Promoting Metacognition with Retrieval Practice in Five Steps

Let me put all the cards out on the table: I am a big believer in using researched/proven learning strategies to improve retention of classroom material. I have applied strategies in my high school Advanced Placement Psychology classes and seen notable improvements in three areas:

  • Test scores
  • Study habits
  • Student’s understanding of their learning

Improvement in test scores is important for many reasons and ultimately describe an overall level of understanding.  While I am thrilled to see my mean test score increase and standard deviation shrink a bit, that is not what I’m most excited about when lauding learning strategies.  I am far happier with the student growth with respect to their study habits and metacognition about their learning.  While I instruct highly intelligent adolescents, most of my students do not enter my room as great learners.  They are merely great memorizers.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but it becomes much more difficult to just memorize your way through college and most of my students (80% to 90%) will attend university.  

In particular, one learning strategy that I believe to be the most effective is retrieval practice.  The Learning Scientists provide a great overview of the strategy here.  Basically, the idea is to attempt to retrieve information from your memory a bit after it’s been presented to you.  This can be done minutes, hours, or days later, and can be seen in many forms:  multiple-choice or matching questions, essays, et cetera .  I have written before on the topic of retrieval practice and its impact on my classroom.  Today, I want to focus on how I promote metacognition through the use of retrieval practice in my classroom.  

Usually the day after a lesson, I use these steps to practice retrieval of the information:

  • Provide questions or a prompt.  Since I am preparing my students for an AP exam in May, I usually provide AP style questions…no more than 7 or so.
  • Answer using only their brain.  Their habit is to either ask those around them for help or to look at their notes/the internet for assistance.  In my opinion, this step is the most important aspect of retrieval practice.  They are forced to attempt to retrieve material and they practice answering test questions, which can help to reduce test anxiety.  A lot of students shy away from this step because it can be difficult or because it highlights flaws in their learning, but I tell my students it’s definitely better to struggle with the material now than on the test.  If the test is the first time a student is presented with material in a way that utilizes the use of retrieval practice, we’ve all probably failed.  
  • Evaluate your answers.  How many answers are you very confident with?  How many answers are simply guesses?  I want students to understand that if they just guessed and answered correctly, they still don’t know the answer, they just got lucky.  Sometimes I’ll have my students delineate, by using a different color pen on their paper, answers they are confident with and those they are not.  This helps them to visualize their pregrade understanding.  
  • Compare/contrast answers with neighbors.  I instruct the students to have a conversation; debate any discrepancies.  At this point, if they can thoughtfully discuss their answers they probably have a decent grasp of the information.
  • Grade your paper.  After grading, I want the students thinking about the following questions:

-Does my grade reflect my knowledge?  Am I happy with my grade?

-If no, what strategies can I utilize to successfully retain the material?  At this point, many students incorrectly believe that their understanding of material is complete…for better or worse.  You can almost see them thinking either “Oh well, I just don’t know this” or “I scored well, I must know this”.  I attempt to impress upon my students that use of other strategies, like spaced practice and dual coding, will further aid to improve and solidify retention of the material.

-If yes,  I ask the students to reflect on what work they put in to remember this material.  If their successful score is not due to guessing/luck, whatever strategies they used appears to have worked.  

I believe it is this metacognition and reflection on their study habits/strategies used that are so important.  One of the goals I have for the students in my class, over the course of a semester, is these learning strategies become their norm for studying.  It’s not something extra, it is what they do to practice and learn.  Without the reflection piece of using retrieval practice and other learning strategies, it is hard for high school students to examine their study/practice growth.  While walking the students through these five steps may seem a little laborious, when initially introducing retrieval practice to them, I find it necessary.  Attempting to convince teenagers their study/practice habits, that usually rely on simple memorization, will more than likely not be successful at college is quite difficult.  They need to see results from their added efforts.  Using these five steps, I have witnessed student’s grades improve and study/practice habits change for the better.  As a teacher, I’m not sure it gets any better…improving a student’s learning and making them more successful.  It’s why we get paid the big bucks.  🙂

20 thoughts on “Promoting Metacognition with Retrieval Practice in Five Steps

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  1. The step of reflecting on what they did to learn the material and how well they know it is key in my opinion. I always get the response, “I studied.” I often ask, “What/how did you study?” Then have to reply with, “I guess that didn’t work!” Of course I follow up with suggestions for improving studying technique. Teaching students how to study/learn material is far more rewarding, for both me and them, than any chemistry I could teach them.

  2. Agree 100%. Teaching our students how to learn and how to assess their learning is so powerful. Most college students cannot do this…let alone high school students. This skill helps to combat the most common thing I hear from freshmen in college – “It’s so much harder than high school. I actually have to study. High school does not prepare you for college.”

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