The Cult of Pedagogy Podcast, Episode 123 Transcript

Jennifer Gonzalez, host

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If you’ve put on this podcast today hoping to hear something brand-new, you might be disappointed. There will be no fancy bells or whistles in this episode.

That’s because a lot of the strategies we’re going to talk about are things you’ve already done; some teachers have probably been doing these things for decades. You just might not have known exactly why they worked or how to harness them in the most optimal way. That’s what cognitive scientists have been doing, trying to pinpoint exactly which activities work best for storing concepts in long-term memory. Over the past few years, we’ve been following their progress: Way back in episode 21, in our study of the book, Make it Stick, we first talked about the concepts of retrieval practice, spaced practice, and interleaving. These concepts were also addressed in episode 58, Six Powerful Learning Strategies You Must Share with Students, and episode 79, where I made a strong push again for retrieval practice.

So what’s different this time? Well, until now we haven’t gone very deep into what these strategies look like in the classroom. How exactly should teachers work strategies like retrieval practice into their teaching? Do these strategies replace the ones you’re already using, or do they work alongside them? Will it require extra planning and time to add them in? Where do grading and paperwork come in, if at all?

Now we’re getting specific answers to those questions. Cognitive scientist Pooja Agarwal and K-12 teacher Patrice Bain have collaborated on a new book, Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning. In the book, they go into detail about what it looks like when we actually apply four research-based “Power Tools” in the classroom: retrieval practice, spaced practice, interleaving, and feedback-driven metacognition—which is one we haven’t covered at all on this podcast. Today I’m going to talk with Pooja and Patrice about these strategies, the research behind why they work, and some ways you can start using them right away in your instruction.

Before we get started I’d like to thank Kiddom for sponsoring this episode. Administrators: you spend countless hours designing and revising curriculum to ensure it’s rigorous and standards-aligned. Once it’s out of your hands, how do you measure its effectiveness without having to wait till the end of the school year? And teachers: you spend countless hours contextualizing and individualizing lessons to meet the needs of your students. How do you show off those personal touches to your administrators, especially if they improved student outcomes? With Kiddom, both administrators and teachers gain a set of unique tools designed specifically for them. Kiddom Academy helps school and district leaders build systems of continuous improvement by being able to design, measure, and act on curriculum in real-time across classrooms and schools. And with Kiddom Classroom, teachers can find thousands of free teaching resources, share work with students, and communicate feedback on assignments. With Kiddom, school and district leaders can support the work happening in classrooms in a more effective and timely manner. And most importantly, they can let teachers do what they do best. Want to try it out? Get your 2-week free trial at

Support also comes from Pear Deck, the tool that helps you supercharge student engagement. With Pear Deck, you can take any Google Slides presentation, add interactive questions or embed websites, and send it to student devices so they can participate in real time while you present. And now Pear Deck has teamed up with Google on Be Internet Awesome, a free digital citizenship curriculum that helps kids learn to be safe, more confident explorers online. Each interactive presentation gives teachers a simple way to introduce a concept related to digital literacy. And because the presentations are editable, they’re easy to tailor to your students’ grade level. The basic version of Pear Deck is free, but my listeners can now get a complimentary 60-day trial of Pear Deck Premium with no credit card required. This will give you access to features like the teacher dashboard, personalized takeaways, and more. To learn more, head to

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Now here’s my interview with Pooja Agarwal and Patrice Bain about four research-based strategies every teacher should be using.

GONZALEZ: I would like to welcome Pooja Agarwal and Patrice Bain to the podcast. Welcome, ladies.

BAIN: Thank you.

AGARWAL: Thanks so much for having us.

GONZALEZ: And before we get started talking about “Powerful Teaching,” if you could just each sort of just take turns and tell us just a little bit about who you are and what your background is in education. Pooja, why don’t you go first?

AGARWAL: I am a cognitive scientist. I got my PhD at Washington University in St. Louis, and I am currently an assistant professor at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.

GONZALEZ: Great. And then Patrice?

BAIN: Hi, Jenn. I’m Patrice. I am a veteran middle school teacher with over 25 years teaching middle school social studies.

