Disclaimer: I am not asserting the brain should be worked out like other muscles of the body. Thank you.
When discussing retrieval practice, it is easy to focus on the ‘retrieval’ aspect of the learning strategy. It is much more interesting, I believe, to consider the neurological and biological side of the topic in relation to our memory construction and consolidation than to talk about the sometimes repetitiveness of practicing. Even I’m guilty of writing about other aspects of the strategy here and here.
But what of the practice?^ And how do we get students to see its benefits? For most of their schooling, studying or practicing has left such a bad taste in their mouths. Rarely, if ever, does a teacher discuss the scientific and researched reasons for the rehashing of material after a lesson. (To be completely honest, how many teachers understand how practicing material increases retention of information?) In the student’s mind, it can seem like filler in a class block or period. I know, for most of my 10th – 12th grade students, my AP Psychology class is the first class they’ve taken that explains the importance of practice beyond “because practice makes perfect” or “because you’ll remember more if you cover it over and over again”. And like most aspects of an adolescent’s life, if they don’t see the importance of it, they don’t do it.
So, here’s how I try to inspire my students to see the importance of practice with respect to their education and schooling:
Most of my students have passions outside the classroom…theater, band, art, athletics, et cetera. I like to equate the time and effort they put into those passions with the effort they should apply to practicing their school materials. If they commit to properly practicing the material from their school lessons, they can see gains in their understanding and grades just like when they properly practice their passions. Generally, the beginning of this conversation goes something like this:
Me: Tell me some of your favorite things to do that have nothing to do with sitting at your desk right now.
Ss: (A plethora of answers) acting, writing, soccer, musical instrument…
Me: Why do you enjoy these activities?
Ss: Because we’re good at them.
Me: Why are you good at them?
Ss: A little natural talent AND practice.
Me: If you want to improve and be the best you can be with these passions, will you see gains if you do not practice correctly at 100%?
Me: So, should you expect to see real gains in your grades or understanding of school material if you do not practice your homework or in-class problems properly? Think about the relentlessness with which you practice that instrument or sport. Have you ever committed to studying your psychology work with that much veracity? Probably not. So why should you expect to see the same sort of gains?
*It is at this point that, I believe, I transcend the label of ‘teacher’ and become some sort of ‘knowledge warrior’. They stare in bewilderment at the ‘a-ha’ moment they’ve just experienced. They know this psychology course isn’t like all their other classes…no, this class is special. This class will change their life forever. Ok. So maybe that’s only happening in my mind, but it’s nice to dream…back to the dialogue:
Me: Not only does it pay to practice your passions and your school work, but you have to practice properly. Your jump shot won’t improve if you don’t continually practice the proper technique. You cannot become a more prolific trumpeter without correct posture and breathing techniques. Now, with respect to your passion, I’m sure you have Youtubed how to be better at ____________ (insert passion). Have you ever looked up how to study better?
Me: Well, today’s your lucky day, because I can show you how to do just that. And just like with your passions for which you are mostly intrinsically motivated, if you practice properly, you will see gains. Trust me. I am a knowledge warrior.
The idea of equating practicing of school material to the practicing of their passion may sound simple, but students rarely consider the effects proper practicing (retrieval practice) has on their learning. Because they don’t easily see the gains, they usually don’t care to practice. While this analogy certainly doesn’t work for all, I do believe it allows most to better understand just how important proper practicing is in school. If nothing else, you just called yourself a knowledge warrior in class and feel pretty freaking cool.
^Can we begin calling it ‘practice’ instead of ‘study’? I really believe ‘study’ has such a negative connotation in the classroom and ‘practice’ insinuates a possible increase in ability if completed successfully. Also, ‘practice’ could lead to a decreased level of anxiety because most people err while practicing any skill, but that’s an understood reason why we practice.