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Level up learning with retrieval practice

By Bonnie Nieves
June 14, 2019
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Even without directly observing your classroom, I can guess that you use a version of retrieval practice with your students. Every educator does. Retrieval practice is essentially remembering information we have learned previously using only our brains — no notes, Google or textbooks. It could be as simple as the questions that we ask as warm-ups or exit slips when we want to know whether students have reached a learning goal.

In the past, I used these warm-ups or exit slips as quick check-ins that assessed recall of material that was recently covered in class. They informed my instruction but did not reinforce or deepen learning for the students. Reflecting on my practice, I found that there were times when I asked students to complete tasks like these that were more for my benefit than theirs. By learning about a few findings from the learning sciences — especially retrieval practice — I have been able to be more intentional about these activities. I’ve learned that doing things intentionally maximizes my time and produces more desirable results. Here is what I have learned in the learning sciences and how I have incorporated it into my routine.

What is retrieval practice?

Retrieval practice is a method of strengthening memory by recalling previous learning and applying it in new ways, thereby reinforcing the connections to the memory and transferring it to the long-term memory. In my practice I have found that students benefit most when they can link information to previously learned material, and research confirms this finding. Here are some methods I have used to help students connect current learning to prior knowledge.

Daily retrieval practice

Brain dump and reflect. Instruct students to write everything they remember from class the day before (I limit time to five minutes), and then ask them to compare what they remembered with what their classmates remembered.

Learning science turbocharge: Take one minute for students to reflect on why they remembered certain things and how they will use this to their advantage. In this process, students may think of mnemonics or remember details (elaboration) that will serve as hooks for their retrieval. Also, adding the reflection component deepens students’ self-awareness and helps them reflect on their learning process (ISTE Student Standard 1: Empowered Learner).

Flashcards using Quizlet, Gimkit and Kahoot. These engaging tools provide instant feedback to students working independently or in groups. The research tells us that there is an important difference between recognition and recall.

Learning science turbocharge: To be more effective, students should determine areas of strength and weakness and have a plan to move forward. After the flashcard activity, provide students with a list of terms, instruct them to evaluate their understanding of each term, and follow up with a class discussion or think-pair-share with a focus on whether students are using terms appropriately. I use the results of these conversations to create activities, stations or experiments that help students strengthen connections between the definition of terms and authentic uses of them. To guide students in this activity, I use a sheet like this (modified from P. Graffwallner’s How well do I know these terms resource).

Weekly retrieval practice

Journaling. Ask students to write a journal entry or blog post describing their work in class this week.

Learning science turbocharge: Have them explain how the things they learned at the beginning of the year helped with understanding current work. Retrieval practice does not have to be limited to just the factual content material. Also — you can encourage your learners to link their physical, social and emotional state with their learning to enhance their retrieval. For example, add the question, “Why did you remember the things that you did?” to the brain dump and prompt your students to reflect on their thinking and the connections between their physical, social, emotional and cognitive states. Also don’t forget — this activity builds digital citizenship (ISTE Student Standard 2) while empowering students to choose a platform to curate (ISTE Student Standard 6) and build on their knowledge.

Classic exit tickets. The strategies explained above are engaging and effective, but classic exit tickets have continued to be a classroom staple.

Learning science turbocharge: The key to great exit slips is a prompt that enhances student understanding rather than simply assessing it. For example, instead of asking, “What was the reason for the French and Indian War?” ask, “What are some similarities between the French and Indian War and a current conflict in the Middle East?” When we ask questions that have students compare and contrast, we are not only using retrieval practice but also employing another learning science strategy called elaboration that includes asking why and how questions as well as comparing and contrasting.

New unit retrieval activity

We’ve all been there — trudged through a unit only to see deer-in-the-headlights looks when we ask about something from the beginning of the unit. Of course, we have the unit test to remind our students to relearn. What if I told you there is another way — one that my students loved? Research suggests we forget what we learn almost as soon as we learn it, but there are evidence-based ways to help students remember what they’ve learned. I combined three strategies in the learning sciences: spacing (or spaced practice), elaboration and retrieval practice to make my own choice board — the Retrieval Power Grid!

In this activity, students choose a category or block with a point value that corresponds to how challenging the questions are. Students can earn the maximum of 45 points in several ways, which gives students a choice in how they earn them.

Every cell in the grid employs retrieval practice (R) — i.e., every cell requires students to remember something they’ve learned. In addition, every cell either has students elaborate (E) — whereby they make connections to topics they’ve learned — and/or is spaced (S) across different periods of time. Since the research suggests it is harder to recollect information from longer ago, the point value for the cells increases when it asks to retrieve material that was covered earlier in the unit. Additionally, the point value increases based on how challenging the questions are — when the questions move in Bloom’s taxonomy from recall to understanding and application.

Remember to design your Retrieval Power Grid such that the total point value cannot be reached unless a student chooses at least one block with the earliest material. Maximum point values of 20 or 40 are earned when retrieval, spacing and elaboration are combined.

Example from my biology classroom

Through this activity, every student has the opportunity to experience success; struggling students can choose lower point-value boxes, while advanced students can earn their points with two cells. I allow students approximately 15 minutes to complete the exercise and then have them share their answers as a class or in small groups using strategies such as think-pair-share or turn-and-talk. This allows them to get quick feedback and a chance to elaborate and learn from their peers. The Retrieval Power Grid is low stakes; although choice boards are typically part of a graded activity, I don’t grade them because this retrieval exercise appeals to students’ competitive nature and improves intrinsic motivation and grades can undermine that.

My students

Retrieval practice is an efficient and effective practice with decades of evidence to improve student learning that has made a huge difference in students’ attitudes toward studying and review activities in my classes. Their behavior showcases more drive and pride in their accomplishments since I have begun using retrieval practice regularly and intentionally. As student engagement increases, my own disposition changes. The more improvement I see, the more I am driven to try different techniques and make improvements to current practices.

Bonnie Nieves (@biologygoddess) teaches high school biology and anatomy and physiology in Massachusetts. Bonnie is passionate about engaging students in authentic activities and leveraging technology to empower students to make an impact on their community. This post was written in collaboration with NarayanKripa Sundararajan (@KripaSundar), learning sciences specialist at ISTE.

This blog post is part of the Course of Mind project, an ISTE initiative made possible in part by a grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative DAF, an advised fund of Silicon Valley Community Foundation. Tell us what you’ve learned and your story @courseofmind.