GONZALEZ: Fantastic. So we’re going to talk about your book “Powerful Teaching.” So let’s just start by explaining to us why wrote this and why you wrote it together.

AGARWAL: Patrice and I are so passionate about the science of learning, and we first met in 2006. We’ve been working together for about 15 years on research on how students learn. So we first started doing research in Patrice’s classroom with my colleagues, Roddy Roediger, Mark McDaniel, authors of “Make It Stick,” and also Kathleen McDermott. We did a whole lot of research in Patrice’s sixth-grade social studies class. We expanded that together through her whole school district, and we’ve been working together with teachers to really translate this research and make it actionable in the classroom together.

GONZALEZ: And so what was it that, was there sort of a frustration or something that was going on that made you think this book really needs to be written?

BAIN: What I found was as we were conducting this research, we were finding what really works in authentic classrooms. And we were taking this research and the principles, and I was able to develop strategies that aligned to this research. And I continued to use these over the last 14 years, and it works. The science works. The stress decreases. The students retain knowledge, and it was just so exciting that Pooja and I wanted to share this information with other educators, with parents, with teacher prep programs. So we decided to write this book. We just want to, we’re excited, and we just want to share our passion with everybody out there.

GONZALEZ: That’s great, and that you really are filling a significant gap between research and practice. And so I’m really excited to help you share this. In the book, what you’re, sort of the main meat of the book is these four teaching practices that you call power tools. And then for each one of these, you provide a bunch of specific suggestions for implementing each one of these power tools. So what I thought we could do to just give listeners a taste of what you offer in the book, and give them some things that they can actually take and use right away, would be for, to have you go through each one of these four tools, explain what they are, why they work, and then maybe just give us one way that teachers can apply each one of these tools in the classroom. So I am going to just sort of hand this over to you, and I’m sure I’ll interrupt every now and then and ask you questions, but tell us what these four power tools are.

AGARWAL: The four power tools that we have in our new book “Powerful Teaching” are all based on cognitive science. So the first one being retrieval practice. We talk a lot about that being a foundation of powerful teaching and learning. The second one is called spacing. The third one is interleaving, and the fourth one is what we call feedback-driven metacognition. So the first one, with retrieval practice, actually, Jenn, we have a question for you. When I was on your podcast almost a year and a half ago, I asked you this question, and I’m curious if you remember the answer.


AGARWAL: How old King Tut was when he became a pharaoh?

GONZALEZ: Oh my goodness. Was it 10?

AGARWAL: It was 9 or 10, yes.

GONZALEZ: Oh my goodness.

AGARWAL: And that’s a gist of what retrieval practice is. So a year and a half ago, if I had just told you King Tut was 9 when he became a pharaoh, as opposed to having you think about that, and if you listen to that podcast you kind of, you can hear your, we can hear you traveling back. You almost say, and we actually start our book out with this example too, of having to go through that struggle to retrieve his age. And retrieval practice is simply this, this powerful strategy where when students pull information out, when they have to think back, they then are better able to remember that information for the long term than if they just kind of shove it into their heads. So students and in the classroom we’re often re-reading or lecturing and trying to shove things into students’ heads, and retrieval is really about pulling information out. So I’ll give you another quick example. And I’ll ask both Jenn and Patrice. Jenn, what is your least favorite ice cream flavor?

GONZALEZ: Oh, probably something that is an unnatural color, like a, like blue cotton candy, let’s say that.

AGARWAL: And Patrice, your least favorite ice cream flavor?

BAIN: Bubblegum.

GONZALEZ: Oh yeah, see, we’re pretty lined up.

AGARWAL: And my least favorite, I feel like this gets controversial, my least favorite is mint chocolate chip.


AGARWAL: I know. And even just thinking about ice cream, and especially your least favorite is that same struggle, and often when I talk with teachers, they have stories behind this, or you can mentally think back to an ice cream shop you went to as a kid.


AGARWAL: So that’s all retrieval is. In a classroom context, it’s a lot of asking questions really so that students aren’t relying on their notes, they’re not just being or reviewing what happens. So sometimes teachers will start class by saying, here’s what we did in class yesterday, and retrieval practice would just be asking students what did we do in class yesterday as opposed to just telling them.

GONZALEZ: Real simple switch.


