Retrieval Practice in the High School Classroom

One of the largest gaps in my students’ learning that I encounter regularly is a lack of study/learning skills.  I am extremely fortunate to teach at a school that has high expectations for all and produces some amazing kids.  About 90% of each graduating class attends a 2 or 4 year college/university every year with over 50% of those attending with scholarship.  With that being said, a lot of the students are not great learners; they’re great memorizers.  We can argue nature/nurture all day, but most of my student’s parents are either engineers with the U. S. Government or work for NASA…so they’ve got some good genes.  I think, in high school, they are able to adapt and learn to play “school” really well.  For the most part; however, I believe the number of students who can continue to play school successfully into their college years is fleeting.  

Here’s where learning strategies come into play.  I really see it as part of my unwritten, and maybe more important, curriculum to equip my AP Psychology students with these skills/strategies.  In my opinion they are incredibly important to the development of a self-sustaining student as they; hopefully, transition into a lifelong learner.  The strategies are researched.  They are experimented.  They are proven.  They increase achievement.  They are not just applicable in my class, but can be applied to all classes.  Why would I not want to make my students more successful?

Implementation of Retrieval Practice

Of the learning strategies I implement with my students, I believe retrieval practice is perhaps the best.  By best, I mean I see an increase with grades, it is the easiest to teach to my students, and is most likely to be used by my students.  Loads of research has been conducted that proves my previous statements.  Don’t believe me?  Just search for scholarly writings on the topic.  Retrieval practice stimulates the brain and makes my students think with and about the material.  One of the teacher mantras in class is “if the first time you’re made to really think about and apply  this material is on the test, we’ve both failed.”

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The use of retrieval practice solves that possible failure.  The idea here, at least in my mind, is to create cognition; to create effortful thinking with the material.  After instruction (sometimes this is at the end of class, but may be up to a day or two later), my goal is to put my students in front of questions or situations that force them to think and create answers using the material.  This can be a brief exercise, and since I am an AP instructor, most of the time involves AP style multiple-choice questions.  I tell my students to honestly attempt to answer the questions using only your brain…no usage of notes or a partner’s notes or brain.  Once they’ve finished answering, I sometimes instruct the students to share answers with partners to possibly stimulate a conversation about the material.  Next, I tell them the answers to the questions.  Finally, and this is what I believe may be the most important aspect of this entire exercise, I ask them to look back at their answers.  Did they earn 100%?  60%?  If they didn’t do well, I want them to think about what they did to prepare for this retrieval practice.  If they’re not happy with their score, they need to do something different…if they do nothing to change their study habits, they shouldn’t necessarily expect a better score the next occasion we complete this exercise.  That reflection is important.  I believe it tells the students…ok, you didn’t do so well on this low-stakes assignment, but you have the power to change that before there is a high-stakes assessment.  The ability to understand this material, apply it, and grow is entirely up to you.  I usually end by reminding them they can do this on their own time…use Albert, Quizlet, or another form of questioning site; but they should not simply reread their notes or highlight their notes.  There’s very little interaction with the material and the brain effort used is quite low.  

Recent Results of Retrieval Practice
Since the beginning of this semester, I’ve really been hitting home retrieval practice with my students; placing much more emphasis on its use in class and home.  Thursday, my 71 AP Psychology students took their first test of the semester.  The class average for this first test has been in the 72 to 74 range over the past 5 years.  The class average this week was almost 82.  While I would like to attribute the increase to absolutely brilliant instruction, I sincerely believe that a lot of the increase can be attributed to my focus on retrieval practice during lessons.  Yes, I understand there are many confounding variables that could contribute to the higher scores.  At the end of the day; however, I’ve got students understanding an important strategy that can be applied in all of their classes and believing they can improve their learning ability.  That’s a big win in my book.  The ultimate goal, I believe, is to have my students apply the major learning strategies in their everyday studying/practice.  They become their study habits.  The strategies are the norm.  I believe by doing this, I’ll perhaps be helping my students enjoy learning a bit more while also preparing them for their university classes.

12 thoughts on “Retrieval Practice in the High School Classroom

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