Retrieval Practice: The What, Why, and How for Classroom Instruction

Posted November 8, 2017

By Pooja K. Agarwal, Ph.D.

@PoojaAgarwal@RetrieveLearn

How do students learn? As psychologists, we are likely familiar with research from cognitive psychology. As instructors, we may (or may not) use some of the basic principles from cognitive psychology in our classrooms. I’d like to present a little research on a key principle, retrieval practice, and focus on how we can apply it in our classrooms without requiring more prep, grading, or classroom time.

First, what is retrieval practice? Simply put, it’s the process of remembering and “pulling” information forward in our minds. For example, what did you do last weekend? What did you eat for breakfast yesterday? How old was King Tut when he died? These are all examples of retrieval – merely remembering something from the past and bringing it to mind.

Retrieval is a robust, reliable, and straightforward principle derived from decades of research by cognitive psychologists. The “practice” in retrieval practice is engaging in retrieval multiple times, particularly in the context of learning. When students frequently retrieve what they know – compared to re-reading a textbook chapter, for instance – long-term learning and retention of information improves. In a landmark study from 2006, my colleagues Roddy Roediger and Jeff Karpicke examined re-reading vs. retrieval practice in a laboratory experiment. College students either repeatedly read a brief passage or they read a passage once which was followed by a few periods of free recall (i.e., writing down everything they could remember from the passage). After 5 minutes, the re-reading condition resulted in greater final test performance. This result seems pretty intuitive, similar to cramming before right before an exam and performing well. After 7 days, however, the retrieval practice condition far outpaced the re-reading condition, by nearly a 20% difference in performance. More recent studies in classroom settings – including middle school, high school, and even medical schools – also demonstrate large effect sizes for long-term learning following retrieval practice.

A student sits with an open book in her lap and a set of highlight markers close by.
Left to their own devices, students most commonly pick study methods that are ineffective like highlighting and re-reading. Instructors can better prepare students for success by introducing methods of retrieval practice as alternatives. [Image: Public Domain]

Based on this wealth of research, including research I’ve conducted in lab and classroom settings, I practice what I preach. I incorporate retrieval practice in all my classrooms as frequently as possible. There’s a lot of research I could discuss, but you can read about that here. Instead, I’d like to focus on how I use retrieval practice in my Introductory Psychology course, as well as strategies for using it in your classroom.

One of my central methods for incorporating retrieval practice is in the form of brief low-stakes quizzes at the beginning of each week. Students walk in, pick up a piece of paper, and write for approximately 20 minutes. The room is quiet during students’ writing, which is a nice break from the hustle and bustle during everyone’s day. My retrieval practices are all short answer and comprised of 3-5 questions. Questions ask about the reading for the week; students are also informed that any course content throughout the semester is “fair game,” in line with research on the benefits of spaced practice.

Once students have had the opportunity to retrieve and think individually on paper, I follow the retrieval practices with paired, small group, and/or class discussion. My retrieval practice questions intentionally provide a springboard for class discussion about past or upcoming topics, a valuable opportunity to provide feedback and clarify student misunderstandings. Here are some examples of my questions:

  • Describe one of the 10 psychology myths we learned about last week.
  • Are all humans scientists? Why or why not?
  • What is one thing you learned from your book reading this week? Be specific.
  • How would a scientist conduct an experiment to see which type of shoe, Nike or Adidas, makes people jump higher?
  • Give two examples of stereotype threat from your own life.

I engage students in retrieval from day 1 (I ask students to respond to the question, “What is psychology?”). On day 2, I ask students, “Write down two things you remember about the syllabus from yesterday.” For this prompt, I have students go around the room individually and share one (of the two) things they remembered. In this way, students are retrieving and reviewing the syllabus, rather than me reiterating it for absent (or inattentive) students.

Several students work independently in class on a writing prompt.
Planning opportunities for low-stakes retrieval practice at the start of class periods provide students with an added incentive to attend and be ready. [Image: CAFNR, https://goo.gl/hBubdE, CC BY-NC 2.0, https://goo.gl/HYuxAW]
In terms of logistics, by administering my retrieval practices at the beginning of class, students have an incentive to arrive on time. I don’t allow make-up retrieval practices, and if students arrive to class but after the other students have finished, they’re out of luck. The retrieval practices only comprise 2.5% of students’ grades, but I find that this small incentive helps motive them to attend class. I also drop students’ lowest 4 retrieval practices (i.e., I use their top 10 for a grade), which provides some wiggle room for low grades and absences. I find that this combination between no make-ups, low-stakes, and dropping the lowest grades leads to very few (if any) complaints about excused and unexcused absences.

In addition, because of my grading structure with retrieval practices and other assignments (group projects, creating a video, and participation), I do not have midterms or finals in my course. This substantially lowers students’ test anxiety and they no longer cram in my course which, as mentioned above, is an ineffective strategy for long-term learning. By grading retrieval practices weekly (an hour or less for 60 students), instead of a midterm and a final, I pace myself more appropriately in terms of workload, as well.

