8.2: Understanding the evidence

Time allocation

30 minutes


  • Read the information and look at the examples provided.
  • As you do this, take notes on the points made.
  • At the end, answer the key questions below.
  • You will need to take your answers with you to your mentor session for discussion with your mentor.

The intended outcomes of this activity are for you to:

Learn that
2.1 Learning involves a lasting change in pupils’ capabilities or understanding.
2.3 An important factor in learning is memory, which can be thought of as comprising two elements: working memory and long-term memory.
2.7 Regular purposeful practice of what has previously been taught can help consolidate material and help pupils remember what they have learned.
2.8 Requiring pupils to retrieve information from memory, and spacing practice so that pupils revisit ideas after a gap are also likely to strengthen recall.

In your notepad – key questions

  1. Why is it important that pupils remember what they have learned?
  2. What is practice testing and what impact does it have?
  3. Why is feedback during practice important?
  4. What makes retrieval practice so effective in helping pupils to remember over time?

Learning involves a lasting change in pupils’ capabilities or understanding

If a tree falls in the woods and nobody is around to hear it, did it happen? 

If a pupil can do something in a lesson, with scaffolding and support from an adult or resources, but cannot remember it or do it themselves at a later point independently, have they really learned it?

This is one of the challenges you will face as a teacher. It is prudent and right to scaffold learning for pupils, particularly when they are dealing with new or complex material for the first time, but there comes a point where pupils will need to remember what you have taught them and apply their learning independently, for example in tests or in lessons the following year with a different teacher.

When learning has taken place, there is a lasting change. Imagine a toddler learning to walk. They don’t (or rarely) revert back to shuffling on their bum. A lasting change in their capabilities for how to move has taken place and they are able to then build on this new skill to learn more complex movements, such as running or skipping.

Now imagine your pupils. What can they do now that they couldn’t do before? 

This might be something you have directly taught them, such as how to factorise an equation or write a compelling paragraph. It might be a social skill they have learned through interacting with others, such as waiting their turn or being polite when they encounter other people around the school. 

Whatever the learning that has taken place, the common thing you will notice is that when they were first learning the skill or knowledge, they required support and prompts (“Wait until Sarah has taken her turn first.”), but once they have learned it they are able to do it independently (“Please go ahead, you were here first.”) and, importantly, it is learning that lasts. It represents a lasting change in their capabilities or understanding which extends beyond the initial teaching moment. 

There are many things which you will want your pupils to learn and be able to remember. It might be a set of facts or knowledge which you know will be important for further study in a particular subject or topic, such as the parts of an atom. It might be a foundational skill, like reading, which you know underpins learning across all subject areas. 

In Block 2 you learned about how pupils learn related to memory and cognition. In simple terms, we each have a working memory and a long-term memory. When we remember something, we are pulling the information from our long-term memory. 

While our working memory is limited by both capacity and duration (Cowan, 2008), our long-term memory is a vast storehouse with no known capacity. This is good news for teachers – pupils in theory can learn all of the material you want them to remember. The biggest limitation is the working memory which can become overloaded and therefore stop processing new information and preventing it being transferred successfully to the long-term memory. Even if it does reach the long-term memory, unless it is actively used again it is likely to be forgotten.

Therefore, making use of evidence-informed approaches to support pupils to transfer new knowledge to their long-term memory and to strengthen it when it gets there is a key aspect of teaching.

Until relatively recently, this field of expertise – what some now call the science of learning – was unknown to many educators. As Dunlosky et al. (2013) point out, psychologists have been developing and evaluating the efficacy of particular approaches to memory and learning for over 100 years. There is a vast array of evidence about which techniques are the most effective in helping people to learn which have been replicated to the point we can be very confident they are true. And yet many teachers (and therefore pupils) do not use them. Indeed, many of the techniques which are popular are ineffective, yet we continue to use them. Examples of popular but comparatively ineffective techniques include reading, highlighting and underlining text for revision, learning styles and the idea that motivation alone leads to learning (as we saw in Block 1, the relationship is, if anything, the other way round and success is likely to lead to higher levels of motivation).

