Retrieval Practice is Your Learning Power Tool
Reading time: 12 minutes
This one thing can transform your homeschooling
If you are not aware of the learning strategy of retrieval practice you should be – it can transform both your classroom teaching and your child’s independent studies. This learning strategy has been validated by thousands of scientific studies to greatly improve the ability to remember and recall information. This is the best part – you can easily incorporate it into almost every aspect of your homeschool instruction once you know it.
If there were only one thing you could change about your homeschooling instruction, this is it.
What is it?
First, let’s begin by acknowledging the three steps to learning something. It’s not a single step but a process. It’s important to note these steps because each involves different mental efforts. You need to encourage all three in your instruction.
Encoding – this describes the efforts the teacher and student make to input the information so it will be remembered
Storage – this is the process of keeping the information for the purpose of forming longer term memories
Retrieving – these are the efforts the teacher and student make to try to pull out or retrieve the information
All 3 steps are important if you want the learning to really “stick.”
It’s useful to point out that traditional teaching and student learning practices have tended to overemphasize only one step – encoding. If you think about your homeschooling, or your own higher education, you will likely find this to be true. The emphasis in most education is with step 1 “input” activities – lecture, presentations, reading, observing, watching, etc. You are about to discover why this emphasis is wrong.
First let’s define what retrieval practice is. Here’s how Doug Lemov, author of Teach Like a Champion 2.0 describes it:
“Retrieval practice occurs when learners recall and apply multiple examples of previously learned knowledge or skills after a period of forgetting.”
With this, note that deliberate practice is intentional, it’s a planned activity, it should be frequent, and while it includes asking questions, it goes way beyond this. There is a necessary space in time between input and attempting output. And when you do it, don’t confused it with your assessment efforts.
Retrieving should be treated as an important equal to the input step of the learning process.
Why it’s So Important
When students retrieve information, they are strengthening long-term memory. When you encourage frequent retrieval events in your classroom, you are encouraging longer term learning. Consider the difference. Retrieval practice is where you emphasize pulling out rather than cramming in and this has the power to greatly improve the effectiveness of your instruction.
We now understand through cognitive science research that getting the student to retrieve information deepens learning. There are many studies that support this. A notable one, by Lyle and Crawford, in college statistics classes demonstrated how it helped students who retrieved get one letter grade higher than those who did not. There is a large body of studies which validate the power of retrieving to improved learning. In another study, scientists raised the grades of thousands of students from C’s to A’s by implementing one thing – retrieval practice.
It’s that powerful. And even better, it’s easy to learn to do at home.
Here’s an illustration. If I would ask you, “who was the 5th president of the United States?” It might take you a moment, as you sift through your memory and struggle to pull up this information. But it’s precisely this struggle, which is also known as a desirable difficulty, that improves your learning. Each time you do it you strengthen your neural pathways – your memory circuits. Even if you can’t find the correct answer (it’s James Madison) it’s still a productive exercise for learning because you are exercising brain circuits in the effort.
BTW – by trying and failing to recall you have also then identified gaps you thought you knew, but did not, so you can correct errors. This discovery is part of what we call metacognition or learning about your own learning. This is explained more clearly in our Pa10 online course.
Decades of research have shown that slow effortful learning leads to long term learning, whereas fast easy learning (like passively taking notes in class lecture) only leads to short term learning.
How You Benefit
There are many benefits from transitioning to pulling out from cramming in instructional methods.
The effective use of retrieval practice will help you by reducing the need for redundant classroom review. You can get away from the old inefficient practice of I teach it to you once, then I teach it again – and again. You move to I teach, then you retrieve, then we talk. The benefit for you will be a major reduction in the amount of time you spend on review, which again is encoding, by replacing it with the more powerful retrieving. The benefit for the student is to remember more – while we re-teach less.
Your teaching doesn’t go away, it becomes balanced with retrieval practice. Once you understand and embrace this as a better method, you will yield many other benefits.
Your child can improve less efficient independent study habits like this: read a chapter, then reread it again later before the test. Instead, during the first reading, the student should learn to make frequent stops while reading a chapter and try to retrieve major points or key facts. This reinforces the learning while also uncovering those gaps.
It also opens the door for you to use many more creative ways to learn beyond presentation and reading.
Some of the better curriculum that you may be using likely has been designed to encourage retrieval practice. Classical Conversations, for one, I have observed incorporates many of these activities in their instructor guides. So, if you didn’t understand before why you are doing this – now you know. The point is to incorporate this into almost everything you teach.
At first exposure to retrieval practice it may seem deceptively simple. You might be thinking this sounds great, but it seems pretty basic. Perhaps because you feel you already doing this by asking questions when you instruct, and yes this is part of retrieval practice. But retrieval practice is much more – it has planned activities and assignments. The more of it you do – the better you’ll get at it. There is a suggested checklist on how to do more of this at the end of this article.
The activities to encourage output should become part of every lesson, your lectures, reading assignments, and even incorporated into your field trips. Deploy retrieval practice activities every time your goal is getting information into long-term memory.
