Retrieval practice: How to get students using it

Updated: Dec 10, 2019


This is Part 2 of a series called, Learn, Teach, Model. Part 1 introduces the series, the main challenges teachers face and an approach that will help. See How to get students to use the Learning Strategies that we're so excited about. I suggest we should:

  1. Learn about memory . . . because it makes you a better teacher

  2. Teach students about memory . . . so that they have control (and you have buy-in)

  3. Model the strategies . . . so they see it in action and know we value them

RETRIEVAL PRACTICE: LEARN IT

Retrieval practice (RP) is the act of bringing something to mind that you learned before. It typically comes in the form of low-stakes quizzes and then checking for accuracy. On a basic level, RP strategies benefit learning because when we put effort into retrieving information we remember it better. What’s actually happening is not that straight-forward, though. It’s not like recording something on a tape recorder (or voice memo on a phone), as if it is saved and we need to play it back. By retrieving a memory we modify, reorganise and consolidate it better in our long-term storage. Furthermore, recalling a memory often creates secondary retrieval pathways to that memory and makes it easier to find it later. Lastly, by searching for a memory, we frequently activate information connected to that memory and link it in a more networked context for easier future access. For more about this topic, see Learning Scientist Yana Weinstein’s excellent blog post Are Our Memories Like Libraries?

For a time-saving shortcut to more about retrieval, I recommend:

  • To learn more about retrieval practice, go to www.retrievalpractice.org for a succinct overview

  • To learn more about how to implement it, go to Learning Scientists (There, you will find lots of other strategies and free downloadable resources. Don’t forget to come back here! The Myth of Multitasking is the topic for another blog article.)

Because retrieving information requires mental effort, we often think we are doing it poorly if we can’t remember something. We may feel like progress is slow, but that’s when our best learning takes place. This is an important point to make when you teach about RP.

RETRIEVAL PRACTICE: TEACH IT

Teaching students about the importance of retrieval practice is all about the framing: “I’m teaching you a strategy that is going to save you time.” Warn them it won’t feel that way at first. The best way to start is to survey students on strategies they already use and compare this to the research. Most students think that the best strategies are rereading information, highlighting text or recopying their notes. Bust these myths, because they are the least impactful (See John Dunlosky’s Strengthening the Teacher Toolkit for a discussion on best and worst strategies.)

Relate to prior experiences of learning something well. I reminded a group of year 10 students recently, “Tying your shoes was a hard task when you were little. You had to think hard about which laces went where. Now you can do it automatically.” (It is not a perfect analogy, but it works. Virtually everyone can relate to it.) I explained that there is some basic knowledge we just need to be able to retrieve as easily as tying our shoes, so you can use your working memory for the more critical tasks.”

Remind them of how easily we forget. At one school, GCSE Physics teachers told me that if their students could more quickly recall equations and units (like tying their shoes), that basic knowledge would help them tremendously with the more difficult tasks. To see what they already knew (and to remind them of how easily we forget), I gave Year 10 a quiz on the equations they had learned in Year 9. Most remembered very little. They were surprised that they couldn't recall basic information they learned less than a year ago. What would happen by the time they reached year 11—with even more content and only a few weeks of revision?

“It's OK that you forgot," I told them, "We are going to teach you strategies that will help you remember stuff over the long term. Let’s not waste our time on things that don’t work,” I said and then pulled up their survey comparing the research to their responses, which revealed that 59 percent of students thought re-writing notes was one of the best revision strategies. It's not.

Teach the steps of retrieval practice. In my experience, students use things like flashcards, but they don’t use them correctly. They write all of the information on one card, rather than a question and answer on different sides. They spend way too much time making them look pretty, which is a form procrastination, creating an illusion of work being done. And many students make them, use them once and forget about them.

How to best use flash cards:

  • You must think hard about the answer before checking to see if you are right

  • If you’re wrong, use a different strategy to memorise it (Dual coding may work here.)

And . . .

  • If you get it right, come back to it later. Give yourself time to forget it a little.

  • If you keep getting it right, rewrite the question to make it tricker. You’ll learn it better if you have to answer it in different ways or apply it to a problem.

If you are teaching this strategy in a lesson, have students quiz each other using this diagram in my Learning Scientist blog article. It works for all ages.

RETRIEVAL PRACTICE: MODEL IT

Modelling memory strategies shows students how to use them. You can also introduce them to a menu of different techniques. To model RP, create short low-stakes quizzes based on previous content and find time in each lesson (or most lessons) to quiz students. (See resources in “Learn it” section for more ideas.) Alternatively, create assignments that incorporate learning from earlier in the course, requiring students to recall the information rather than just look it up. Some teachers give RP as a homework assignment, which is a great way to get them to do it independently, but it’s not modelling in the way I’m suggesting.

When modelling,

  • Wait or think time is essential if you are quizzing students in a whole class situation.

  • Don’t let students ‘look up the answer’ before thinking hard. Otherwise, it’s just like re-reading notes, which isn’t effective.

  • If they get the answer wrong, make sure they learn the right answer. Feedback is essential.

  • Help students keep track of the ones they get wrong—or simply guessed at. (Knowledge organisers help. @MrHistoire offers some advice here.)

Modelling also sends the message that adults value these strategies and believe that learning is a process. It supports a mindset to stick with it. Remind students that it’s OK to forget. This is a low stakes approach. If students are worried about making a mistake in front of others, the strategy will not work!

Therefore, make your modelling explicit and value the process. Use phrases such as:

  • “It’s OK to forget. That’s important part of making memories last.”

  • “I’m giving you this quiz/test, because I want to strengthen your recall of key information. That’s how memory works.”

  • “You are thinking hard about this question. You are creating a stronger pathway to those memories, making it easier to recall next time.”

What about the challenges? (These were introduced in Part 1 of this blog.)

I hope this have been useful for teachers out there. Please leave comments, retweet and or follow me on Twitter @triciatailored. I welcome your feedback. My next topic for Learn, Teach, Model will be multitasking. Other topics include will include: Spaced practice (and interleaving), Prior knowledge, Cognitive load and so on . . .

See sources in Part 1 of the Learn, Teach, Model series


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