Regular purposeful practice of what has previously been taught can help consolidate material and help pupils remember what they have learned 

When something has been learned, it has been transferred into the long-term memory and is stored in schemata and can therefore be recalled when needed. For example, when you first learned that new sentences start with a capital letter you added this new fact to your schema on ‘writing’, ‘reading’ and ‘grammar’. After you learned this new fact, your teacher probably got you to practise writing sentences. They almost certainly prompted you to retrieve this rule from your long-term memory when you made errors, through feedback or correction, and you understood why you were being asked to practise further. Since then you have regularly practised writing many sentences using capital letters. it is now second nature and seeing a sentence without a capital letter at the start jars! Through regular, purposeful practice you consolidated a piece of new learning.

Not all new material is something which you can (or should) practise as often as capital letters but if you want your pupils to really remember something which they have learned, they will need to practise it over time. In contrast to the passive study techniques mentioned above, doing something active when reviewing previously taught material – for example practice testing – has been shown to help consolidate material and help pupils remember what they have learned:

  • Recall activities, e.g.
    • Using flashcards
    • Quizzes
    • Answering questions on previously learned materials
  • Completing practice questions, e.g.
    • As homework
    • In class
  • Practice tests, e.g.
    • Completing past papers
    • Multiple-choice tests

As Adescope et al. (2017) highlight, ‘the testing effect is a well-known concept referring to gains in learning and retention that can occur when students take a practice test on studied material before taking a final test on the same material. Research demonstrates that students who take practice tests often outperform students in non-testing learning conditions such as restudying, practice, filler activities, or no presentation of the material.’

The quote above refers to tests before tests. It’s likely that if your pupils are preparing for an exam, you will have given them ‘mock’ practice tests for them to complete either as homework or in class so that they practise. This is nothing new. But it is not just in preparation for exams that pupils should practise. Anything which you want pupils to remember needs to be practised. 

You should remember that ‘practice is an important aspect of learning, but not all practice is equal’ (Deans for Impact, 2015). There are a few considerations which you need to make when planning practice activities for pupils:

  • Dosage – how much practice should pupils do of the material?
  • Timing – when should they practise the material?
  • Feedback – how do pupils know they are practicing the right material?

In terms of dosage, the American professor of psychology John Dunlosky (2013) advises that the simplest answer is: the more the better. Multiple opportunities for pupils to practise material significantly improves recall, as demonstrated through a final test, compared to pupils who only practise once. One way schools address this is through their curriculum planning, giving pupils chances to encounter the same topics or themes iteratively at points throughout a course (a spiral curriculum), and perhaps across year groups. In your own planning, or in that of your department or Key Stage group, you may well see this approach being taken.

Have a look at the draft scheme of work below.

  • How has the teacher mapped opportunities for pupils to be able to revisit previously learned material content over time?

Consider your scheme(s) of learning for this year: 

  • Are there opportunities for pupils to practise previously learned material again?


Unit Year 1 Year 2 Year 3 Year 4 Year 5
1 Numbers to 10 Numbers to 1000 Numbers to 10,000 Whole numbers 1 Whole numbers 2
2 Number bonds Addition and subtraction to 1000 Subtraction of numbers starting with 10,000 Whole numbers 2 Whole numbers 3
3 Addition within 10 Using models Addition problems Solving word problems Addition Fractions 1 Fractions 2
4 Subtraction within 10 Using models Subtraction Solving word problems Subtraction Decimals 1 Decimals 2
5 Numbers to 20 Multiplying by 2 and 3 Multiplying by 7, 8 and 9 Measurement
6 Length Multiplying by 4, 5 and 6 Multiplication problems

When planning for pupils to practise material multiple times, you do need to take into account the time between each practice. Several studies have found that practice in quick succession has minimal benefits, compared to sizable benefits which occur when practice is spaced over time (Dunlosky, 2013). In this country, guidance from the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) states that, ‘[l]earning everything to do with a topic during a single time period is not as effective as distributed learning’ (EEF, 2018).

As with dosage, where more is better, with spacing, longer is generally better. There are multiple studies which have shown the benefits of delaying reviews of material so pupils have almost forgotten it before they encounter it again (Pachler et al., 2007). While this might seem counterintuitive, spaced learning actually helps pupils with the process of cementing new material into their long-term memory. When it is massed together (think cramming before an exam), the knowledge may be retained for a short while, but is likely to be lost later. As knowledge becomes more secure, you can increase the challenge by extending the time between practice opportunities. 

Pachler et al. (2007) recommend that you should ‘space learning over time. Arrange to review key elements of course content after a delay of several weeks to several months after initial presentation.’ To identify these key elements, think back to Block 4 and ask yourself: 

  • What key facts would it be helpful for my pupils to commit to their long-term memory so they can easily recall them and use them when learning more complex ideas?