BAIN: And something I found, when Pooja and I finished our first year of working together, we did a pop final exam. It did not go in the grade book. The students didn’t know about it. There was no way to cram. We simply wanted to see what students remembered at the end of the year. And what I found was that my top GPA student only scored average on this test. And I knew that was something I really needed to ponder, because she got 100 percents on tests, on homework, yet why could she not retrieve this information? So I really started looking at homework, and I realized that so many students have absolutely mastered homework, where they look at a question, they look up the answer, they write it down and repeat. And yet they get good grades, but they can’t retrieve the information; it’s difficult to discuss the next day, a week later. And so I thought, there’s really a disconnect going on here. So I quit giving homework. And what I did instead of giving homework is I would take whatever we had discussed, anything from the book, discussions, and the following day, I would give a mini quiz. So anything that we had done the day before was fair game. And I would simply, the mini quizzes really are mini. I put them on like 2-inch by 3-inch pieces of paper. They’re very non-threatening. But what I would do is I would simply ask questions of things that we had discussed, and the students would write down an answer. Five quick questions. I would begin every class with a mini quiz. And what happened is the students started to, to be able to write down this information. They were able to retrieve. And that made all the difference in students being able to retain the information. So I highly suggest for teachers to take a look at how are you giving homework, and is it where students are simply looking up an answer, copying it down, repeat? Or are they retrieving?

GONZALEZ: Two questions about the mini quizzes that I know people are thinking. No. 1, did you grade them and give points to them?

BAIN: Well, mini quizzes, well, actually all types of retrieval should be either low or no stakes. Often I did not grade them. If I graded them at all, it might be worth five points, just something very small.

GONZALEZ: Very small, okay. I think I knew the answer, but I wanted to make sure that we put it in there, because I think when people hear that about frequent quizzes, almost every day, they think, “Oh gosh. That’s a lot of grades.” And I think there’s this misconception that we should be grading things like that as formative assessment. And this almost isn’t even formative assessment. This is a practice to actually get them to learn it better. The act of quizzing them helps them learn the material better.

BAIN: That’s absolutely right. And what I loved was I would, prior to the mini quizzes, I would be spending about an hour and a half to two hours every night grading this work to get it back. I would often have between 150 and 180 students every day, and I would want to get the information back, and I thought, why am I spending so much time if it’s not helping students learn? And so once I quit giving that homework and grading that homework and giving them mini quizzes, I would simply collect them, and it would take me about a 15-minute analysis after school to see, you know, what, were there trends in questions students missed? So I would know, okay, I need to go over that more tomorrow. It was just, it gave me a handle on, on how the students were doing. The students knew that I would be looking at them. So it just turned into such a win-win situation. I no longer spend all that time at night. The students were retaining information. And I had a way to check for understanding.

GONZALEZ: Did you spiral information? Did you come back to certain topics, you know, a few days later and sort of repeat them in the quizzes?

BAIN: Oh yes I did. Pooja, do you want to talk about spacing?

AGARWAL: Sure, that’s a perfect lead-in, yes, to our second power tool. And so obviously there’s so much that can be talked about with retrieval, which is why it’s a foundation. Spacing is exactly what you said, Jenn, bringing information back or, not quite revisiting, re-retrieving previous information is called spacing, you’re spacing it out. So one example, and we actually talk about spiraling a little bit in our book, and another example is what I call blast from the past.


AGARWAL: You could also call these like throwback Thursdays or throwback Tuesdays, or you just simply ask students, hey, what did we do last week? And again, that’s retrieval, but adding on spacing. So you’re not just asking students, what did we do in class today, but you can even ask, what did we do yesterday? So if you ever ask your kids, you know, what did you learn in school today? A simple example of spacing is to just ask, what did you learn in school yesterday?


AGARWAL: And that’s what spacing is, so it’s a nice way to add onto retrieval. And one part of spacing that can be a little uncomfortable for teachers and for students is that students are going to forget.


