Retrieval Practices: Expanding Your Toolbox

With so much information that we want our students to learn, it seems like our biggest focus should be on effectively giving the information to the students. Although this is important, most of the information will be forgotten quickly if we do not have the students recall the information regularly. Retrieval practice boosts learning by focusing on pulling information out of students’ heads, rather than cramming information into students’ heads. In this blog post I will outline five different retrieval practice activities that can be used in your classroom, as well as some systems you can use to help build the routines of retrieval practice in your teaching.    Brain Dumps: Write Down Everything You Can Remember
  1. Pause your lesson, lecture, or activity.
  2. Ask students to write down everything they can remember.
  3. Continue your lesson, lecture, or activity.
  4.  (optional) Brain Dump Debrief: Think-Pair-Share
    1. After they’ve “brain dumped,” – have students discuss in pairs:
      1. Is there anything in common that both of us wrote down?
      2. That neither of us wrote down?
This is a popular activity among teachers at our school because it is quick and can be used at any time and with virtually no preparation. You could run a brain dump right after a lecture about a new topic, or you can use it to have students recall as much information as they can from the current week or unit.   Two Things: A Quick Strategy for the Beginning, Middle, and End of Class
  1. At any point during a lesson, stop and have students write down two things about a specific prompt. For example:
    • What are two things you learned so far today?
    • What are two things you learned from yesterday?
    • What are two takeaways from this unit?
2. Then move on! Easy peasy! Similar to a brain dump, but on a much smaller scale. Rather than students trying to recall everything that they can about a lesson or topic, the focus is on trying to think of only two things that match the provided prompt. The focus is on getting the students to recall any information they can.   Retrieve-Taking: A Spin on Notes
  1. Teach as normal, but students can’t take notes (yet!)
  2. Pause your lesson. Students write down important topics they want to study.
  3. Give students quick feedback about important topics as students share what they wrote down.
An alternative to this format is to provide students with a guided notes worksheet that is scaffolded to include bits of information. After the lesson is done, students will try to recall the necessary information and fill in the guided notes based on their retrieval of the information. This pivots the retrieval of information away from being done at home and places it in the classroom, but it requires more preparation of resources to use effectively.   Basket of Clues
  1. Take anything discussed in the previous class or questions from study guides, write clues on small slips of paper, or cut up the study guide into individual clues, and put them in a basket.
  2. Randomly choose some clues. Read each clue twice aloud and have students answer on a piece of paper.
  3. Review answers at the end.
The clues should be replaced after the activity, building up an increasing bank of questions that will be revisited over time. Simply revisiting older topics can greatly enhance student learning since it keeps it fresh in their minds.   Weekly Quiz
  1. Write 3-5 short-answer, open-ended questions related to a mix of content related to this week, weeks ago, and today.
  2. Students write silently for a determined amount of time.
  3. Discuss the answers when students have finished.
Most teachers use quizzes already in their classes, which is a great form of retrieval. We can increase their effectiveness by keeping them low-stakes or no-stakes. If the purpose of the quiz is to have students recall the information so that they can retain the information on larger, high stakes tests, then we should keep these quizzes ungraded or worth very little in the gradebook. We should also include questions from previous lessons, giving the students a chance to recall the information from a previous week or unit. Studies have shown that if students simply attempt to recall the information over time, student achievement greatly increases.     These activities are described in more detail in the book “Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning” by Pooja K. Agarwal and Patrice M. Bain. There are many more activities that can be used for retrieval practices besides those mentioned in this post. I encourage you to explore alternatives, choosing activities that work well in your classroom. Don’t try to use every one of these activities at once. Any amount of retrieval practice you can include in your teaching will have a positive impact on student achievement. Start by trying one of the activities several times, switching or adding new activities once you see how it goes.    I will end this blog post by providing a few systems that can be used to build retrieval routines into your own classrooms, potentially adapting your familiar classroom activities in a way that increases retrieval.    Three Systems to Build Retrieval Routines Into Your Classroom Bell work or exit tickets – Give small slips of paper at the very beginning of class as students enter the classroom or before students leave, including questions about content learned in class or in previous classes.   Colored index cards – All students can have their own set of index cards with the letters A, B, C, and D on them (or true/false, or 1,2,3, etc.) Ask a question on the fly and then have students close their eyes while raising the appropriate colored index card to identify their response. An alternative to clickers or other tech tools!   Homemade whiteboard – Insert a piece of paper or cardboard into a page protector. This becomes a cheap, do-it-yourself dry-erase board or homemade whiteboard for each student. You can call out a question and students can write down an answer with a dry-erase marker and hold up the whiteboard.