Most students and many teachers do not realise the huge importance of retrieval for learning. This post aims to explain why retrieval is important and to give some strategies for doing it well.
DO Hebb (1949) was the first person to acknowledge that, when neurones fire together, they wire together but it was not until the 1980s that scientists discovered what was happening on a physiological level when learning takes place. Long term potentiation (LTP) is one of several phenomena underlying synaptic plasticity, the ability of chemical synapses to increase their strength the more often they are activated. LTP is widely considered one of the major cellular mechanisms that underlies learning and memory, and retrieval is the best way to make it happen.
When a child exclaims they don’t understand how they failed a test when they revised for hours, I get them to show me what they have done. Invariably they have completed part of the process but not the most important one, why? Learning involves three distinct processes, encoding, rehearsal and retrieval. Students love the encoding part, making colourful mindmaps and cue cards. They don’t mind the rehearsal part, repeating the information they have just learned. But they hate the retrieval part because it is hard and boring. Therefore, there is hardly ever any evidence of completed practice questions as part of their revision. Retrieval is most effective when it is done long after learning and is done cold, without text books or cues to help. It requires effort and perhaps even some anxiety and that is why it is so often overlooked. Yet it is the part of the process which gives the most robust learning of information and best chance of being able to apply the knowledge later on.
The diagram shows the processes used to lay down a memory. Encoding involves making the information stand out (elaborative encoding), knowing what it means (semantic encoding); rehearsal involves repetition of what has just been learned and retrieval is remembering information learned some time ago.
So let’s go over some 5 minute strategies for retrieval that teachers can use and students can adopt for their own learning.
- The brain dump. Five minutes at the start of a lesson using a topic covered last term or even last year. Give students a piece of paper and a pen (no notes or books) and set the timer. Students write all they know about the topic of social influence for example. At that point they can check with the textbook adding detail that they have missed. A week later, they can do the same exercise again and be amazed as to how much more detail and how much easier it is the second time.
- The starter question. Pick an exam question from a previous topic and get students to answer it from memory. They will protest that they don’t know it but must write something. The teacher can then put up a model answer and get the students to complete the question.
- Write the opening sentence. Students are given an exam question e.g. ‘Discuss two ways in which people might resist social influence.’ By writing just an opening sentence, students are retrieving their conceptual knowledge and their exam skill knowledge. It is a very powerful tool for uncovering and righting misconceptions in two minutes flat!
- Draw me a diagram. I usually get a student to draw on the whiteboard and others call out annotations. Misconceptions can be discussed and sorted there and then. One of my favourites but make sure it is from two topics ago if your aim is to prectise retrieval and not rehearsal.
- Kahoot quizzes are awesome. It takes seconds to make an account and you do not have to write them yourself, simply search for a topic and away you go. You can use them for AFL as the students are playing. I write down the topics that show the highest rate of variation in the answers so that I can make a note to retrieve those next time.
So remember, for learning to take place on a deep level it must be retrieved, cold, from two topics ago and retrieved often. Students have not revised if they have only done the encoding part so make sure all revision includes practice questions. If you’re still in doubt, take a look at the downward arrow on the long term memory box. Until next time, enjoy your retrieval escapades and let me know if you come across any more strategy gems.