Here’s a common problem: your job today is to teach a boring topic. (You don’t think it’s boring, but your students always complain…)
What’s a teacher to do?
One plausible strategy: You might enliven this topic in some entertaining way.
You’ve got a funny video,
or a clever cartoon,
or a GREAT anecdote about a colleague’s misadventure.
Okay, so this video/cartoon/anecdote isn’t one of today’s learning objectives. BUT: it just might capture your students’ interest and help them pay attention.
However tempting, this strategy does create its own problems. We’ve got lots of research showing that these intriguing-but-off-topic details can get in the way of learning.
What could we do to fix this problem? If we can’t use our anecdotes and cartoons, do we just have to bore our students?
“Right-Sized” Retrieval Practice
Here’s one approach we might try: right-sized retrieval practice.
What does “right-sized” mean? Here goes:
One retrieval practice strategy is a brain dump. The instructions sounds something like this: “write down everything you remember about today’s grammar lesson.”
Another retrieval practice strategy calls for more specific questions: “what’s the differenece between a gerund and a participle?” “How might a participle create a dangling modifier?”
A group of scholars in Germany studied this hypothesis:
If teachers use the brain dump approach, students will remember the seductive detail — and it will become a part of their long-term memory.
If, on the other hand, teachers ask specific questions, students will remember the important ideas of the lesson — and not consolidate memory of the seductive detail.
They ran a straightforward study, considering a topic close to every teacher’s heart: coffee.
100+ college students in Germany read a lengthy passage on coffee: information about the coffee plant, its harvesting, its preparation, and its processing.
Half of them read a version including fun-but-extraneous information. For instance: do you know coffee was discovered?
Turns out: goat herders noticed that their goats ate the coffee beans and then did a kind of happy dance. Those herders wondered: could we get the same happy effects? Thus was born today’s coffee industry…
Remembering the GOAT
After reading these coffee passages — with or without seductive details — students answered retrieval practice questions.
Some got a “brain dump” promt: “What do you remember about coffee?”
Others got the specific questions: “What harvesting methods do you remember, and how do they differ?”
So, what effect did those specific questions have on memory of seductive details one week later?
Sure enough, as the researchers had hypothesized, students who answered specific retrieval practice questions remembered MORE of the lesson’s meaningful content.
And, they remembered LESS (actually, NONE) of the seductive details. (Of course, the details get complicated, but this summary captures the main idea.)
So, what’s a classroom teacher to do?
As is so often the case, we should remember that researchers ISOLATE variables and teachers COMBINE variables.
We always have to think about many (many!) topics at once, while research typically tries to find out the importance of exactly one thing.
Putting all these ideas together, I’d recommend the following path:
If I have to teach a topic my students find dull, I can indeed include some seductive details (Ha ha! Goats!) to capture their interest — as long as I conclude that lesson with some highly specific retrieval practice questioning.
And, based on this earlier post on seductive details, this extra step will be especially important if the lesson is short, or the students are beginners with this topic.
Seductive details can capture students’ interest, but also distract them from the important topics of the lesson.
To counteract this problem, teachers should plan for retriveal practice including specific questions — not just a brain dump.
By the way: I first heard about this “retrieval practice vs. seductive details” study from Bradley Busch (Twitter: @BradleyKBusch) and Jade Pearce (Twitter: @PearceMrs). If you’re not familiar with their work, be sure to look them up!
Eitel, A., Endres, T., & Renkl, A. (2022). Specific questions during retrieval practice are better for texts containing seductive details. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 36(5), 996-c1008.
Sundararajan, N., & Adesope, O. (2020). Keep it coherent: A meta-analysis of the seductive details effect. Educational Psychology Review, 32(3), 707-734.