Because strategies to boost student retention get short shrift in teacher training, Champion Teacher Doug Lemov’s recent blog and accompanying video on retrieval is novel and welcome. Instead of focusing on how to get information into students’ heads (as do most teacher training materials), he addresses how to get students to pull information out of memory, a proven strategy for strengthening memory and making more likely the retention of information.
Lemov articulates a three-part classroom definition of retrieval:
- Retrieval is relevant to skills (hitting a baseball, solving for perimeter of an octagon) or knowledge (dates in history; formulas, vocabulary).
- In the classroom, it involves groups of questions in blocks as opposed to asking retrieval questions all the time.
- It requires at least a short delay after something has been learned, because once you’ve started to forget, you have to work harder to remember and this creates a stronger neural pathway.
We like this (a lot!), and we want to use it as a springboard to expand the definition to include:
- Retrieval happens whenever students are compelled to dredge their memories for an answer about something they’ve learned.
- Testing of any kind is a powerful catalyst for retrieval.
- The most valuable form of retrieval practice in which students can engage on their own is self-testing.
One important reminder about retrieval practice: If a teacher is delaying retrieval practice for an appropriate length of time after instruction and initial practice (a month is not too long), the results can be pretty ugly in terms of student performance. The retrieval practice in Doug’s video certainly has value, but based on the success (and speed!) with which students answer the questions, we wonder what it would look like if the delay between instruction and practice had been longer. Student answers would likely be slower and spottier – but the neural connections being built would likely be stronger. Videos of even more delayed retrieval might not be nearly as satisfying to watch, but could be enormously supportive for teachers who aim to do right by their students, but will second guess themselves if they try retrieval practice and then must contend with the full range of their students’ struggles.
Student resilience in self-testing is also important. Consider the compelling story of Alabama teacher Blake Harvard, who spoke at the recent researchED conference in New York City. Blake teaches AP Psychology and saw a 7% increase in his students’ pass rate on the AP exam after he actively taught students how to use retrieval practice. His blog describes one of the clever and motivating self-testing techniques Blake developed for his students. Note its striking depiction of what students can retrieve – usually only 50-70% of what they attempt, something not lost on the students. They write comments like: Four days takes a toll on your memory…I cannot believe my notes are wrong. The important take away: Secure in the knowledge that this practice works, they are not crushed by the need to retrace their steps.
We welcome more videos and blogs of the good, the bad, and the ugly of retrieval practice, a vitally important instructional strategy!