AGARWAL: Right? So I asked my college students this past week, hey, think back to Week 3 of this semester, it’s Week 12, think back to Week 3. What are two things you remember about neuroscience? So again, I’m using retrieval and spacing, and I just got blank looks from students, which is okay. At first they were uncomfortable, and at first I’m like, gee, I didn’t teach that very well. But it’s actually a benefit, it’s a bit counterintuitive, but it’s important for students to forget. Because with spacing, they bring it back up.


AGARWAL: And that then solidifies that learning moving forward.

GONZALEZ: It’s the actual difficulty that’s going to help them to remember it better.

AGARWAL: Yes, exactly. We’ve talked about desirable difficulties, being a phrase that we use in the scientific literature, it’s desirable to help students engage in more difficult retrieval and spacing as opposed to what Patrice was talking about with the homework where students are simply copying down answers.

GONZALEZ: And this is not even a judgement call saying, oh, it should be more challenging. Literally the brain will remember it better if it had to struggle a little bit?


BAIN: So you were talking about spiraling, Jenn, and as teachers, we are very cognizant of the spiraling that happens in the curriculum, that something is taught one year and then it is revisited the next year and goes a little bit deeper. However, what often happens is even though teachers know what was taught the previous year, when you bring that up, you often do get this deer in the headlights look where students are like, I’ve never heard that before in my life.


BAIN: And, and for example when classes start in August, how much time do we need to spend on going over again the previously taught information? But with spacing, spacing is not spiraling. Spacing is making sure that you go back and you revisit this information more often, not just once a year.


BAIN: So like Pooja mentioned, blast from the past. I was always doing blast from the past. It is something that you can just pull in. When I was talking about, for example, Ancient Egypt, I could say, oh, remember when we talked about Mesopotamia? What, what was important about that river? And so you can just, as a teacher, just pull out information, and when you do that, you are having students recall this previously learned information. Again, if they forgot a little bit, sometimes that happens, and it was always kind of fun to pose one of those questions and have the students kind of look up in the air like, oh, what is that, what is that, what is that? And then, oh, I got it! And answer the question. So that’s spacing and that’s retrieval.

GONZALEZ: Got it. And so far everything you’ve talked about does not sound like it really adds much in terms of prep or grading or anything like that.

BAIN: This is the beauty of these strategies. It is not your fad of the semester. It is all based on research. It doesn’t cost a fortune. It is simply techniques and strategies that teachers can incorporate in their classrooms the following day.

GONZALEZ: And they can just take a few minutes of each class period.

BAIN: Mhmm. And the payoff is, is so great.

GONZALEZ: So we’ve, we’ve got retrieval practice and spacing. That’s No. 1 and 2. So what is the third power tool?

AGARWAL: The third power tool we describe in our book is called interleaving. And interleaving, I’ll mention this briefly, is a strategy again with lots of research behind it, where students retain and learn more information when they mix it up. So I’ll give you a few examples first. One example is from a student of mine at the Berklee College of Music. So I teach musicians, but I teach psychology and neuroscience to musicians, and I had a student struggling with remembering. She came to my office and said, you know, I’m trying to remember the lyrics for this song that I have to play. She was in a music therapy program, and she couldn’t remember the lyrics. She could remember the beginning of the song and the end of the song, just like you can probably remember the beginning of the movie you just saw most recently and the end of the movie, but you probably forgot the stuff in between.


AGARWAL: So what I had this student do is interleave, or mix up, the song lyrics. All I had her do was say, why don’t you start with the third verse? Now sing the fifth verse and how about the second one, the fourth one, the third one, the first one. Now put it together but sing the second half of the song. Now sing the first half of the song. And now sing it all the way through. And I swear within 15 minutes she had it.


AGARWAL: Because we’re so used to learning things in an order without that desirable difficulty, without challenging ourselves to mix it up. And another example, this comes into play especially with skills learning. So we’ve got examples in the book from firefighting and from math and learning an instrument. In math, for instance, in a very simple example, if students know that they’re learning how to multiply fractions and then how to divide fractions, which is always tricky, if they know they’ve got 10 multiplication problems, they can just, what I call plug and chug, right? They know, I’m just going to follow the same procedure for these first 10 questions, and then I’m going to use division.


AGARWAL: But if you mix those up, then students have to choose the strategy. They can’t just use it. And with word problems, if you have a block of just addition problems, students don’t even have to read the words, right?


