are not entirely accurate, can increase understanding and improve retention. If the pupil were also using a second, related strategy called self-explanation, however, she would then try to explain how this new information is related to information that she already knows…

In this case, she might consider how the conversion to oxygen is like how her own body changes food into energy and other fumes.


Self-explanation, then, is about retrieving information from memory and is far more effective than simply re-reading. As such, when pupils read a text or study notes, we need to teach them to pause periodically to ask themselves questions – without looking in the text – such as:

  • What are the key ideas?
  • What terms or ideas are new to me? How would I define them?
  • How do the ideas in this text relate to what I already know?

One reason for the success of elaborative interrogation and self-explanation in promoting learning is that they encourage pupils to actively process the curriculum content they are paying attention to and integrate it with their prior knowledge.

Even young pupils should have little trouble using elaborative interrogation, because it simply involves encouraging them to ask the question “why?” when they are studying.

The difference between this type of “why” and the “why” asked in early childhood (when this is a common question to parents) is that pupils must take the time to develop their own answers.

Other approaches

What else, in addition to practice quizzes, elaborative interrogation and self-explanation, can pupils do as part of their self-directed revision in order to improve the storage and retrieval strength of the information in their long-term memories?

Well, according to Paul C Brown et al in Make It Stick, the following study skills have been proven to be particularly helpful…


Generation is when pupils attempt to answer a question or solve a problem before being shown the answer or the solution. The act of filling in a missing word (the cloze test) results in better learning and a stronger memory of the text than simply reading the text. Before reading new class material, we should ask pupils to explain the key ideas they expect to find and how they expect these ideas will relate to their prior knowledge.


Reflection involves taking a moment to review what has been learned. Pupils ask questions such as:

  • What went well? What could have gone better?
  • What other knowledge or experience does it remind me of?
  • What might I need to learn in order to achieve better mastery?
  • What strategies could I use next time to get better results?


Calibration is achieved when pupils adjust their judgement to reflect reality – in other words, they become certain that their sense of what they know and can do is accurate. Often when we revise information, we look at a question and convince ourselves that we know the answer, then move on to the next question without making an effort to actually answer the previous one.

If we do not write down an answer, we may create the illusion of knowing when in fact we would have difficulty giving a response. We need to teach our pupils to remove the illusion of knowing and actually answer all the questions even if they think they know the answer and that it is too easy.

In addition, we might wish to explicitly teach students how to anticipate test questions during lessons, how to copy out key terms and their definitions into a notebook and test themselves on them, and also how to re-organise class material into a study or revision guide.

We might also set a weekly homework whereby pupils create crib sheets (perhaps a side of A4) on which they summarise the previous week’s learning in text, annotated illustrations, or graphic organisers. The purpose of this task is to stimulate retrieval and reflection, and to capture the previous week’s learning before it is lost.

Next week, in the final part of this series, we will discuss the use of graphic organisers, daily free-call and recall, weekly quizzes and end-of-topic tests as the foundations of an effective classroom.


Follow me on Twitter: @mj_bromley


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