It is recommended that pupils encounter new material on at least two separate occasions. In some cases, this will happen naturally as pupils progress through content (e.g. pupils will use full stops in almost every writing assignment after they are taught it). In other cases, you will need to explicitly plan when new material will be reviewed and practised.


Spaced practice is when opportunities to review and practise the material are distributed over time. Instead of just seeing it once, pupils will be exposed to the content at spaced gaps.


Video type

Talking head

Short description

Teacher talking about how they used spaced practice.

What should you focus on in this video?

  • How does the teacher space practice?
  • How are they helping pupils to remember content from last term?
  • Are there ways that you could incorporate spaced practice into your classroom?

Video transcript

In my class, I know that pupils are going to forget previously taught material if I don’t revisit it. When I introduce an important new idea or concept, I always plan when I will teach review lessons on it or re-introduce the material after a few days or weeks. 

For example, for our half termly topics, after I teach pupils the key vocabulary I might review it every day for the first week using short recall quizzes to match the definitions up. Then, the following week I will only get pupils to explicitly practise it on three days, maybe getting pupils to practise using the vocabulary in writing or in a talk task. I will slowly extend the gap between practice activities on the vocabulary and pupils should start to use it in their writing without me prompting.

We also do a weekly spelling test so I will include a few of the vocab words in that and rotate them out and back in again. I always include some spelling words from the last term’s topic as well so they don’t forget those while learning new ones!

What makes practice purposeful? We know from lots of fields that quality of practice is just as important as quantity of practice. If you want to learn to play tennis, you will get better simply by playing a couple of times a week. However, if you really want to improve you will need to identify the key skills of the game and your weaknesses as a player, break the skills down so you understand them and commit to regular, focused practice of the component parts, building the level of difficulty, until they are second nature. You might need to pay a coach to give you feedback and you probably won’t stick to this plan unless you have clear goals for improvement either. 

The same applies to purposeful practice in education. When planning practice activities, you should think about:

  • What do I want my pupils to be able to know or do well?
    • What are the stages between where they are now and this objective?
  • How will this help pupils know what they do and don’t remember?
    • Does the activity include answers so pupils can check?
  • How will pupils know what ‘good’ looks like?
    • Does the activity include a model or worked example for pupils to refer back to?
    • Will the pupil have access to their classwork or textbook so they can improve their answers?
  • How will pupils identify gaps and where they need more practice?
    • Is there an opportunity to reflect and plan what they need to do next?

You will also need to think about how you – as an expert – can give them feedback. Practice with feedback is more effective than practice alone (Dunlosky, 2013). Not only does this help them improve over time, it also means that they will not practise incorrect material, and commit errors and misconceptions to their long-term memory (Rosenshine, 2012; Roedinger & Butler, 2011).


The final version of this video will be available from spring 2021, as the publication of this programme was fast-tracked in response to disruptions to this year’s initial teacher training.


Year 8 PE Lesson – netball

Video type

Classroom practice

Short description

A teacher giving feedback to their pupils

What should you focus on in this video?

  • How does the feedback from the teacher improve the quality of their practice?
  • How does the teacher help pupils to recognise:
    • Where they are?
    • Where they are going?
    • What needs to be done to get there?

Video script

[Pupils are practicing running and catching the ball, pivoting and passing it on. 

The teacher notices one pair who are forgetting to stop and pivot.]

Teacher: OK girls, stop for a moment and watch me. Remember the rule in netball is that you can’t run when you are holding the ball, so when you pass me the ball… go on pass it…

[Pupil passes ball.]

Teacher: … I need to stop still. The only way I can move is to plant one foot and pivot on the other. See. 

[Teacher demonstrates.]

Teacher: At the moment, you are catching the ball and continuing to run for two or three steps, like this.

[Teacher demonstrates]

Teacher: Can you see the difference?

[Pupils agree they can see the difference.]

Teacher: OK, so what are the things you need to remember?

Pupil: When you catch it you have to stop straight away so don’t keep running. Then you can pivot.

Teacher: Great – why don’t you try again?

Requiring pupils to retrieve information from memory, and spacing practice so that pupils revisit ideas after a gap are also likely to strengthen recall

In your notepad

Read the summary from the EEF (2018) on retrieval practice and answer the following questions.

