Learning seems like a simple process. The information goes in (encoding), the learner attempts to commit information to memory (storage), and then the learner tries to recall the lesson (access). Even though the ability to recall and apply the knowledge is critical, teachers spend the majority of class time focused on getting the information in. During the edWebinar “Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning,” Pooja K. Agarwal, Ph.D., cognitive scientist and founder of RetrievalPractice.org, and Patrice M. Bain, Ed.S., educational specialist, veteran teacher, and author, discussed their research into the benefits of retrieval practice and emphasizing the third step of the learning equation. When educators help students learn how to access their knowledge in low-stakes environments, the presenters said, they help students improve their long-term educational recall and performance.
Based on years of research, retrieval practice reverses the typical classroom dynamic. Instead of cramming information in, students learn how to access and pull it out. While this is what a traditional assessment does—asks students to retrieve what they are supposed to have learned—retrieval practice is more frequent and lower stakes. It can be as simple as the teacher asking the class to write down three things they learned the day before or to draw one parallel between a previous lesson and the next one. The idea is that by asking students to consistently access information, the odds increase that they will transfer the knowledge to their long-term memory.
3 strategies to enhance retrieval
Although the idea behind retrieval practice isn’t complicated, educators often ask Agarwal and Bain how to begin incorporating the method in their classroom. The presenters recommended three basic strategies.
- Two things: Ask students to write down two things they learned, either from the previous day or from a current lesson. This gets the students’ brains into the habit of frequent recall, and instead of the teacher telling the students what to remember, the students do it on their own.
- Retrieve-taking: Also known as closed-book note taking, this exercise asks students to focus on the lesson without taking any notes. The teacher then pauses periodically to allow students to write down what they remember. Here, the goal is to have students really listen to the teacher and pay attention to classroom discussions and not have their head down in a notebook.
- Free recall: This is a brain dump. Students take out their notebook and write down everything they’ve learned on a topic. They can also be asked to analyze material compared to a previous topic. The idea is not to guide the students but to encourage them to recall the lessons as they remember them.