Retrieval Practice in the Collaborative Setting

If you’ve read my blog before, you know I’m a big proponent of retrieval practice. I sincerely believe introducing its positive effects is among the best things I do for my students. It is a wonderful tool for students can use to improve retention of material, assess their own learning, and study more effectively and efficiently. And while I frequently discuss with my students its benefits when studying alone, I wonder how working with a partner or group affects retrieval practices’ benefits. How could studying and reviewing with a buddy influence both the person asking the question and the person who is tasked with speaking the answer? Does simply hearing a person speak an answer elicit the same benefits as recalling and speaking the answer oneself?

A 2017 study by Dr. Magdalena Abel and Dr. Henry L. Roediger III (The Testing Effect in a Social Setting: Does Retrieval Practice Benefit a Listener?) looked specifically at this aspect of retrieval practice. They conducted 3 experiments to test how students in collaborative groups were impacted by either retrieving information to answer aloud (overt retrieval) or as a listener/monitor of a speaker’s response (covert retrieval). How would recall be affected when assessed either after three minutes or two days?

Here are the quick and easy results, although I highly recommend you look at the entirety of the article, as it’s quite interesting how Abel and Roediger manipulated the variables.

In experiments 1 and 2, subjects asked to overtly retrieve information (state their answer out loud) accurately recalled more than subjects tasked with covert retrieval (simply listening for accuracy or fluidity of information from the subject overtly retrieving) when assessed after a two day retention interval. In other words, if you’ve got two students quizzing each other, the student asking the questions and listening for the answer is not retaining as much information as the student tasked with recalling and answering the question aloud. Personally, this makes sense to me and I would have assumed as much…although, I try to rely on my intuition as little as possible when designing activities in my classroom.

In experiment 3, Abel and Roediger changed the task of the listener. Instead of simply assessing the answer of the subject overtly retrieving, now the covert retriever was asked to monitor and answer silently themselves. They were also asked to record by circling either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on a piece of paper whether they were able to recall the answer. Completing this task essentially created a situation where both subjects were asked to come up with an answer, but only one verbalized it. The results? Unlike experiments 1 and 2, where the subject overtly retrieving scored better than the covert retriever, in experiment 3, both subjects scored quite similarly. The cognition involved in recalling and retrieving the answer lead to the learning, not simply the overt retrieval.

Now, I’m not much for quotes, but one does seem to fit here:

“The person doing the thinking is doing the learning.”

You may have read a very similar quote. Usually, when floating around twitter, it says “The person doing the talking is doing the learning.” This is usually meant to discredit lecture in the classroom and amplify the ‘guide on the side’ mentality of teaching. But, as Abel and Roediger’s study shows, thinking about the information and mentally working with the material does lead to learning.* Can talking demonstrate learning? Of course…but it isn’t necessary for learning.

Now for the really important questions:

How does this apply to the classroom? To collaborative work?

-When a question is presented to the whole class, give time for all to ponder and write their answer down on paper before asking for one student to verbalize the answer.

-When students are reviewing with partners or in a larger group, giving all participants a task that involves thinking about/with the material. This may look like students writing their answer down on paper before revealing to all.

-Very practically, instead of using flashcards in a manner where one student holds the cards and presents them for another student to answer verbally (think overt and covert retrieval), simply place the cards on the table and have both students write their answer down before flipping over the card.

The common thread in all of these activities is cognition…requiring all to access material from their memory. In my opinion, that should be a main focus of the classroom and guide instruction on a daily basis.

This all seems so simple. I know. Isn’t that great? The most simple task can be the best for learning. Keep it focused on the learning, on the thinking about and application of the material, and not some complicated activity. Sometimes the complexity of the task distracts from the information to be learned.

What other methods/activities can you think of that ensures all students are thinking about the material in the collaborative setting?

*This is why I believe, from the cognitive lens, passive learning is a myth. If a student is thinking about/with the material at hand, they are cognitively active. All learning is active.  

8 comments

  1. Sometimes, I ask them to write down highlights of the group task individually…Then, they discuss it in their groups and can make revisions accordingly…Next, we discuss their highlights as a class all together in which I provide the final form of feedback if needed…Finally, they need to revise their highlights based on the feedback provided… Writing here may come from in different forms including creating a flow chart, concept map, job aid etc…

  2. Learning the quadratic formula today, girl asked to take a picture of the formula on the board. I said she should look at it every day, then corrected myself saying, “recite it in your head, and then check it from your phone”. Small change, big difference a bit like “read, cover, write, check” for vocabulary

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