  • What is retrieval practice?
  • Why do you think that retrieval practice is more effective than re-reading a text?
  • Can you think of any examples when you have used retrieval to support pupils learning?

Repeatedly re-reading a text is not an effective way of learning. It is much more effective for pupils to try to retrieve what they already know about a topic, or what they have recently read about it, from memory. Retrieval practice involves retrieving something you have learned in the past and bringing it back to mind.

You can use retrieval to review past learning before introducing new related learning. For example, you might ask pupils to recall group one of the periodic table before introducing group seven, showing its similarities and differences. 

EEF (2018)

Retrieval practice is effective because it requires ‘an effort from within’ to call information to mind, as opposed to just reading or hearing it (Roedinger & Butler, 2011). The evidence shows that because retrieval is an active behaviour, as opposed to passive, it stimulates our brains more and in the process helps to strengthen the existing memory. In other words, the more often you retrieve some information from your long-term memory the more likely it is to stay there. 

Retrieval practice also helps us to identify gaps in our knowledge. Through the struggle of trying to recall a piece of information, we are cognisant of what we do not remember. Being aware of what you do and do not know is an important feature of metacognition, which we know is an important part of successful learning (see Block 3). 

One way many pupils choose to study is by re-reading notes, listening to explanations on YouTube or watching video animations. While this shouldn’t be discouraged, retrieval practices such as creating flashcards to quiz themselves, answering old exam questions or attempting to list out all of the key dates without looking at the textbook are much more powerful in aiding memory.

Using retrieval practice to promote learning

  • Think, pair, share – get pupils to think first of their response, and then share it with a partner before contributing to the rest of the class.
  • Low-stakes quizzes – include content from previous lessons.
  • Brain dumps – get pupils to put everything they know about a topic or a theme onto one piece of paper. Compare them after to see what they missed.
  • Flashcards – either create them for your class or support your pupils to create their own set, pupils test themselves by asking the questions and trying to retrieve the answer before turning over the card.

These types of retrieval practice activities should be spaced at relevant intervals. As mentioned above, pupils retain information better if there is a gap between learning, practice and subsequent practice.

You could achieve this by:

  • Deciding on a particular day or week which you will incorporate practice activities into your lesson. For example, every Friday you will provide practice activities linked to previously learned material. You might include a new skill every week at first, and then every other week and then just once a month as you extend the time between pupils practicing that material. 
  • Including previously learned material in homework tasks as an opportunity for pupils to practise.
  • Starting each day with a daily review or practice task, e.g. vocabulary, events or learning from the day, week or term before.
  • A weekly or half-termly quiz which pulls a mixture of questions from previously learned material as well as newly learned material.

Remember this

Key points:

  • Practice is an important part of learning something.
  • Something is learned when it is in the long-term memory, representing a lasting change.
  • Pupils tend to use ineffective study techniques such as underlining, highlighting, passive re-reading of materials which does not aid long-term recall.
  • Teachers should support pupils to learn more effective study techniques through their design of learning tasks and instruction.
  • When designing practice tasks teachers should consider:
    • How often the material should be practised
    • What time lag there should be between opportunities to practise it
    • What feedback will pupils get as they practise to know they correct.
  • Retrieval tasks are particularly effective at helping pupils to remember material over time.


Adesope, O. O., Trevisan, D. A., & Sundararajan, N. (2017) Rethinking the Use of Tests: A Meta-Analysis of Practice Testing. Review of Educational Research, 87(3), 659–701.

Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (2009) Developing the theory of formative assessment. Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability, 21(1), pp.5‒ 31.

Cowan, N. (2008) What are the differences between long-term, short-term, and working memory? Progress in brain research, 169, 323‒ 338.

Deans for Impact (2015) The Science of Learning [Online] Accessible from: [retrieved 10 October 2018].

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013) Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, Supplement, 14(1), 4–58.

Education Endowment Foundation (2018) Improving Secondary Science Guidance Report. [Online] Accessible from: [retrieved 21 May 2020].

Pachler, H., Bain, P. M., Bottge, B. A., Graesser, A., Koedinger, K., McDaniel, M., & Metcalfe, J. (2007) Organizing Instruction and Study to Improve Student Learning. US Department of Education.

Roediger, H. L., & Butler, A. C. (2011) The critical role of retrieval practice in long-term retention. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 15(1), 20–27.

Rosenshine, B. (2012) Principles of Instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know. American Educator, 12–20.