I can’t remember! Or can I?…Let’s learn about retrieval practice

Maybe you are chuckling to yourself about a moment recently where that happened to you. You sat at your desk or stood in the middle of the room or waited in your car at the intersection…trying to remember the thing you wanted to recall. You may have employed some mnemonics or keywords or other tools to help you store and later access that information. Sometimes if information hasn’t seemed to clearly fit into our mental mapping or schemas, or we haven’t attempted to access it for a while, it’s kind of tough!

Often times when we think about teaching, we’re focused on getting information into students’ heads. We have content to cover, a final to prepare for, etc. We may think we don’t really have time to add another “thing” to our classroom routine, and yet, there is something very critical that we should be focusing on. Happily, it doesn’t necessarily take a lot of time, money, or any special technology tools.

Retrieval practice” is a learning strategy where we focus on getting information out of student minds. Through the action of trying to recall information, our memory for that information is strengthened. Consequently, forgetting is less likely to occur.

In the book Making it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, the authors share the benefits of using learning strategies such as retrieval, spacing, interleaving, elaboration, dual coding, and more. There has been a significant amount of research in the field of cognitive science as well as neurobiological research about how we learn. We’ve learned that a few strategies in particular are far more effective; from LearningScientists.org: “About 10 years ago, a report was published summarizing the research from cognitive psychology applied to education. These strategies in particular were found to have solid evidence and were suggested for implementation. Unfortunately, a recent textbook report suggests that they have not really made their way into teacher-training textbooks. However, it’s important to note that not all 6 strategies have equal amounts of evidence behind them. In particular, spaced practice and retrieval practice are most strongly supported by decades of research.”

The real question is, though, how can we make use of those studies in our classroom? What does learning science really tell us? What would retrieval look like?

It can be a 2 – 5 min activity in the beginning of class where you ask students to recall material from the prior class. They can then pull out their notes and fill in the gaps. It can be using sample tests and frequent low-stakes quizzing to help students practice. It can be using flash cards to not only recall ideas but to think about connections between topics. I read about one professor who said when he bumps into a student on campus, he uses those moments to review key things from class or help them make connections to other coursework.

Want some ideas for warm-ups?

Learn more on this great Retrieval Practice site--you can even subscribe for some newsletters and timely articles and information. You can also download resources. And here’s a second site to check out, for both you and your students: Learning Scientists.

About the author:

Diane Hollister works with curriculum for math, stats, foundations & student success for higher ed and also supports K12 math. Prior to this position, she was a college professor, most recently with Reading Area Community College (RACC). She still teaches as an adjunct online. She has taught everything from developmental math to Calculus I & II and Statistics as well as a college orientation (student success) class. She was the Division Chair for two years, was the developmental math Coordinator, and worked through redesign of all the math courses. She developed online curriculum and was an evaluator for the American Council on Education (ACE). She loves being outdoors hiking, biking, swimming & gardening. She is a foodie, enjoy good books, and enjoys living in an 1840s farmhouse in Maine that they recently restored.

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