Recently, I identified retrieval practice as an area of great potential. It is a low cost, high impact strategy well supported by cognitive research. Simply put:
Retrieval Practice occurs when learners recall and apply multiple examples of previously learned knowledge or skills after a period of forgetting. (Lemov, 2017)
Examples of retrieval practice tend to show the students engaging in recalling a series of fact-based questions to mitigate the effects of forgetting. The act of retrieving previously learnt information from long-term memory and placing it in short-term memory will strengthen the memory and reduce forgetting. That is the rationale behind engaging students in retrieval practice.
The rationale behind retrieval practice is to reduce the forgetting curve
We’re at the end of the school year in Australia. A year in a 5-year-old’s world is a lifetime (I teach 5-year-olds). I was intrigued after reading a bit about retrieval practice through Doug Lemov. I wondered how much of the content we had covered throughout the year had been remembered by my kindergarteners. I decided to investigate.
The answer was not much at all. For example, at the beginning of the year, we covered the five (traditional) senses. To my dismay, some of my students could not even recall the senses (let alone recall how they work) even though we had covered them and I had data telling me they knew them.
The truth is, I had made a fundamental error most teachers make: I mixed up performance with learning. Performance is how well students complete a task at the point of teaching (quite interestingly, Robert Bjork has done research showing performance on a learning task does not correlate well with long-term learning). Learning, on the other hand, is a change in long-term memory. Memory is plagued by forgetting and that is why it is not the same as performance. Learning is not performance because, for learning to have taken place, there needs to be a change in long-term memory. If students, after a period of time – say, 6 weeks – have forgotten material taught, as mine did, then they haven’t really learnt the material even if they’d been exposed to it and understood it. I made the error of assessing before a period of forgetting. I assessed the performance of my students (which simply reflects the teaching) and not the learning that had taken place.
Of course, performance is not the goal, learning is. My students were taught the content and definitely understood it – that much was clear from performance on the learning task – but they had forgotten it in the long term because we had not revisited it. They had not engaged in retrieving the information from their long term memory which led to forgetting. Retrieval practice is a powerful way to engage students in this recall and stop the forgetting curve.
I decided to revisit the senses through a series of read-alouds but this time I engaged my students in a series of retrieval practice questions at the beginning of lessons. I also integrated the subject-specific questions into 5-minute blocks of mixed retrieval practice throughout the day. My questions focussed primarily on the latest content with fewer questions related to the earliest content and were asked in a ‘rapid-fire’ way (I mostly cold call, but will also take hands, especially if low performers show enthusiasm).
The results have been promising. The students remembered more lesson-on-lesson and so engagement was also way up. Students love to know things and the more they know and remember, the more confident they become in sharing and discussing ideas. I had students jumping off the carpet in eagerness to answer questions. What’s more, the students started to point things out to me outside lessons. One student mentioned to me that it was always loud at the beginning of assembly because the sound waves kept ‘bouncing off the walls’. She suggested we take assembly outside instead. This is what happens when students know things well: they start to apply it to their surroundings; they gain interest in a topic and how it applies to their lives.
I am currently waiting 6 weeks to assess their knowledge and understanding of the material covered. Retrieval questions related to the topic during my blocks of mixed-subject retrieval practice are naturally becoming less frequent. I will be very interested to see how they go and I dare say they will know much more than they did before. We know incontrovertibly that knowledge builds on knowledge and knowledge is the foundation of skill development. The process of retrieving information this young will only help them gain powerful knowledge and skills in the future. Retrieval practice is low cost, high impact and I would encourage all teachers, including early years teachers, to use the technique. It’ll make a big difference.
On a final note, I think there is great potential in engaging young children in a series of read-alouds. E.D Hirsch is a big fan of them and I think he is on to something that could become a powerful teaching tool. Combine short read-alouds with retrieval practice and writing tasks and you’ve got yourself a powerful formula for effective learning.