AGARWAL: They can just take the numbers and add them. So with interleaving, mixing up very similar things provides that challenge where students have to know the difference, choose a strategy, and that then helps their learning.

GONZALEZ: I think the way somebody described this to me one time, and it really clicked for me, so I’m going to repeat it for people listening is that if, once you start to get into the repetition of the same kind of thing, then you’re working in short-term memory. But when you have to do the interleaving, you, you have to stop and retrieve stuff from long-term memory, and so it makes it more solid that way. Does that sound accurate to you?

AGARWAL: I think that’s a great example, and actually that comes back to how the power tools build on each other. So retrieval can help people learn in the short term and in the long term. But definitely for long-term memory, mixing things up provides that added boost.

GONZALEZ: OK. So the fourth power tool is?

BAIN: The fourth one is feedback-driven metacognition, and I love the word “metacognition.”

GONZALEZ: I do too.

BAIN: And examples, I would frequently have students towards the beginning of the year say, oh, Mrs. Bain, I studied for an hour last night, and I’m going to ace this test. And you start grading the test, and you realize, wait a minute. This student did not score well. And I’ve often asked students, have you ever really studied for a test, and you did not do well? And probably 95 percent of the students’ hands go up.


BAIN: And that is how I teach metacognition. When you study, and you don’t do well, often it is because you were studying what you already knew. It feels better. It’s like, oh, I’ve got this. And not studying what you don’t know. So feedback-driven metacognition is being able to help students learn how to discriminate between what they know and what they don’t. So I use metacognition with my students on a daily basis. And, for example, when I talked about the mini quizzes. If students are not doing well, say they miss one or two questions on the mini quiz, it is not an opportunity to internalize failure. Rather, it is oh, okay. Well I need to focus on that one.


BAIN: And so being able to provide the structure, being able to provide the feedback. When I would give them mini quizzes, as soon as they were over, I would go over those answers so the students would know right away if they got them correct or not. The following day, after I had done my analysis after school and I handed them back, we would go, I would go over the questions again and again allow them to retrieve the answers. So they’re not only getting feedback again, but I’m incorporating spacing. One thing that I had fun doing with my students is they would often say that I had all these tricks. Well they’re not really tricks, they’re strategies based on science. But I got to the point where I would say, okay, well let’s name this. And one of my favorite ones is students renamed metacognition to metacogtricktion, because they realized how much that helped them in studying.

GONZALEZ: And this is just so that if a teacher wants to take this back to their classroom and start applying it, this is simply a matter of when they get a mini quiz, for example, to let them know right away how they did on that, so that they, they’ve got that feedback loop already going in their heads, this is what I got correct, this is what I got wrong, this is what I need to work harder on or learn again. Is that what it would look like in practice?

BAIN: Yes.


BAIN: And then the following day, being able to present the information when I go over the answers, it takes, what, 90 seconds perhaps? But they have a chance to retrieve and to space. And then when I do a blast from the past, hey, remember when we did such and such? Again, either they knew it right away or they had a desirable difficulty, but they again were testing their metacognition, and then by having a pair and share, having students discuss, they’ve been able to test their metacognition too. So, so many of these strategies really combine these power tools, that really create the authentic learning.

GONZALEZ: You know, I suspect that there are people listening who are thinking, well this, I already do most of this stuff. You know, these are, because I think these are naturally built in sometimes to some people’s teaching practices. And maybe there are people out there doing this who already do know the science behind it, but if they didn’t know, then this will sort of reinforce that this is not just, you know, it’s so simple, I think there may be, there may be some who were thinking, I didn’t even realize how much good this was actually doing. Though sometimes it helps to know the research behind what you’re doing and why it’s working so well.

AGARWAL: One example I wanted to give, especially for teachers who already use these power tools, and that’s part of the reason why we love them. They’re intuitive. They’re not new-fangled. And one strategy we had talked about in an earlier episode was, were brain dumps, and this was a strategy that Patrice uses, and I use them in my classroom where we just ask students, write down everything you can remember about Ancient Egypt, or everything you can remember about neurons and axons. And students can write for a bit, which would be retrieval practice. You can combine them with spacing by asking about an earlier topic. You could combine them with interleaving by asking about similar types of ancient civilizations, similar types of neuroscience concepts, and you could combine it with feedback-driven metacognition. Even that feedback could be a quick class discussion, a quick think-pair-share, but that’s one of the strategies to maybe take something you’re already doing and really combine and add in all these power tools, that doesn’t take prep time, doesn’t take grading time, and can really be done in just five minutes during class.


