GUEST POST: Learn, Teach, Model RETRIEVAL PRACTICE
By Tricia Taylor
Tricia Taylor is a former teacher and lead practitioner in schools in London, UK and Brooklyn. With 20 years of experience in both primary and secondary schools, Tricia founded TailoredPractice and now partners with schools to use mind, brain and education research to both improve teaching and learning and create a climate and culture around perseverance and challenge. Tricia is also an Associate Lecturer for English at Goldsmith’s University teacher training program in London and Education Consultant for PowerTools, based in New York City. In this article, Tricia writes about experiences in a number of London schools. Tricia tweets at @TriciaTailored and blogs occasionally at www.tailoredpractice.com/blog. More about Tricia and TailoredPractice can be found at tailoredpractice.com. Tricia previously contributed a guest blog on retrieval practice in younger children.
Last Summer, I visited a friend whose son was about to take his exams. We found ourselves in one of those familiar conversations you get into as a teacher-friend. “So, tell Tricia what you are doing to revise for your exams.” (Editorial note: “revise” is a British term that means “study for exams”).
He replied “We had an assembly about how to test ourselves and plan revision.” Our heads nod in approval. Further probing led me to conclude that he had also learned about spaced practice and other effective techniques. “And,” he added, “we got a workbook.”
“Oh,” my friend lamented, “I found that crumpled in your bag. I’m not sure what I did with it.”
My friend’s son: “Doesn’t matter. I won’t use it.”
Now, I’m not against revision assemblies (as one strategy), but when I asked my friend’s son if his teachers used the strategies, he said, “No.”
This might be common, but it’s not universal. The buzz on Twitter and in blogs generated by the promise of cognitive science is almost palpable from where I sit. Right now, educators are excited by the growing understanding of how we learn, how our memory works and how to put this understanding into practice. The popularity of excellent sites such as this one and the record numbers of interested teachers at ResearchEd conferences suggest that our profession sees promise in this research.
But do I hear the whoosh of a magic wand swinging in the distance? To avoid these learning strategies being the latest victims of ‘myth busting’, it’s worth stepping back and considering where the pitfalls can occur.
What are the challenges?
What can we do?
I suggest an integrated approach that fuses mindset and memory.
We face these challenges head on when we support students with the mindset and metacognitive skills needed to actually implement the steps espoused in those best-intended assemblies. We need to get students to think about their learning in order to learn from their thinking. In doing this, educators should:
Learn about memory . . . because it makes you a better teacher
Teach students about memory . . . so that they understand how learning works (and you have buy-in)
Model the strategies . . . so they see it in action and know we value them
The strategy I want to focus on in this post is Retrieval Practice, which cognitive scientists currently agree is probably the most beneficial strategy for learning over the long term. Teachers, on the other hand, might agree it’s one of the hardest to get students to do correctly and consistently.
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 straightforward, 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, reorganize, and consolidate it better in our long-term storage. Furthermore, recalling a memory often creates additional 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 (in a process called elaboration). For more about this topic, see the blog post Are Our Memories Like Libraries?
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.” (see this guest post for more about framing in teaching). 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 these strategies may actually 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 (9th grade) 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 then 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, 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 (9th graders) a quiz on the equations they had learned in Year 9 (8th grade). 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 (10th grade) - with even more content and only a few weeks of revision? (Note: In the UK, students take numerous, high-stakes final exams at the end of year 11.)
“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 learning the information (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 other guest post. It works for all ages!
RETRIEVAL PRACTICE: MODEL IT
Modelling memory strategies shows students how to use them. You can also introduce students to a menu of different techniques involving RP. To model RP, create short low-stakes quizzes based on previous content and find time in each lesson (or most lessons) to quiz students. 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.
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 very important.
Help students keep track of the questions they get wrong—or simply guessed at. (Knowledge organizers can help with this; @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?
I hope this have been useful for teachers out there. Please leave comments and or follow me on Twitter @triciatailored. I welcome your feedback. For a deeper dive into understanding memory and how we learn, I recommend:
Why Don’t Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom by Daniel T Willingham (2009). Josey Bass
How We Learn: Throw out the rule book and unlock your brain's potential by Benedict Carey (2015) Macmillan
Neuroteach: Brain Science and the Future of Education by Glenn Whitman and Ian Kelleher
UCLA Bjork Learning and Forgetting Lab https://bjorklab.psych.ucla.edu/research/ (link to video where you will find a series of talks)
TeachersCollegeX: EDSCI1x The Science of Learning--What Every Teacher Should Know (online course)
An earlier version of this blog appeared on https://www.tailoredpractice.com/blog.