Retrieval is Everything

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 revisionRetrieval 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.

Memory_ProcessThe 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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!
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dust off Your Text Books

In every staffroom up and down the country there is the group of ‘superteachers’ huddled in a corner drinking quadruple espressos and making snide comments about ‘teacher X’ whose ‘kids just work out of the textbook every lesson’. Fast forward to the weekend; Mr X is spending time with his family, flying a microlight, trout fishing or doing whatever else normal people do at the weekend while the ‘superteachers’ are spending hours and hours  re-writing huge chunks of textbooks to make booklets, handouts and worksheets, occasionally misinterpreting theories and concepts in the hope of dumbing them down, or because they are just too tired to think about what they are writing.

If you are the ‘superteacher’ type PLEASE STOP this nonsense NOW! Not only are you affecting your own mental wellbeing but you are also not helping your students to learn. During hours and hours of martyrdom spent making a variety of differentiated tasks and activities for each topic, it is the teacher who is preparing for the exam in 30 different ways rather than the individual preparing themselves. Worse still, it makes very little difference to student performance and can actually make it worse.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with textbooks.  They are written by experts in your subject who know the specification and are more often than not approved by the relevant exam board.  Decades of recearch into memory shows us that long term memories are laid down when students actively engage with the material to be learned, be it presented in a textbook or any other form, and that effective learning depends on regular recall of that information.  This means that it is the students who have to interpret, apply and analyse the information they need, not you.

Instead plan lessons and prepare activities for students based on their textbook.  For example, ask students to summarise a theory in 6 key sentences or sketch-note a key study as you read it to them. Ask them to respond to a picture as a lesson starter or write one multichoice question as a plenary.

You can find more details including activity, resources, format, differentiation and teacher/student input using the link below. I hope you can adapt, use and develop them so that the students are the ones doing the work.  A good rule of thumb for any planned activity is: If the teacher input is more than or equal to student input; scrap it now!

Textbook Activities

Oh and, by the way, I have a family, 4 granchildren, horse ride every week and practise cello every day. I do not and will not work evenings and weekends on a regular basis as that is my time.  Happy textbooking!

 

Blancmange Brains Vs Blooms

I recently joined a social media Psychology teachers’ group in the hope of sharing and gaining ideas for the teaching of my subject.  In one such post I was horrified to read that the writer had her blancmange brains all made and ready to be transported into school for her students to label in their A level  lesson.

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Know Thyself

Mastering others is strength; Mastering yourself is true power.” -Lao Tzu, Chinese Taoist Philosopher.

My question this week is how do we get students to master themselves and to know their own strengths and weaknesses when it comes to writing essays?

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Let Them Go

Plato called Socrates “the wisest, and justest, and best of all men whom I have ever known” (Phaedo) and yet Socrates did not write down his lessons nor stand at the front of his class imparting the results of his experience, personal study and reflection. Instead he questioned his students and, once they came up with an idea, he questioned them again!

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