Let’s Get Practical: What Works Best in the Classroom?

At times, this blog explores big-picture hypotheticals — the “what if” questions that can inspire researchers and teachers.

And, at times, we just want practical information. Teachers are busy folks. We simply want to know: what works? What really helps my students learn?

That question, in fact, implies a wise skepticism. If research shows a teaching strategy works well, we shouldn’t just stop with a study or two.

Instead, we should keep researching and asking more questions.

Does this strategy work with …

… older students as well as younger students?

… history classes as well as music classes as well as sports practice?

… Montessori classrooms, military academies, and public school classrooms?

this cultural cultural context as well as that cultural context?

And so forth.

In other words, we want to know: what have you got for me lately?

Today’s News

Long-time readers know of my admiration for Dr. Pooja Agarwal.

Her research into retrieval practice has helped clarify and deepen our understanding of this teaching strategy.

Her book, written with classroom teacher Patrice Bain, remains one of my favorites in the field.

And she’s deeply invested in understanding the complexity of translating research into the classroom.

That is: she doesn’t just see if a strategy works in the psychology lab (work that’s certainly important). Instead, she goes the next step to see if that strategy works with the messiness of classrooms and students and schedule changes and school muddle.

So: what has she done for us lately? I’m glad you asked.

Working with two other scholars, Agarwal asked all of those questions I listed above about retrieval practice.

That is: we think that retrieval practice works. But: does it work with different ages, and various subjects, in different countries?

Agarwal and Co. wanted to find out. They went though an exhaustive process to identify retrieval practice research in classrooms, and studied the results. They found:

First: yup, retrieval practice really does help. In 57% of the studies, the Cohen’s d value was 0.50 or greater. That’s an impressively large result for such a simple, low-cost strategy.

Second: yup, it works it in different fields. By far the most research is done in science and psychology (19 and 16 studies), but it works in every discipline where we look — including, say, history or spelling or CPR.

Third: yup, it works at all ages. Most research is done with college students (and, strangely, medical students), but works in K-12 as well.

Fourth: most retrieval practice research is done with multiple choice. (Yes: a well-designed multiple choice test can be retrieval practice. “Well-designed” = “students have to THINK about the distractors.”)

Fifth: we don’t have enough research to know what the optimal gap is between RP and final test.

Sixth: surprisingly, not enough classroom research focused on FEEDBACK. You’d think that would be an essential component…but Team Agarwal didn’t find enough research here to draw strong conclusions.

Seventh: Of the 50 studies, only 3 were from “non-Western” countries. So, this research gap really stands out.

In brief: if we want to know what really works, we have an increasingly clear answer: retrieval practice works. We had good evidence before; we’ve got better evidence now.

Examples Please

If you’re persuaded that retrieval practice is a good idea, you might want to be sure exactly what it is.

You can always use the “tags” menu on the right; we blog about retrieval practice quite frequently, so you’ve got lots of examples.

But, here’s a handy description (which I first heard in Agarwal and Bain’s book):

When students review, they put information back into their brains. So: “rereading the textbook” = “review,” because students try to redownload the book into their memory systems.

When students use retrieval practice, they take information out of their brains. So, “flashcards” = “retrieval practice,” because students have to remember what that word means.


Reviewing class notes = review.

Outlining the chapter from memory = retrieval practice.

Short answer questions = retrieval practice.

Watching a lecture video = review.

When you strive for retrieval practice, the precise strategy is less important than the cognitive goal. We want student to try to remember before they get the correct answer. That desirable difficulty improves learning.

And, yes, retrieval practice works.

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