I’ve thought about offering my retrieval practices online in order to free up 20 minutes of class time. Personally, I strongly dislike grading online writing and find it much easier to read students’ responses on paper. Based on research from cognitive psychology, we also know that open-book quizzes tend to reduce students’ learning and study time, hence an additional hesitation on my part to switch to online quizzes. For blended learning and fully online courses, I recommend emphasizing open-ended questions that require reflection, which cannot be easily “Google-able.” Some of my examples above lend themselves well to this type of retrieval (e.g., how would you design an experiment given a novel example) and various online programs can be used to verify that students aren’t plagiarizing (e.g., Turnitin is available through my content management platform). Additionally, I’d likely include a word limit for online retrieval practices, which encourages students to be persuasive, decreases grading, and makes it less likely that students will cheat. These may be considerations for your instruction when incorporating retrieval practice, though for now, mine will remain paper-and-pencil. (I also like the silent time students have in class to write down their reflections and refer to them during immediate class discussion.)

You may be wondering, “Won’t students be frustrated about these weekly retrieval practices?” At the beginning of the semester, my students are hesitant. They ask a number of questions about grading (2.5% each), question type (short answer), number of questions (3-5), makeups (not allowed), etc. Students are clearly concerned about retrieval as an assessment rather than retrieval as a learning exercise for class discussion.

By the end of the semester however, students have realized the benefit of weekly retrievals. Here are a few quotes from my students:

  • “Retrieval practices are the bomb. Keep that up.”
  • “Love that we have nothing for a final! Best thing ever!”
  • “If I had to remember one thing about this course, it would probably be the use and advantages of retrieval practices. Besides the reading from the book that supported that idea, it was awesome to see it come to fruition within class. I want to remember it because of how applicable it is to the field of education with how I plan to teach my students.” (music education major)

(Yes, they’re the bomb.) Throughout the semester, I increase student buy-in by

  1. Presenting research about benefits from retrieval practice,
  2. Acknowledging that it is challenging, but that challenges are good for learning, and
  3. Reminding them that there are no midterms or finals. 

I also aim to reduce the negativity associated with retrieval by asking optional questions (e.g., What was your favorite breakfast as a kid? Would you rather own a sailboat or a hot air balloon?). Discussing student responses for these optional questions is a nice way to start each class, to share experiences, and build community before diving into course topics.

Note that retrieval practice doesn’t need to take the form of weekly quizzes. It doesn’t even need to require class discussion or grading. For example, I recently asked students, “Write down two things you remember about neuroscience topics we discussed earlier this semester.” Students wrote their thoughts down and we promptly moved on – this retrieval activity took one minute, incorporated spaced practice, and will be beneficial for students’ learning down the road, even without discussion or feedback.

Another way I use retrieval practice is an activity common in K-12 instruction, “think-pair-share.” For this activity, I ask students to quickly write down 2 or 3 thoughts, followed by chatting with a partner, and then a whole class discussion. As an example, I might ask, “Why are results from the Stanford Prison Experiment surprising?” A think-pair-share activity such as this one could take 10 minutes or less, but it’ll be far more beneficial for learning than me telling students why the results are surprising.

When it comes to implementing retrieval practice in your classroom, here are a few challenges based on my own classroom experience. First, allocating time in class on retrieval may take away from the amount of content you can present. Yes, this can be a challenge, though think about how you can insert a retrieval activity for simply one minute per class, thereby minimizing time taken from content delivery. In addition, based on research I and my colleagues have conducted, keep in mind that students will remember more over the long-term following retrieval, so you won’t need to re-teach content as frequently as you will following lectures. This actually saves time in the long run, even if there is a small tradeoff in terms of time initially.

Another challenge can be student accommodations, particularly those who request extra time and distraction-free environments for tests. While a number of my students are eligible for accommodations (including students who are blind or dyslexic), my students rarely ask for them. The retrieval practices are low-stakes and reduce test anxiety, thus students feel comfortable completing them in the regular time allotted during class.

To conclude, retrieval practice is pretty remarkable for boosting student learning, verified by laboratory and classroom research. It dramatically improves learning over the long-term for diverse students, content areas, and education levels. It’s a central principle derived from cognitive psychology, but if we are going to practice what we preach and improve learning, we need to incorporate this evidence-based strategy into our instruction.

What next? Start small. What is one way you can incorporate retrieval in your classroom? Lecture and review less – this shares what you know. Aim to facilitate retrieval more – ask students what they know. Remember (pun intended) that retrieval practice doesn’t require more class time, prep time, or grading time. Whether you use weekly retrieval practices or brief un-graded activities in class, emphasize that retrieval is a learning strategy, not just an assessment strategy.

For more research, resources, and instructional tips, visit retrievalpractice.org. I also highly recommend a recent book, Small Teaching by James Lang, which describes additional research on retrieval practice and provides excellent tips for higher education instruction.

Bio

 Pooja K. Agarwal, Ph.D. is an expert in the field of cognitive psychology. She has conducted learning and memory research in a variety of classroom settings for more than 10 years. Currently, Pooja is an Assistant Professor at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, teaching psychological science to exceptional undergraduate musicians.

To advance the use of scientifically-based learning strategies, Pooja founded RetrievalPractice.org, a hub of cognitive science research, resources, and tips for educators. Pooja's work has been featured in the New York Times, Education Week, and Scientific American, as well as academic journals, books, and podcasts.

She can be reached via email, her websites, and Twitter . . .

pooja@poojaagarwal.com

poojaagarwal.com

retrievalpractice.org

@PoojaAgarwal

@retrievelearn