Retrieval Practice


It’s autumn again and you’ll often find me spending my weekends unwinding from a week in the classroom by going for long walks in the forest with my dog. Over the years I have taught him a number of tricks. Some took longer to learn than others. It took a concerted effort on both our parts before he mastered the adorable ‘high five’ but fetch is a game he learned very quickly and he delights in bringing back a ball or stick for me to throw again. It has become part of our weekend routine and a morning walk is not complete without a quick game of fetch. This is not dissimilar to how I work with my students during the week – though they are not quite as effusive in showing delight when I play fetch with them.

I almost always start my lessons with a recap activity where I randomly call on students to answer questions and share what they remember from the previous lesson. I’m sure I’m not unique in this respect and that many teachers recap material from the previous lesson as way of a warm up at the start of classes but it is empowering to know that there is compelling evidence from research which supports this approach. This is not just a filler activity. We are not simply asking students to recall the content from our previous lesson because we have forgotten (which, lets face it, in a hectic week can and does happen!). Beginning a lesson with a review of previous work is strongly recommended.

This week I have been reading the excellent What Does This Look Like in the Classroom? by Carl Hendrick and Robin Macpherson which is full of practical, evidence-based advice for teachers. A number of researchers and experts from the world of education have contributed to the book and their ideas are presented in an easily accessible style which will be appreciated by its target audience of busy classroom teachers.

Retrieval practice

In a section on memory, cognitive scientist, Yana Weinstein recommends the practice of beginning lessons with a starter quiz, as students who regularly need to remember information will soon become accustomed to keeping this information fresh between classes. Professor Paul Kirschner goes on to explain that retrieval practice strengthens the trace of memory and in turn recall skills. This then frees up space in working memory so students can process and learn more. The capacity of working memory is limited and we can easily overload it (see cognitive load theory) which leads to confused students. By training our students to play fetch with the information from previous lessons, we are lightening their load when it comes to working with more complex material as well as increasing their ownership of their own learning.

Retrieval practice is one of the six strategies for effective learning identified by Weinstein and supported by evidence from cognitive psychology. The Learning Scientists website offers many practical tips on how to work with each of these and is a brilliant resource. You may already be employing some or all of these strategies in your teaching but it is reaffirming to know that these methods are supported by the research.

Being a classroom teacher can feel like a lonely experience at times, our rooms hermetically sealed at the start of our lessons however we are not alone. We can have Yana Weinstein and Paul Kirschner in our classroom supporting us too if we avail ourselves of their sage advice.

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