BAIN: And Jenn, what you were saying is so true. Many teachers might be doing some of these things already. But to be able to learn about the science behind why they work, and also to take a look at how purposeful you are in using these strategies in your classroom. For example, every teacher reviews for a test. But what if instead of reviewing for that test, you actually build in spacing so from the blast from the past, different types of review, you’re having your students retrieve once a week, you know, every so often. So many of these, as teachers, we know to do them, but the beauty of this is to find out why we should be doing them, and how to incorporate the principles so we can do them even better and so it promotes more effective learning for our students.

GONZALEZ: You know, it’s funny too, because like to use a phrase that a lot of younger people use, these strategies are not sexy. They’re not, like, the new thing, and so I think sometimes teachers who are using them might be sort of like, well, I guess I’m just going to do something boring today. We’re just going to, like, do a quick quiz and then go over the answers, and maybe if they understand, this is actually the thing that’s working really well, then they can lean on it even more and, and say, no, no, no. It’s kind of, you know, not very exciting, but this is what’s actually going to work, so I’m going to keep going with this.

BAIN: Exactly and by using these strategies and by having so many quizzes, students were no longer stressed when they got tests. Pooja did some studying about that and was able to see how the stress level of students really went down when there was frequent quizzing.

AGARWAL: Yeah, I actually, I did want to emphasize that, especially when we know that these power tools are intuitive, they’re not new, they’re actually flexible for all kinds of content and students. They improve higher-order learning. We spent half of our book going through a few other topics. So one, we have a specific chapter that we call Keeping It Real where we address hesitations about prep time and grading and content trade-offs and diverse learners. We’ve got a whole chapter on fostering a supportive environment. So how do you keep these power tools low stakes or no stakes? And one quick way we mention is something we call retrieval warm-up, so like asking you your least favorite ice cream flavor, that’s a way to get people retrieving without associating it with a high-stakes test or an exam. So we’ve got a chapter on that supportive environment. We’ve got two chapters on having conversations with students and with parents. So really helping to pass that torch to them, especially outside the classroom. And we’ve got two chapters all about professional development. We really want this to be a resource for teachers to then take it and use it in their classrooms, but in their schools and their districts, and their colleges and universities. So we provide a whole lot of resources, reflection questions and activities that teachers can use to create their own professional development.

GONZALEZ: Got it. And these strategies that you have shared today, those are just sort of the tip of the iceberg. There’s a lot of other ways that people can apply these power tools that they’ll find in the book.

AGARWAL: Absolutely.

BAIN: Yes.

GONZALEZ: So if somebody wants to dive more deeply into this, where would they go?

AGARWAL: A few places would love for people to visit. One would be You can find more information about the book, you can read more about the backstory for me and Patrice, how we met, how this book kind of evolved and came to be. We’ll have lots of resources, more information about the strategies for teachers, so that’s On you can access really great research. We’ve got more recommended books that talk about the science of learning. And I hope that listeners will subscribe for weekly updates to get more information. And we’re also on Twitter. I’m @PoojaAgarwal.

BAIN: And I am @patricebain1.

GONZALEZ: Great. And I’m going to provide links to all of what you just said over on my website too, so that if people are in their car, whatever, they can come over to Cult of Pedagogy, and they can find all of that there too. Thank you both so much for the research that you did, for writing the book in the first place, and for coming on here and talking with me about it today.

BAIN: Thank you so much, Jennifer.

AGARWAL: Thank you so much.

BAIN: Thank you.

AGARWAL: Thanks for the opportunity. It really means a lot.

For links to all the resources mentioned in this podcast, including a link to the book, Powerful Teaching, visit, click podcast, and choose episode 123. To get a weekly email from me about my newest blog posts, podcast episodes, and products, sign up for my mailing list at Thanks so much for listening, and have a great day.