“But How Do We Know If It Works in the Classroom?”: The Latest on Retrieval Practice

We’ve heard so much about retrieval practice in the last two years that it seems like we’ve ALWAYS known about its merits.

But no: this research pool hasn’t been widely known among teachers until recently.

We can thank Agarwal and Bain’s wonderful Powerful Teaching for giving it a broad public audience. (If you had been attending Learning and the Brain conferences, of course, you would have heard about it a few years before that.)

Of course, we should stop every now and then to ask ourselves: how do we know this works?

In this case, we’ve got several answers.

In addition to Agarwal and Bain’s book, both Make it Stick (by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel) and How We Learn (by Benedict Carey) offer helpful surveys of the research.

You could also check out current research. Ayanna Kim Thomas recently published a helpful study about frequent quizzing in college classrooms. (It helps!)

All these ways of knowing help. Other ways of knowing would be equally helpful.

For instance: I might want to know if retrieval practice helps in actual classrooms, not just in some psychology lab somewhere.

Yes, yes: Agarwal and Bain’s research mostly happened in classrooms. But if you’ve met them you know: it might work because they’re such engaging teachers! What about teachers like me — who don’t quite live up to their energy and verve?

Today’s News

A recent meta-analysis looked at the effect on retrieval practice in actual classrooms with actual students. (How many students? Almost 8000 of them…)

Turns out: retrieval practice helps when its studied in psychology labs.

And, it helps when vivacious teachers (like Agarwal and Bain) use it.

And, it helps when everyday teachers (like me) use it.

It really just helps. As in: it helps students learn.

A few interesting specifics from this analysis:

First: retrieval practice quizzes helped students learn more when they were counted for a final grade than when they weren’t. (Although: they did help when not counted toward the grade.)

Second: they helped more when students got feedback right away than when feedback was delayed. (This finding contradicts the research I wrote about last week.)

Third: short answer quizzes helped learning more than multiple choice (but: multiple choice quizzes did produce modest benefits).

Fourth: announced quizzes helped more than unannounced quizzes.

and, by the way

Fifth: retrieval practice helped middle-school and high-school students more than college students. (Admittedly: based on only a few MS and HS studies.)

In brief: all that good news about retrieval practice has not been over sold. It really is among the most robustly researched and beneficial teaching strategies we can use.

And: it’s EASY and FREE.

A Final Note

Because psychology research can be — ahem — written for other psychology researchers (and not for teachers), these meta-analyses can be quite daunting. I don’t often encourage people to read them.

In this case, however, authors Sotola and Crede have a straightforward, uncomplicated prose style.

They don’t hold back on the technical parts — this is, after all, a highly technical kind of writing.

But the explanatory paragraphs are unusually easy to read. If you can get a copy — ask your school’s librarian, or see if it shows up on Google Scholar — you might enjoy giving it a savvy skim.

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