Late nights cramming. Furiously highlighting textbook chapters. Rereading lecture notes for hours. Chances are, if your students are using one (or all) of these study techniques, they’re not adequately absorbing your course material. And worse, they’re prone to forgetting everything they tried to cram into their minds in advance of an exam. That’s why Dr. Pooja Agarwal, acclaimed cognitive scientist, professor of psychology at the Berklee College of Music, and co-author of Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning, advocates for a widespread shift from ‘reviewing’ to ‘retrieving.’
In our recent webinar, Dr. Agarwal uncovered why forgetting is so common among students. She also offered practical activities to make learning stick no matter your field. Here are her takeaways.
Why do students forget material in the first place?
No matter your age, background or ability, forgetting is a natural part of learning—and nothing to be ashamed about. “We typically focus on getting information into students’ heads through lectures, activities and readings. Instead, we need to focus on getting information out of students’ heads,” she says. Reducing the chance of forgetting starts with frequent exposure to certain topics and recalling those facts regularly. But as an instructor, what exactly can you do to boost long-term learning and memory? Dr. Agarwal’s answer: embrace retrieval practice.
“We typically focus on getting information into students’ heads through lectures, activities and readings. Instead, we need to focus on getting information out of students’ heads.”
What is retrieval practice and how does it promote long-term retention?
Retrieval practice is a low- or no-stakes learning strategy where students pull information out of their heads and apply their knowledge to a given scenario. In other words, they’re asked to ‘retrieve’ the information they’ve accumulated. Retrieving shouldn’t be confused with reviewing. The latter might mean telling students, ‘here’s what we discussed yesterday.’ On the other hand, using a retrieval technique would involve asking students, ‘what do you remember from our unit last week?’ Switching from encoding information to retrieving facts will help your students remember better.
Dr. Agarwal is one of many scholars who can vouch for retrieval practice as a means of improving student outcomes. Research shows that student grades rose from Cs to As upon incorporating retrieval practice into the classroom. Just as important is the impact retrieval practice has during test time. Seventy-five (75) percent of students state that their anxiety reduced around exam time since retrieval practice made learning more digestible.1 Curious to incorporate proven evidence-based teaching approaches to your course? Read on for Dr. Agarwal’s four recommendations.
Four retrieval practice activities to make learning stick
This simple activity involves asking students to retrieve and write down everything they can remember about a topic covered during your lecture. Alternatively, you might ask your students to write down two or three things they can remember about your topic on the whole—an especially effective technique at the start of your course or learning unit. Take this retrieval technique one step further by asking students to complete the same brain dump at the end of your unit, making it clear how much they’ve learned throughout your class. Remember, this activity should serve as a rough measure of student comprehension and shouldn’t be graded.
This retrieval technique is the sister to the brain dump. Pause partway through your lesson and ask students to respond to a simple prompt such as ‘what are two things you learned so far today?’ or ‘what are two ways you might relate today’s topics to previous topics?’ Dr. Agarwal also recommends being strategic in how you ask students to retrieve information. Small changes can help students engage deeper with the course material and force them to think more critically. “If you ask students, ‘what did you learn today?’ at the end of class, you’ll likely get blank stares. But ask, ‘what did you learn yesterday?’ and you’ll see their faces light up,” she says.
“If you ask students, ‘what did you learn today?’ at the end of class, you’ll likely get blank stares. But ask, ‘what did you learn yesterday?’ and you’ll see their faces light up.”
Chances are you’ve heard of this classic learning strategy before—or maybe used it too many times to count. Ask students to respond to a question, find a partner and then discuss findings in pairs. From here, invite students to share their thoughts in a larger class discussion. Proven to boost peer-peer community, Dr. Agarwal calls out that this tactic can be used in both in-person and online classes. If you’re teaching an online or hybrid class, ask partners to complete a Google Slide in your slide deck for the ‘pair’ portion of this exercise. Alternatively, students might type individual reflections in your Zoom chat or via Top Hat’s discussion board before meeting with a partner in breakout rooms.
As the name suggests, mini quizzes are a retrieval technique in which students are assessed in a low-stakes environment. These small quizzes, typically administered weekly, encourage students to reflect on their own learning process. Not only does it provide educators with an understanding of learning gaps, it gives students a chance to ask for help earlier than later. Don’t forget to incorporate the ‘retrieval’ element in your quiz. For example, instead of asking students to define a mathematical correlation, you might ask them, ‘provide an example of a correlation from our lesson last week.’ This shift in wording can help students draw out information from their memory.
- Agarwal, P.K., Nunes, L.D. & Blunt, J.R. Retrieval Practice Consistently Benefits Student Learning: a Systematic Review of Applied Research in Schools and Classrooms. Educ Psychol Rev 33, 1409–1453 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-021-09595-9