Part 3 of the 4-part series on Promising Principles to Enhance Learning.
Whether you teach physics or physical education, mathematics or music, calculus or kindergarten, we want our students to do more than just perform on a single test. While tests are an essential and necessary aspect of teaching and learning, how learners perform on a test is just one part of what happens in our schools and classrooms. So, let’s use the following two questions to guide our conversation in this Corwin Connect post: Do you want your students to simply perform on a single test? Or do you want them to really learn the knowledge, skills, and understandings so that they can apply them to later learning? These questions evoke two very distinct perspectives on the role tests play in teaching and learning. The first question views tests as the end goal. If learners perform well on a single test, then we can check the box and move on. The second question views tests as a means to an end where the act of taking the test increases the acquisition, consolidation, and storage of content, skills, and understandings. This second viewpoint is where we’re headed in the subsequent paragraphs.
Unless you followed your learners from one grade-level to the next, the students entering your classroom at the start of the school year spent last year in a different classroom. What do you hope the goal of the previous year’s teacher was for his or her learners? Performing on a test or truly learning the necessary content, skills, and understandings. That’s what we thought. Our goal would be truly learning as well. Students walk into our classrooms with different interests, background knowledge, and prior experiences. Our goal, and thus our job, is to move them forward in their learning and not simply prepare them to perform on an assessment.
The learning in our schools and classrooms should be marked by the amount of growth demonstrated by each learner. Consequently, we strive to purposefully and intentionally create learning experiences that result in learning and growth. With the overwhelming collection of research, books, and articles reporting on what works, extracting information that helps us create these learning experiences can be a challenge. Often the take-away is a shiny new strategy that promises to work, not unlike a late-night infomercial for a new product that will dramatically improve your life! Yes, there are incredibly powerful strategies that have shown incredible growth in student learning. However, as Bjork and Bjork (2014) pointed out, the learning is not the result of the strategy producing long-term learning beyond performance on a test, but rather the cognitive processes which are engaged by these strategies. One of these cognitive processes is retrieval practice.
What is retrieval practice?
Retrieval practice is the act of “going and getting” declarative, procedural, and conditional knowledge from long-term memory. Once learning is acquired, encoded, and stored, the act of retrieval is the reactivation of that learning through active processing. For example, consolidation and long-term learning calls for retrieving the characteristics of reptiles, the process for finding the slope of a line, the importance of citing evidence from the text to support inferences, or the specific building codes for electrical wiring. The act of “going and getting” information is well-documented in the research as a means for increasing the consolidation and storage of learning (Bjork, 1975; Roediger & Karpicke, 2006). In fact, the body of research on retrieval practice has yielded four ideas that can enhance remembering and move our learners away from simply performing on a single test.
- Instead of repeated restudying, learners are far better off testing themselves, both early and often. Simply looking at worked problems, rereading the chapter, or flipping through flashcards, learners should generate their own problems or questions and then try to answer them. After they attempt to answer them, they should set aside time to check the accuracy of their responses.
- This does not mean that we administer more tests, but rather provide numerous opportunities for students to retrieve previously learned information from memory. Learners may not be ready, yet, to engage in self-regulated retrieval practice. We must create opportunities during instructional time that both promote retrieval practice and teach the specific strategies to our students.
- With feedback, either by seeing the answers or reviewing the information, the benefits of testing become even more powerful. That’s right! Getting the retrieval practice wrong offers us an opportunity to provide feedback and review specific gaps in student learning. This also highlights the value of mistakes in the learning process. Mistakes in retrieval practice helps us and our students devote attention to specific learning needs.
- Standardized testing is not an obstacle to retrieval practice. For multiple – choice questions, have students justify why a particular answer is correct and why other answers are incorrect. In fact, one way to integrate retrieval practice into multiple-choice tests is to provide the question without the responses. Then, have learners generate (i.e., retrieve) the response that they would be looking for in the list of choices. Finally, provide the choices so that they can verify their thinking.
Simply put, long-term retention depends on retrieval practice. However, we can easily walk away from these four ideas believing that quantity is the key message. Researchers believed the same thing and decided to study this aspect of retrieval practice. Let’s try an experiment to address this misconception.
Of the fifteen pennies in the picture below, which one is the correct image of a penny? Only one is the correct image.
How difficult was this task? You more than likely had to locate a real penny to verify your answer (which is a). However, we have all seen hundreds if not thousands of pennies in our lifetime: repetition. So clearly repetition alone is not the answer to retrieval practice, otherwise you would be able to draw a perfect penny from memory. Completing an assignment of a “gazillion” questions in a packet or reviewing a mile-high stack of flashcards is not going to enhance learning or the desire for future learning. This may help with cramming, but that is performance and not long-term learning. The harder a learner has to work to retrieve the information; the stronger the memory becomes. Quality, not quantity!
As we move forward into the new academic year, we must remember that there is a difference between performance on a test and truly acquiring, consolidating, and storing the essential knowledge, skills, and understandings of our grade-level and content areas. While there are many cognitive processes that support this aim, retrieval practice is an absolute must! When looking at how you ask learners to retrieve information, is it merely repetition or do they have to actively retrieve learning? This is the difference between cramming and long-term learning.
Bjork, R. A. (1975). Retrieval as a memory modifier: An interpretation of negative recency and
related phenomena. In Information processing and cognition: The Loyola Symposium.
Nickerson, R. S., and Adams, J. J. (1979). Long-term memory for a common object. Cognitive
Psychology, 11, 287-307.
Roediger, H. L., & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). The power of testing memory. Basic research and
implications for educational practice. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1(3),