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3 ways to help students access their knowledge

Here's how teachers can focus on the third step of the learning equation

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, 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Agarwal and Bain urged attendees to incorporate some form of retrieval into their lessons every day. In addition, they suggested two more practices that in combination with retrieval can lead to increased learning. First, they advocated for spacing. Instead of teaching topics as one and done, teachers should call back to previous lessons throughout the year. This can reinforce the knowledge transfer to long-term memory. Second, they highlighted interleaving, which is mixing different subjects or topics with similar topics within lessons. The goal is to have students make connections across the subject and across the curriculum.

When teachers begin using retrieval, they should start small. For instance, rather than asking about the previous day’s lessons, teachers can ask students what they had for breakfast yesterday. The low stakes will get students used to the practice before the teacher starts prompting them to recall their lessons. Low stakes don’t mean that teachers shouldn’t check on the students’ work or offer guidance.

“Based on research, the most beneficial feedback for students when it comes to learning is elaborative feedback. So, providing explanations can be really beneficial, but any feedback is better than no feedback,” said Agarwal. “And actually, any retrieval practice even without feedback boosts learning. We often worry about students making errors. And that’s okay. Errors can be a good thing for learning.”

About the Presenters
Pooja K. Agarwal, Ph.D., is an expert in the field of cognitive science, passionate about bridging gaps between education and the science of learning. She has conducted research on learning in K-12 public schools for more than 15 years. As a cognitive scientist and founder of, Agarwal’s research has been published in leading peer-reviewed psychology journals; featured in The New York Times, Education Week, and Scientific American; and highlighted in numerous books and podcasts. She is an assistant professor at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, teaching psychological science to exceptional undergraduate musicians, and an adjunct professor at Vanderbilt University, leading graduate-level courses for leaders in education. For more information, visit and follow her on Twitter @poojaagarwal and @retrievelearn.

Patrice M. Bain, Ed.S., is passionate about student success using research-based strategies. As a veteran K-12 teacher, Bain recently completed more than 25 years teaching social studies at a middle school in Illinois. She is the only teacher-author of the popular practice guide, Organizing Instruction and Study to Improve Student Learning, commissioned by the Institute of Education Sciences. Patrice’s teaching approaches have been featured on TV (PBS’s NOVA), radio (NPR), in popular press, and in multiple books. She frequently presents professional development workshops and webinars throughout the United States. She has taught education courses at the graduate level, and she was a finalist for Illinois Teacher of the Year and a Fulbright Scholar in Russia. You can follow her on Twitter @patricebain1.

Alison R. Shell is a research fellow on the Learner Variability Project team at Digital Promise. Her work focuses on digging up evidence to support the factors that underlie learner success. She also is currently finishing her Ph.D. in cognitive psychology at the University of Maryland, with a focus on the cognitive processes that underlie language. Prior to moving to Washington D.C., she was involved in research projects in the Boston area, including investigating the biological underpinnings of autism and working to develop more linguistically sound reading assessments for young-adult readers. She received her M.S. in psychology from the University of Maryland and her B.A. in cognitive science from Vassar College.

About the Host
Barbara Pape is the communications director for the Learner Variability Project at Digital Promise Global. She has 20 years of experience in strategic communications, writing, and policy analysis, primarily in education. Previously, she served as executive producer of the award-winning Teaching & Learning conference, sponsored by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, where she developed content and oversaw outreach and communications. As a writer, she has written for numerous publications, including Harvard University, the National Education Goals Panel (U.S. Department of Education), and Parents magazine. Pape also served as editor and publisher of the first electronically delivered education newsletter, the Daily Report Card. She earned an EdM at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education and launched her career as a middle school language arts teacher.

Join the Community
Personalized Learning for All is a free professional learning community on that brings together researchers, educators, entrepreneurs and product developers to share the latest research findings, best practices, and success stories that are shaping the development of research-based programs and products to address the growth of learning variability in today’s schools.

This edWeb broadcast was sponsored by Digital Promise. The recording of the edWebinar can be viewed by anyone here.

[Editor’s note: This piece is original content produced by View more events here.]

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