Retrieval Practice and GCSE/A-Level Revision – The Perfect Combination

Retrieval Practice and GCSE/A-Level Revision – The Perfect Combination

When it comes to revising for your GCSE or A-Level exams, the amount of information that you have to take in seems overwhelming. It doesn’t matter how well you are doing; the sheer volume of work is a dangerous mountain to climb, especially as we often cling to the belief that all the information we have learned has somehow to be crammed into your brains. It’s so often thought of as an “information going in” arrangement, but this approach has several problems.

We may think that cramming for the exam and remembering all those details on the day means we have done our job well. Does it? If you think about it, you are putting yourself through all that mental anguish and stress just so that you can remember all that stuff you learned for a particular 2-3 hours on a specific day. Do you think you’ll still remember it a year after your exams are over? Do you even recall any of the information you had remembered for previous school exams? It’s unlikely. This is where we suggest that you change your entire approach and consider something different — Retrieval Practice.

What is “Retrieval Practice”?

This slower-paced but highly effective method involves forcing you to deliberately delve into your mind and ‘retrieve’ the information you have learned in an active, full and knowing way. It is different from rereading notes or listening to teachers’ class recordings again, demanding instead that you steadily build up genuine knowledge through constant and persistent recall exercise.

 Traditional memorization of facts, figures and information through rereading can be very useful in the short term, but it leaves much to be desired when you look to the longer term. Retrieval practice requires you to spend more time learning, but the results are far more lasting and can help you get better results, as well as reduce your overall stress level during exam time.

It works by you creating questions for yourself as you go along with you learning; questions that require you to recall and answer and explain an answer in full, recalling the information genuinely as you progress. Over time, as you ask, rephrase and reconstruct questions in different ways, you build up an impressive ability to recall vast amounts of information at the drop of a hat.

Does it really work?

Dr Pooja Agarwal, founder of, along with several colleagues, have studied the positive impact of retrieval practice with middle school students. In their 18-month analysis, they noticed that when students were regularly quizzed (I.e. made to recall without looking at notes) scored a full grade level higher on their end-of-unit test.

Structuring your revision to be more quiz and test-focused will help you learn the knowledge in the same way. Instead of just rereading and rewriting everything over and over until you are the academic equivalent of a trained seal, why not try this seemingly old-fashioned yet highly innovative approach?

How can I make retrieval practice a part of my GCSE/A-level revision?

It’s easier than you think to integrate these methods. There’s nothing to say that you can’t use some of your preferred methods if you want, but try some of these ideas, too and see if they don’t help you recall the knowledge in a more stress-free and real way.

1. Brainstorming (no notes)

Take a blank piece of paper and give yourself a time limit of, say, 10 minutes. Make it 15 if the subject is broader or more complex. In your allotted time, write down everything you can recall about that topic — all the salient facts and details you can — and then compare it with your notes once your time is up. 

2. Quizzes

Write yourself short-answer questions (or you could work with a friend and write each other’s questions), and complete them without referring to any of your notes. As you recall, you will see where the gaps in your knowledge are and where you need to focus your studying.

3. Flashcards

Your cards could contain full questions or only keywords that you then have to elaborate on. You could combine your flashcards with the brainstorming activity (write for 10 minutes about all the things you know connected with the word on the flashcard) or with the action below.

4. Just a minute

There’s nothing like speaking aloud to build up your confidence and exercise your powers of recall. Work with a friend or in a small group, or on your own if you wish, but it might be more fun with friends. Take turns to pick a flashcard and then speak for a full minute on all that you know on the subject without hesitating, repeating or deviating from that subject.

So, what’s the verdict?

All these ideas and more are great ways to put retrieval practice to good use. Unlike cramming, it isn’t something where you’ll learn a page of information in just a few minutes. It’ll take more time and dedication, but we’re sure you’ll find the results astonishing. Come test time; you can be more relaxed, with more of the information retained comfortably in your mind than your cramming classmates, you’re sure to perform well in your exams.

Happy revising!