Listen to my interview with Pooja Agarwal (transcript):
We’ve talked about retrieval practice two other times on this site: First in 2015, when we read the book Make it Stick. Then in 2016, I interviewed cognitive psychologists Megan Smith and Yana Weinstein about the Six Powerful Learning Strategies You Must Share with Students.
In both cases, I noticed that although we were discussing collections of techniques, retrieval practice was at the core of both groups. Because it’s such a powerful technique, I would think that by now it would have really taken off, that I’d hear teachers talking about it and see the term crop up in lots of education spaces, but I don’t see that happening.
So I wanted to give it one more push by carving out a designated spot for it here. My goal is to help retrieval practice become a regular part of classroom practice and part of our common vocabulary as teachers. To help with this cause, I interviewed Pooja Agarwal, Ph.D., cognitive scientist and founder of RetrievalPractice.org.
What is Retrieval Practice?
Retrieval practice is the act of trying to recall information without having it in front of you. Suppose you’re studying the systems of the human body—skeletal, muscular, circulatory, and so on. You could do retrieval practice by attempting to name those systems without looking at the list. Once you’ve listed all you can remember, you’d open up your book or notes and check to see if you got them right.
You might be thinking, This is nothing new. The whole concept of flashcards is built on retrieval practice, and flashcards have been around forever, right?
What’s new is the research: In recent years, cognitive psychologists have been comparing retrieval practice with other methods of studying—strategies like review lectures, study guides, and re-reading texts. And what they’re finding is that nothing cements long-term learning as powerfully as retrieval practice.
Agarwal and her colleagues studied the effects of retrieval practice with students in a middle school social studies course (McDaniel, Agarwal, Huelser, McDermott, & Roediger, 2011). Over the course of a year and a half, while the teacher continued teaching as normal, students were regularly quizzed on the material with no-stakes quizzes, meaning they wouldn’t count against their grades. These quizzes only covered about one-third of what was being taught. The teacher left the room for every quiz, so she had no knowledge of what was included in the quizzes.
On end-of-unit exams, students scored a full grade level higher on the material from the quizzes than on any of the other material. The other concepts had been taught and reviewed by the teacher as they normally would; the only difference was that some things also appeared on the no-stakes quizzes, and those were the concepts students retained more fully when tested on the exam.
The very act of being quizzed actually helped students learn better.
Here’s what this means for teachers: When we teach something once, then want to do something else to help students learn it better, instead of just reviewing the content, we’re much better off giving something like a quiz instead. In other words, if we do more asking students to pull concepts out of their brains, rather than continually trying to put concepts in, students will actually learn those concepts better.
To read about other studies on retrieval practice, click here. For now, let’s look at some ways you can incorporate retrieval practice into your instruction.
Ways to Use Retrieval Practice in the Classroom
This quick, low-maintenance strategy can be used at any time to have students recall information, then share it with a partner. You can use think-pair-shares with single-answer questions, or make them more open-ended, like “Think of one thing you learned yesterday about cells.” Be sure to have students think on their own before turning to a partner. “It’s important for students to retrieve individually as much as possible,” Agarwal advises. “If you jump right into pairs, then we all know as educators that some students are retrieving and some may not be.” One way to make sure all students retrieve is to have them jot responses down on paper before sharing them with a partner.
These can be given on paper, in a Google Form, with an individual response system like clickers, Plickers, or Poll Everywhere; or by using a game like Kahoot or Quizziz. It’s important to note that these quizzes are a learning strategy: Ideally, students wouldn’t get scores on them at all, but if you must give some points, make them an almost negligible part of students’ overall class grade.
Have students get out a sheet of paper and, within a certain length of time, write down everything they know about a topic of study. This can be done at the beginning of a unit (similar to how you’d use a K-W-L Chart), partway through as a way to reinforce learning, or near the end of a unit. Once students have completed theirs, they can exchange them in a think-pair-share or use them to compile a whole-class brain dump. Then they can return to their texts to see what they missed or what needs correction.
These can be a powerful retrieval tool in class or at home, but students need to be taught to use them correctly:
- Once a card has been mastered, keep it in the deck a while.
Research has shown that students tend to “drop” cards out of their decks too soon after they have mastered them (Karpicke, 2009). Ideally, a fact should be successfully retrieved three times before a student moves on from it.
- Actually retrieve.
Karpicke’s research also found that when students see a familiar prompt on a flashcard, they have a tendency to tell themselves they know it, then flip it over to see the answer, rather than taking a few extra seconds to actually recall the answer—and ideally, say it out loud—before flipping the card over. The difference in timing is subtle, but important: Students will not get the same benefits from flashcards unless they actually retrieve the answer before seeing it.
- Shuffle the deck.
Keeping the cards in the same order makes them predictable. Once a deck has been gone through a few times, it should be shuffled to make it more challenging.
- For more tips, take a look at College Info Geek’s excellent post on effectively using flashcards.
Tips and Cautions
Retrieval practice is not the same thing as assessment.
Although some retrieval activities might allow you to formatively assess student understanding, remember that retrieval practice is a learning activity. Again, if you must assign points for practices, make sure they will have a very low impact on student grades.
Space your practice.
Retrieval practice is even more effective if it’s done in short bursts over time, rather than in a single long session. This spacing causes students to forget some of the material, and the struggle involved in trying to recall it strengthens their long-term learning.
If students retrieve the wrong information, the practice won’t be much good unless they find out the right information, so be sure to give them feedback as they go. This can be as simple as providing the correct answer or letting students check their texts after they have attempted to retrieve. “Part of that isn’t just so students know if they got their answer correct or incorrect,” Agarwal says, “but it adjusts students’ metacognition,” helping them get “better at estimating or judging what they know and what they don’t know.”
Match your practice to your assessment.
If your summative assessment for a chunk of content will be basic recall of facts, then the retrieval practice can be that simple. But it you’re going to include some higher-order questions as well, then be sure to ask those same types of questions in retrieval practice.
Does it Fit with Inquiry Learning?
If your classroom is built around more hands-on, inquiry-driven approaches to learning that don’t prioritize retaining specific content—structures like Genius Hour and project-based learning—you might wonder whether retrieval practice is relevant to your teaching.
Consider this: Within any of those frameworks, students still have to learn and retain discrete information. Take, for example, a student who has decided to learn Arabic as his focus for Genius Hour, or students who are studying soil pH as part of a gardening project. Both students will need to study and remember concrete information in order to make progress, so even if your instruction isn’t set up in a traditional way, understanding how retrieval practice works can help you help your students learn better.
A Little Goes a Long Way
Agarwal’s final piece of advice is to start small. “If a student just writes down two things or one thing they learned, and then you move on, that’s okay,” she says. “You’ll still get benefits of retrieval without spending five minutes in a classroom discussion.”
It can be a bell-ringer. An exit slip. A sponge activity. Something you do while students stand in line for lunch. Don’t overthink it. Agarwal advises teachers to ask themselves this: “What is one way we can flip from reviewing information to students retrieving information? What can we do tomorrow?”
What will you do tomorrow? ♦
Dr. Agarwal and her colleagues have put together this comprehensive guide to using retrieval practice. Visit RetrievalPractice.org/download to get a free copy for yourself.
Karpicke, J. D. (2009). Metacognitive control and strategy selection: deciding to practice retrieval during learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 138(4), 469.
McDaniel, M. A., Agarwal, P. K., Huelser, B. J., McDermott, K. B., & Roediger III, H. L. (2011). Test-enhanced learning in a middle school science classroom: The effects of quiz frequency and placement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 103(2), 399.