Updated: Nov 20, 2021
One common rebuttal of retrieval practice and quizzing is that it doesn't promote real understanding of the content that is being memorised - it is seen by some as rote learning of information that the learner will then find difficult to actually understand with any depth.
But retrieval practice is not about regurgitating facts without any understanding of meaning or context. In fact, retrieval practice should be seen more as a learning strategy - one which does more than just enabling children to recall facts and figures. Dr. Pooja K. Agarwal's Retrieval Practice website outlines the additional benefits of retrieval practice:
"By using retrieval practice as a learning strategy (not an assessment tool!), we exercise and strengthen our memory. Research demonstrates that this improvement in memory and long-term learning is flexible, which:
• Improves students’ complex thinking and application skills• Improves students’ organization of knowledge• Improves students’ transfer of knowledge to new concepts
In other words, retrieval practice doesn’t just lead to memorization – it increases understanding. Because students have a better understanding of classroom material by having practiced using this information, students can adapt their knowledge to new situations, novel questions, and related contexts. You can use a variety of question types (fact-based, conceptual, complex or higher order, etc.) to ensure that students are not memorizing, but using information flexibly."
The Deans For Impact guidance 'The Science Of Learning' outlines how this happens:
"Each subject area has some set of facts that, if committed to long-term memory, aids problem-solving by freeing working memory resources and illuminating contexts in which existing knowledge and skills can be applied. The size and content of this set varies by subject matter."
By memorising certain facts and pieces of information our minds are freed up to think more deeply - we can use this extra capacity to think about how what we already know (background/prior knowledge) can be applied to a new problem or situation.
Once this is accepted, some teachers still have a hard time accepting quizzing (which works on the basis of the testing effect) as an acceptable vehicle for retrieval practice, particularly for younger children. Although quizzing is supposed to be low stakes there are those whose concern is that it is too formal and not engaging enough for primary-aged children. Many would testify against this way of thinking citing experiences of children who love taking the quizzes. Nevertheless, perhaps there would be nothing wrong with exploring some alternative methods to quizzing so as to provide a wider range of situations that a child might be required to recall the information they have learned.
Before we look at some alternatives to quizzing (no-quiz retrieval practice techniques), here are some principles that should be followed when engaging in retrieval practice:
Make it challenging - ensure that it incorporates desirable difficulties ("certain training conditions that are difficult and appear to impede performance during training but that yield greater long-term benefits than their easier training counterparts" - https://bjorklab.psych.ucla.edu/research/#idd).
No grading - any form of grading, such as the teacher collecting in scores, will begin to make the activities feel like they are high stakes which has the potential to make students feel anxious which isn't conducive to remembering.
Mistakes are learning's friend - students will learn from their mistakes (as long as feedback is given which highlights their mistakes) and when asked to complete another retrieval practice exercise will be more likely to remember something they previously had got wrong.
Feedback must be given - see above; students won't know what they have got wrong or have missed out if feedback is not provided either by a teacher or a fellow student.
So, although quizzing is one popular (and easy) way of ensuring that facts are remembered and recalled, here are some other ways to prompt retrieval of information from the long-term memory. All of these activities could be done by individuals, in pairs or in groups:
Also known as 'brain dump', 'show me what you know' or 'stop and jot', free recall is a learning activity which simply requires students to write down everything they can remember. Giving a specific prompt will make it clear what you expect and imposing a time limit will bring a bit of challenge. Alternatively a given number of points might be required. For more see: https://www.retrievalpractice.org/archive/2017/free-recall
Linked to this is 'Inkshedding': students free-write about a particular topic and then share their writing with other students. Other students might then provide feedback (written or verbal) or continue the writing to form a dialogue.
Megan Smith, in Assessment as Learning: The Role of Retrieval Practice in the Classroom, an Impact journal article, warns that 'for some students, writing out everything they know on a blank sheet of paper may be a daunting task that does not lead to much successful retrieval. To increase success, teachers can implement scaffolded retrieval tasks (read more about them in the article)... With scaffolding, the students can successfully produce the information and work their way up to recalling the information on their own.'
For more information on scaffolding retrieval practice for primary-aged children, see Megan Smith's How to Create Retrieval Practice Activities for Elementary Studentsarticle on the Learning Scientists website.
Instead of asking students to take notes whilst reading, watching or listening, ask them to write down what they remember once they have finished the activity. For more see: https://www.retrievalpractice.org/archive/2018/5/11/retrieve-taking
Think Pair Share
Think Pair Share is a fairly common technique but it can be adapted to ensure that principles of cognitive science are applied: "Have students write down their response, switch papers to add to another student's paper, and then discuss. Students will have a richer discussion after receiving feedback in writing from another student first." The Retrieval Practice website goes on to outline how spacing and interleaving can be used in Think Pair Share. For more see: https://www.retrievalpractice.org/archive/2018/think-pair-share
During a lesson, stop and ask students two write down two things based on a specific response. Students then pass their paper to another student who adds one more thing to the paper and passes it back. Alternatively, students can share their two things with a partner or a group in order to gain feedback. Examples of prompts/questions given on the Retrieval Practice website include:"What are two things you learned so far today? What are two things you learned yesterday (or last week)? What are your two takeaways from today? What are two things you'd like to learn more about? What are two ways today's topic relates to previous topics?"
Last Lesson, Last Week, Last Month (or Can You Still?)
This is simply a case of asking students questions about previous learning; it builds on the concept of spaced practice. Questions can be asked verbally with verbal answers required; the questions and answers could also be recorded in writing. If the activity is a written one, a cloze procedure, multiple choice answers or true/false statements could be provided instead of requiring a written answer. For more see: https://theeffortfuleducator.com/2017/12/10/less-is-more/ and https://themillpedagogy.wordpress.com/2018/05/04/interrupting-the-forgetting-last-lesson-last-week-last-month/
With an activity like this it is easy to see how knowledge might be used flexibly once it has been remembered. Students are provided with statements, facts, figures and so on, and they are asked to sort them into categories (provided by the teacher). The sorted items can then be checked against a book or with other students. They can also then be used to help form a short written summary of each category. For more see: https://theeffortfuleducator.com/2017/12/10/less-is-more/
Similar to Sorting, Linking could utilise loop cards, dominoes or Tarsia puzzles to make connections between pieces of information. This could take the more simple form of questions and answers which match up, or facts and figures which are somehow linked.
Stories, Songs, Rhymes and Mnemonics
Well-written stories (read this interesting article about presenting information in stories), songs, rhymes and mnemonics might be memorised and recalled. Although there are plenty of these already out there for a range of subjects, quality is often an issue so they should be chosen with care. These could be recalled verbally or in writing, including as a cloze procedure.
For more on using Mnemonics, read my blog post 'Using Mnemonics for Retrieval Practice'.
Similarly, students could be asked to write their own using pre-learned information, although some caution should be exercised here as additional skills will be required - this is not as straightforward as a free recall task (although it could follow a free recall task as well as additional teaching on how to write stories, songs, rhymes or mnemonics).
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