Retrieval Practice and Metacognition: What and How Do Students Think...

Ask almost anyone in Learning and the Brain world, they’ll tell you: retrieval practice benefits students.

More than most any other technique we have, this one both has lots of research support and can easily be integrated into our classrooms. (For a handy review of its benefits, check out Agarwal and Bain’s great bookPowerful Teaching.)

Of course, because retrieval practice offers so many benefits, we want our students to use it.

Do they?

Metacognition and Retrieval Practice

The short answers are: not enough, and not very well.

Michelle Rivers wanted to know why, and so explored research into students’ metacognitive beliefs about retrieval practice. That is:

What do they believe about retrieval practice?

How do they use it to monitor their learning?

How do they use its insights to control their learning activities?

The more we understands students’ metacognitive perspective on their learning, the more wisely we can guide them.

What did she find?

Beliefs about Retrieval Practice

Sadly, most students don’t understand RP’s benefits.

In 10 studies that asked “why do you quiz yourself,” only 26% of students say they do so in order to learn more.

Instead, most students (52%) do so “to figure out how well I’ve learned the information I’m studying.”

In other words: even the students who use RP most often do so for the wrong reasons.

Of course: they’re not harming themselves by using retrieval practice this way. But — and this is a big but — they’re not getting the benefits that RP can offer.

In fact, Rivers’s survey suggests one reasons students might not use retrieval practice to help themselves learn. Studies suggest that when students try both methods, they don’t predict that they’ll remember more after retrieval practice. (Check out this study by Kornell and Son.)

I find this research pool baffling, even disheartening. Even when students experience greater success with RP than with simple rereading, they don’t internalize the broader lesson that active retrieval helps them learn.

Little wonder, then, that most students review material (43%) or copy their notes (11%) as a go-to strategy, rather than self-testing (8%).

Uses of Retrieval Practice

Given these flawed beliefs, how do students use RP?

Among Rivers’s findings: students try retrieval practice …

… when the questions are easy

right before a test

relatively late in the learning process.

… relatively few times for any given pool of information.

Of course, retrieval practice benefits students when they do so…

… with questions that are challenging

well before a test (in fact, RP immediately before a test might be counterproductive)

throughout the learning process

several times for any given pool of information.

Simply put: even when students use this excellent study strategy, they do so in less-than-optimal ways.

Next Steps: Learning How to Learn

So far, this is quite the glum post. A potentially powerful learning strategy is largely going to waste.

What can we teachers do?

I’ve got two suggestions.

First, this recent post summarizes a promising approach from Mark McDaniel and Gilles Einstein. Their multi-step process not only works to persuade students of RP’s benefits; it encourages them to make specific retrieval practice plans and to follow through on them.

In other words: we shouldn’t just tell our students about its benefits. We shouldn’t just tell them to do it. We should go the next steps to create plans and structures.

Second, I’ve seen LOTS of online programs to help teachers and students with their retrieval practice.

For instance, Adam Boxer has created a program called Carousel. This program allows teachers to create retrieval questions, and to jumble them together in useful ways. It allows students to self-score their work (and teachers to correct any errors). It keeps track of right and wrong answers, so we can see how well our students are learning specific topics and questions.

I have used Carousel enough to find it intriguing; I haven’t used it enough to make strong claims about it. (Given responses to it on Twitter, however, it seems that teachers kind of love it.)

Whichever program you choose, I think students will learn how to learn more effectively if we build tools like these into our teaching practice.

In Sum

A: We know that retrieval practice can help students learn, but only if they use it correctly.

B: We know that, for the most part, they don’t.

A + B = We should focus more on helping students use this strategy wisely. And, we’ve got the tools to do so!


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