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Lesson Plans 02: Retrieval Practice and Learning To Play Fetch

Don’t rely on that highlighter!

One of the most common study strategies is to re-read content (either from our notes or from printed text materials) and highlight relevant passages. The purpose is to go back later on and re-read those highlighted passages with the intention of planting them in our memory. This activity is a learning process called massed practice; the primary idea being that if we go back and re-read something often enough it will stick with us. However, cognitive psychologists have found that this is actually a poor study strategy and there are far more effective ways to learn and remember content.

One of the problems with massed practice is that students continually re-read content and that increases their confidence that they “know” the content and can recall it later on a test. Unfortunately, that confidence often doesn’t match up with their eventual performance. It turns out that there are far more effective study methods and one of the most powerful and effective study strategies is called retrieval practice.

Retrieval practice is essentially any activity where you are attempting to retrieve information from memory without having it in front of you. Think of it as learning activities where the primary goal is to pull information out instead of cramming it in. The most obvious example of retrieval practice is a quiz or test where you have to produce information that is not directly in front of you. Too often instructors limit quiz or testing activities to assessing learning at the end of a lesson and don’t use quizzes or other retrieval practice activities as a learning strategy throughout the lesson process. Another advantage of using retrieval practice activities like quizzing throughout the learning activities is that it can help decrease test anxiety when it comes time for more formal assessments at the end of the learning module.

Here are some other things we have learned about making retrieval practice most effective. Retrieval is most effective when it is repeated frequently and spaced out over a longer period. Whenever possible, create multiple learning activities that require some form of retrieval, but don’t bunch them all at once in your curriculum plan. Spread them out so that the retrieval is reinforced over time and that will help students get much more out of the retrieval activities.

Students may initially express less confidence in their learning process with various retrieval activities because they seem “harder.” But, the reality is they are actually doing a better job of encoding the information for later recall. Retrieval practice works by the “learning struggle.” That struggle does a much more thorough job of encoding the information or knowledge into memory. The struggle to recall is one of the things that strengthens the retrieval process.

Also, the more effort that is required (within reason) the greater is the retention. For example, having to do a retrieval activity like a short answer or essay question requires more effort than answering a multiple choice question where some degree of recognition is likely to play a part.

There have been numerous recent discussions in some of the social media forums about the MBLEX and its difficulty. Both students and educators have raised questions about whether certain content on the exam had been covered in class. One challenge may be that there is too much content being covered in the program without sufficient activities to solidify the learning. Attempting to cover so much content can easily lead to forgetting because of cognitive overload. This content overload may be one of the reasons students feel information on the test was not covered in class. If there were more active retrieval strategies used on a regular basis it might really strengthen what they remember. As teachers we must remember that just because we said something (covered it) in class, doesn’t mean we really created an environment for the students to solidify that learning over the long haul.

Retrieval practice activities are a powerful learning strategy and there is also evidence that retrieval practice strengthens critical thinking skills. We continually hear about the need for greater critical thinking skills with our students, so various retrieval practice strategies could certainly help in that process.

There is also evidence that giving feedback in retrieval activities strengthens retention even more. Whenever possible include feedback on your retrieval activities instead of just simple responses like a blank score with no input about what was incorrect or inaccurate. There are all kinds of retrieval activities that we can include in our classes and in future articles we’ll explore a number of common retrieval activities that could enhance what you are currently doing in the classroom.

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