Retrieval practice and spaced learning are not new concepts and most good teachers naturally use them in their everyday delivery. However, becoming aware that they are ‘a thing’ and how they can be successfully combined raises awareness of their use and of their effectiveness.
Every day, we as teachers, drum information into students heads as best we can. And we employ a range of effective techniques to do so. Retrieval practice, however, focuses on getting information back out again. The detail is likely in there, but can we recall it? When we do, does it ‘click’ and make sense?
Ask questions of your students constantly. Teach them to question everything. Why is that? How does that work? What does this have to do with that? This encourages them to make connections to answer higher order questions, and consequently those with a higher mark value.
Much of this is already built into good teaching. Exit tickets, for example, encourage students to think about and reflect on what they have learned that lesson. Mind maps help to draw out information and summarise things whilst making connections. They also use the principle of dual coding.
Ask questions that don’t simply require recall. They need to require recall and then application. Teaching that “Frogs are green” and then asking, “What colour are frogs?” – “Green”, is only effective up to a point. Asking, “Why are frogs commonly green?” is better. This involves recall and then making some connection with another part of the learning or their general knowledge. It begs application and increases the level of thought and challenge. Challenge is a good thing. Variety is better still. Give students the necessary information to answer higher order questions then elicit understanding from them by asking them to make connections, and to ask why of everything.
Making this a low stakes, or no stakes exercise, often by removing any mark allocation or reducing the level of embarrassment for a wrong answer helps enormously. However, when using retrieval practice to revise for a test or exam, creating an environment as close to the test conditions as possible decreases anxiety over exams as students become used to the type and style of questioning.
Revising little and often is more effective than cramming. No surprise there. But… combine this with retrieval practice by asking questions that link back to concepts covered at earlier points in the course creates a very effective method of learning and, crucially, remembering! The human brain is amazing and absorbs a lot more than we appreciate at the time. We forget it quickly again but when re-learned or revised, it comes back more quickly and takes longer to disappear again.
The forgetting curve shows us how quickly we forget new information and the effect that spaced learning has on bringing that knowledge back to the forefront of our minds. Repeated retrieval over time, flattens the forgetting curve and increases retention.
The most successful revision techniques are based on a little reading and learning, followed regular testing, testing, testing. (Not, lots of learning, followed by a test.) Retrieval practice is, however, a learning strategy, not a testing tool. It is primarily assessment for learning rather than assessment of learning.