I recognize you may have another concern – Does this add another step to my already busy day? The answer is yes it does, but with an easy-to-do method that replaces redundant activities that will pay off handsomely by saving you time over both the short and long run.
Retrieval practice is something to be practiced by both the homeschool instructor and the student. When both know how to do it, learning greatly improves. It becomes a normal activity.
To summarize, your efforts to improve memory by re-teaching is equivalent to trying to “pound the information in” and it’s much better to replace this by a more effective and balanced learning effort of both encoding and retrieving!
Discard Educational Malpractice
The good news it’s easy to understand this approach to learning, but it does require you to change familiar habits and routines. This will take some effort to be comfortable at first – because it’s not how most of us were educated. And it represents a shift in learning activities for your child too. (With the exception already noted in curriculum you have that uses it). Recognize that incorporating more retrieval practice into your homeschooling will require a shift in your thinking about what learning is.
Why is this a big shift? Let’s understand how we got stuck with so much encoding in the first place by looking at the bigger picture.
The overemphasis on input in education, even at the college level, is a continuing and repeated mistake despite decades of research proving this to be inefficient and less effective. The research somehow remains almost a “secret” because it just doesn’t seem to get out. It’s amazing given so much research and insights, how this overemphasis on encoding continues, which suggests we should recognize this as a form of educational malpractice!
What else can we call this when most educators continue to do something that does not consider how the brain really works and forms lasting memories? But now you know – this means you have the tool that can readily change your home instructional efforts. You can take a big step by moving from the old inefficient approach of input to a much better teaching strategies by emphasizing the use of retrieval practice.
The experts Agarwal and Bain in their wonderful book Powerful Teaching state this well:
“We typically focus on getting information into students’ heads. On the contrary, one of the most robust findings from cognitive science research is the importance of getting information out of students’ heads. Based on a century of research, in order to transform learning, we must focus on getting information out – a strategy called retrieval practice.”
To be clear, this means rethinking and changing your instructional methods. It will require you, for example, to review your upcoming lessons, modify how you teach, and shift your use of time. But it doesn’t mean you should turn everything in your home classroom upside down; it does mean rebalancing your classroom time so you will be using it more efficiently. You can adopt this learning strategy as one of your “power tools” used in all classroom activities or with experiential learning experiences.
You can get dramatic results, by planning for and doing much more retrieval practice. There is a good reason it has been labeled a learning “power tool.”
Key terms to remember
- Encoding in
- Retrieving out
- Retrieval practice
- Desirable difficulties
- Stop and jot
- Brain dumps
- Retrieve taking
√ Checklist on How to Improve Your Teaching
Here’s a checklist of some good practices you can start doing right away to bring more retrieval practice into your homeschooling.
- Morning Briefing – when you start your day, always take a few minutes to retrieve the major points and facts from yesterday’s lessons. Ask questions, but also do other things like having your kids individually list by written retrieval, then discuss it and correct misunderstandings. Vary how you do this to keep it fresh. Let the kids lead it.
- Stop and Jot – during your lectures or presentations, frequently pause then ask your kids to individually write down notes of what they learned. Close the books and cover the whiteboard – this is practice retrieving not review. Note this is significantly different from their taking notes while you present. It’s harder but it’s more effective.
- Brain Dumps – at the end of each lesson, ask each kid to write down everything they can remember. Give time to build a long list of anything (closed book and notes) then have them share and compare. Allow them to teach one another during this. Sit and enjoy. Of course, take time to correct or fill in any gaps.
- No Stakes Quizzes – At the completion of any learning experience, ask short answer questions using no stake It’s best not to do this as a group activity at first, because you want every child to try to retrieve. After each kid lists their answers, then you can compare and discuss. Once kids know you will usually do this, they will learn to listen more closely during the presentation because they know this is coming.
- End of the Week Retrieval – have a quiz that mixes up facts with critical thinking items. Take time to ask your kids to connect different ideas. Ask questions that require kids to compare different things you covered during the week. Use this to encourage higher order thinking – or what is known as HOT.
- Last Week Retrieval – start a new week with some retrieval exercises of material from the prior week. Tie it to content you will be covering this week.
- Two Things – When reading to kids frequently stop and ask this question – what two things have you learned from this? Have them write this down. It can become their notes.
- Retrieve Taking – Teach your lesson as usual while the kids listen and participate, but with no note taking allowed. Then pause and have students write down important topics they want to study about the topic. Have them share and give feedback, then continue the lesson. (This idea comes from Agarwal and Bain)
- End of Month Exercise – ask your students, “If you could choose only one thing from what we covered what would you want to remember in 10 years, and what would it be and why?” This is fantastic question for deeper reflection and retrieval from kids, and it can give you insightful feedback. You might draw some inspiration from it too.
There are many more things you can do to encourage retrieval, but these are some good ideas to start doing more. Use your creativity to come up with more ideas. This is a great tool that gives you many more things to do in your classroom that are educationally sound. Mix it up – make it fun! Provide “hints” and allow “request help” from other kids if some get stuck to prime the pump.
For more information on better teaching and learning strategies, sign up for one of our online courses. Teach Smarter!