RETRIEVAL PRACTICE IS WORKING
There existed a minor irony with the proliferation and exhortation of retrieval practice by research advocates as an effective teaching strategy, based on cognitive science research: its educational veracity couldn’t be validated, as there wasn’t enough school based evidence to back it up. But with the surge towards exam-based courses gripping schools and FE also, the need for students to improve their retention and recall of knowledge has perhaps never been more pertinent, and so I decided to invest into the strategy.
I read some of the cognitive science behind it to get my head around it, and then reread it because I hadn’t got my head around it, until it finally made sense. The personal CPD was incredibly interesting; with the information about retrieval practice inextricably linked to interleaving and spaced retrieval practices, which when incorporated in combination into a program of study, promised to triple the power of the process.
Students forget stuff. After reviewing the science, it makes sense why. It basically comes down to survival: our brains discard or put to the back of the mind items that aren’t needed in the present, to make space for items that are needed. The implication from this unabashed dumbing down of the science is that unless we retrieve information from our long-term memories reasonably often, it becomes harder to recall it when required. A student needing to retrieve content some 6 or 9 months or even 2 years after it being taught is going to have serious issues unless they have reviewed the content along the way.
It’s also important to bear in mind that students will have more then just your course to contend with. Students have multiple pressures on their plate, and the various technical terms and specific subject requirements they have to grapple with, very much validates the need to help students with their memories of content as much as possible.
There are many ways to engage the process of retrieval, but I prefer the simple quiz, delivered at the beginning of each lesson.
The process is simple. In the first 10 minutes of every lesson, I give my students a 6-10 question quiz based mostly on content from the previous lesson, but with a few questions from lessons further back in the sequence, sometimes from months ago. Every fortnight (6th lesson), I give them a longer quiz (25 minutes), based more on older content. The questions are focused on key things from the lessons, including key ideas and concepts, quotes (being an English teacher), or vocabulary and technical language. After the questions are asked, usually verbally, students self correct as the answers are discussed via some very active questioning, normally with me getting a few other quick questions in there too. Students correct in a different coloured pen, which makes it easy for them to see if mistakes are evident. This is a practice I magpied from Blake Harvard and Lynsey Penwill, and it serves as an excellent diagnostic for students in their revision.
The results of doing this now for some 4 months are fantastic. My students are recalling content with ease, and they readily engage with the low-stakes aspect of this type of assessment. They can easily see what they don’t know, and because I have been focusing on their metacognitive processes by telling them that the content in the quizzes is key information from the course, they are developing stronger revision practice. In short, retrieval practice is working.
In fact, the results I’m getting out of the process have swayed my opinion on whether a course characterised by controlled assessment is better than an exam-based course. I now prefer the exam-based system because my students are gaining so much more knowledge and understanding of the key aspects of what I teach. It’s a joy to be able to ask students about something we covered months ago and not get the usual ‘I don’t know’, or ‘can’t remember’. Instead, students confidence has risen as they are able to recall content at will, which ultimately allows them to keep linking what they are learning with previous learning, giving them a more holistic vision of the course, a view that we as teachers have. I can confidently say that: by the time the course ends, my learners will be better learners; they will know how to master content for the rest of their lives; they are more likely to pass and gain their desired qualifications because of retrieval practice.
LESS IS MORE
The usual question I’m asked about the quiz strategy is ’How can you cover the prescribed content if you spend so long going back over previous content?’ My answer is quick: come exam time, if you haven’t gone back over previous content, the students will simply be relying on short term memories to succeed, and because short term memory has a limited capacity, the chances of success are reduced. You are better teaching less content but with depth (incorporating retrieval into a scheme of work) than ploughing through until exams, in the hope students can cram like crazy for multiple subjects. I now know which option I will always go with.
TIME TO ACT
Learning about a more strategic approach to recalling content is no longer an end of term CPD day option, a session you may casually glance at and ignore because you are sure that your students know how to revise. Learning about retrieving content is a modern teacher necessity.
Thanks for reading