The Effortful Educator

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:

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:

-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.  🙂