One of our student teachers had a bit of a difficult time in a Q&A sequence at the beginning of the lesson. As part of our subsequent discussion, we looked at the difference between encoding and retrieval and how the “craft” of what we are doing in the classroom changes depending on our aims. The below is my summary of our conversation.

Encoding is the process of moving information into your long term memory (LTM) via your working memory (WM) i.e. learning new things

Retrieval is the process of pulling information out of your long term memory and into your working memory. This strengthens the memory in the long term.

Any good explanation should have plenty of questions to the students but these two activities should be conducted very differently, and a lot of the time Q&A sequences come unstuck because of a flaw in one of them. I’ve summarised a few of the differences below. My summary is based on the bits and pieces that I’ve read over time but also mediated by the practicalities of the “real life” classroom. I’m also keenly aware that I’m a rank amateur and there is much I have not read and seen so would appreciate feedback/further reading.

  Encoding Retrieval
Speed New information should be introduced slowly, can take a whole lesson to learn one new thing. Should be quick fire. Can cover 10 lessons’ worth of material in 10 minutes.
Cognitive load Too much new information will cause cognitive overload Students can start to tie together different elements from LTM into more complex thought. Too much will still overload them.
Practice Students should “overlearn” i.e. do lots and lots of practice on the one new thing. Should be more practice at a later date to ensure effective encoding. Students can practice lots of different things
Guidance in practice Guidance should be given extensively including worked examples Students should be working without guidance
Feedback Feedback should be immediate and corrective to prevent encoding of mistakes Feedback can move to being more “faded” i.e. further down the line.
Interleaving Any discussion not extremely closely related to the current thing to be learned will harm encoding and distract Cognitive benefits from asking different types of question interleaved with each other
Expectations All students should be attentive but cannot expect them to know “what is in your head” until you have taught it to them explicitly All students should be expected to know the answer as it has been covered in the past. If they do not, teacher must adapt depending on context/variables.
Purpose of elicitation of prior knowledge Effective explanations should be grounded in students’ prior knowledge and ideas so the purpose of prior knowledge is to facilitate new learning Forcing students to retrieve information from LTM makes that memory last longer in LTM



RP and high stakes exams

Review of retrieval practice

Metcalfe delayed feedback

Learning versus performance review


Different rates of forgetting

Davis et al (2017) retrieval and encoding

Rosenshine principles of instruction