As a mathematics teacher, I have often had students tell me, “Professor, it always seems so easy when you are explaining it, but when I get to the quiz/test, I just can’t do it.” As I learn more about the cognitive science behind learning and retention, I have come to understand the pain, but also the potential, behind such a statement. We know that when students can understand and temporarily remember something, they believe they have “learned it.” However, until they attempt to retrieve that information or apply that concept, they do not realize that it “didn’t stick.”
In Planning Education for Long-Term Retention , Dr. Doug Larsen states “tests are typically thought of as measurement devices to evaluate the extent of learning without necessarily changing the memory of that knowledge. However, extensive research has emerged that retrieval of information (whether in tests or through other experiences) actually leads to more enduring memory for the material when compared with restudying. This phenomenon is referred to as the direct testing effect. The act of retrieving information to improve long-term retention is known as retrieval practice.”
You are almost certainly already using retrieval practice in some form-you ask questions, you give quizzes and tests, even homework assignments, as ways for your students to retrieve the information you hope they have learned. But how can you implement retrieval practice most effectively as a learning strategy in your classroom?
From Dr. Pooja Agarwal, cognitive scientist at Washington University in St. Louis: “First, use retrieval practice to engage all students, not just one student being called on. Second, keep in mind that retrieval practice should be used as a learning strategy, not an assessment opportunity. Third, always provide feedback.”
Some suggestions for retrieval practice:
- Use individual response systems, ranging from high tech clickers or cellphone based quizzing platforms to something as simple as colored index cards or mini white boards-even true-false and multiple choice questions can provide valuable retrieval practice.
- Give warm-ups or exit tickets, where you invite students to write a “one-minute paper” on what they learned in class (last time or today)-but don’t forget to give feedback to support metacognition.
- Ensure that the cognitive level of the content you want students to retain is matched in the retrieval practice. For example, using a flash card review of biology terms will not likely support long term retention of the understanding of biological processes in anatomy. Instead, provide the name of a specific process to half of the class and have them explain that process to a partner until they can identify the process themselves.
Finally, beyond that of increased learning, retrieval practice provides a collateral benefit for many students-research has shown that test anxiety was reduced for 72% of students in classrooms where this practice was implemented! Douglas P. Larsen, MD, Med. Planning Education for Long-Term Retention: The Cognitive Science and Implementation of Retrieval Practice. Seminars in Neurology, 2018; 04: 449-456.  Pooja K. Agarwal, Ph.D., Henry L. Roediger, III, Ph.D., Mark A. McDaniel, Ph.D., Kathleen B. McDermott, Ph.D.. How to Use Retrieval Practice to Improve Learning. Available at https://www.retrievalpractice.org/.