Psychology research offers lots of big ideas for improving student learning: self-determination theory, or the spacing effect, or cognitive load theory.
Once we make sense of that research, we teachers work to translate those big idea to practical classroom strategies.
In some cases, we can simply do what the researcher did. In most cases, however, we have to adapt their test paradigm to our specific classroom world.
So, for example, Nate Kornell explored the spacing effect with flashcards. He found that 1 deck of 20 cards produced more learning 4 decks of 5 cards. Why: a deck with 20 cards spaces practice out more than a deck with five cards.
That “big idea” gives teachers a direction to go.
But: we should not conclude that 20 is always the right number. Instead, we should adapt the concept to our circumstances. 20 flashcards might be WAY TOO MANY for 1st graders. Or, if the concepts on the cards are quite simple, that might be too few for college students studing vocabulary.
Translating Retrieval Practice
We know from many (many) studies that retrieval practice boosts learning.
In brief, as summarized by researcher Pooja Agarwal, we want students to pull ideas out of their brains, not put them back in.
So, students who study by rereading their notes don’t learn much; that’s putting ideas back in. Instead, they should quiz themselves on their notes; that’s pulling ideas out.
This big idea makes lots of sense. But, what exactly does that look like in our classrooms?
Over the years, teachers and researchers have developed lots of suggestions. (You can check out Dr. Agarwal’s site here for ideas.)
Thinking about retrieval practice, researchers in Germany asked a helpful question. In theory, closed-book quizzes ought to generate more learning than open-book quizzes.
After all: if my book is closed, I have to pull the information out of my brain. That’s retrieval practice.
If my book is open, I’m much likelier simply to look around until I find the right answer. That’s not retrieval practice.
These researchers wanted to know: does this sensible prediction come true?
The Results Please
Sure enough, closed-book quizzes do produce more learning. This research team retested students on information twice: one week after, and eight weeks after, they heard information in a lecture.
Sure enough, the students who took closed-book quizzes did substantially better than those who took open-book quizzes. (The cohen’s d values were above 0.80.)
In brief: we now have one more research-supported strategy for creating retrieval practice.
As always, I think we should be careful to think about limits on such research.
In the first place, this study took place with college students. If you teach younger students, and your experience tells you that an open-book strategy will work better under particular circumstances, you might ask a trusted colleague for a second opinion. Research like this gives us excellent guidance, but it can’t answer all questions.
In the second place, other variables might come strongly into play. For instance: stress. If your school culture has always allowed open-book quizzes, your students might freak out at the prospect of a closed-book alternative. If so, the benefits of retrieval practice might be lost to anxiety overload.
In this case, you’ll need to take the time to explain your reasoning, and to ease your students into new learning habits.
In any case, we can be increasingly confident that many varieties of retrieval practice produce the desirable difficulties that help students learn. (For a fun exception to this rule, click here.)