Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

06.07.23Turning Understanding into Memory: Steve Kuninsky’s Retrieval Practice

Retrieval Practice is the act of recalling previously encountered information into working memory, or conscious thinking. Brief spurts of Retrieval Practice help students solidify information in their long-term memories, and, importantly, understanding is not learning until it is encoded in long-term memory.

We recently had the pleasure of watching Steve Kuninsky conduct some Retrieval Practice with his 10th grade AP Biology class at The Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science and Technology, in Gwinnett County, GA. Steve is one of our newest TLAC Fellows and we are so grateful to get to learn from him and his colleagues.

TLAC team member Sadie McCleary–a fellow Science teacher and retrieval practice aficionado–described some of the things she loved about Steve’s efforts to build long-term memory:

In this clip, Steve asks his students to identify key reactants, products, and processes that occur during cellular respiration on a diagram of a mitochondrion, which is foundational content knowledge. Before the clip opens, Steve has given students the opportunity to complete the diagram independently before reviewing it whole group.


Here is a partial transcript of his questions. The one he asks most often is, “What goes here?”, but he uses a variety of other retrieval prompts to push students to add to their responses:

  • Will you tell me what goes here?
  • What type of phosphorylation is that?
  • What else could we call that?
  • How many ATPs are made?
  • What is produced up here? Okay, and what else? And they’re carrying electrons to where?
  • And how many CO2s are produced in the Krebs cycle per glucose molecule?
  • What is going into the electron transport chain?

We think Steve does a beautiful job of tackling four key components of effective Retrieval Practice:

  • Feedback is important: Retrieval Practice is ineffective without feedback—students need to know if they missed a question and what the correct answer is. We don’t want students to store incorrect information in their long-term memory! As Steve Cold Calls students for their answers, his feedback is constant; he sometimes pushes them for a more complete response (“How many ATPs are made?” “Okay and what else is produced?”) and always gives a warm “good job” when they get it right.


  • Metacognition is important too: To continue to improve, students need the time and opportunity to reflect on what they know and what they do not know. After reviewing the answers, Steve says, “What questions do you have?” – a high school appropriate meta question. He is giving students space to reflect on their own understandings and gaps in their knowledge.


  • Desirable difficulty: Steve starts with “simple” (but still challenging!) recall here and is transparent with students about how the rigor will increase (they will draw completely from memory on Monday). Ultimately, this intentional increase in rigor will allow students to store the knowledge in LTM so that they can draw on and apply it when answering higher-order thinking questions.


  • No resources: Once students have truly learned a piece of content, they will be able to recall it from memory without using their resources. We love the arc of Steve’s Retrieval Practice here. During this session, students are asked first to fill in the diagram with no notes to see what they remember, and then he provides them with a word bank for support. On Monday, he notes, “I’m going to have you come in and draw this from memory and see if you can do it.”

A few more things our team obsessed a bit over:

  • From 3:00-3:45, Steve takes a moment to deliver a brief but deep bit of knowledge about process coupling and energy efficiency, explaining why students often see a range of numbers rather than a single value. This feels lovingly collegiate, and the timing of this direct instruction is key; Steve has just activated knowledge about respiration, so students are primed to receive this new information and expand their understanding further. Note that this takes less than a minute!


  • Steve is an expert in his content, but he’s also an expert on how students will be assessed. Students end his course with the Advanced Placement Biology exam, and they only get the chance to earn college credit if they do well on this exam. When Abigail asks about including numbers of molecules in glycolysis, he says, “The type of question you’re asked will lead you to state that or not. And if it’s a ‘describe’ question, then I would throw that in because it’s a very low time commitment.” Steve’s expertise helps his students both learn the content and prepare for their assessment.


  • Steve’s Cold Calls often follow the “Name, Pause, Question” pattern. Though we generally advocate for teachers to use “Question, Pause, Name,” which causes all students to consider the question before someone is called on, students in Steve’s class have already worked on this diagram independently. This means everyone has already had the opportunity to think through the questions, so we feel good about this usage.


  • A final observation that our video guru, John Costello was excited about: Steve has some incredibly fancy technology in his classroom (a SMART board and a SWIVL to record), but the foundation of what makes this Retrieval Practice so successful is his tremendous preparation, systems, and teaching. Don’t let the fancy tech distract you from Steve’s excellence!



Additional Learning Resources to keep nerding out on Retrieval Practice:  


  • is an incredible space where you can find strategies, research, and support for implementing Retrieval Practice in your classroom.
  • TLAC 3.0 Technique 7, pg. 82-87
  • Blog posts on Retrieval Practice, specifically the forgetting curve and spacing here and here.



  • Our Dean of Students High School curriculum has a brand new unit titled Succeeding Academically, where you’ll find several lessons on building productive study habits, including one on how to write effective Retrieval Practice questions.
  • Learning to Learn by Knowing Your Brain by Hector Ruiz Martin; we love the entire book, but Chapter 2, “In order to learn…Remember!” is particularly helpful to support students in understanding RP.
  • Outsmart Your Brain: Why Learning is Hard and How You Can Make It Easy by Daniel T. Willingham, PhD, is another incredible book whose audience is college students, though we think all high school students should read it too!


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