Recall or Recognition Questions When Retrieving?

I sometimes begin my classes with a review (retrieval practice) of information from the previous day or week. These reviews usually take about ten minutes and mostly cover the most important and/or confusing material that we will be building on in class that day. Almost always, the review leads to a discussion centered on the information which generates student questions and it really is a nice start to class. It’s a staple of my classroom. Students come to expect the reviews and we frequently have conversations surrounding the ‘why’ of this practice. 

Recently, though, I’ve been considering what type of review should take place. What kinds of questions should I ask my students? When should I provide recognition questions (multiple-choice, matching, et cetera) that only ask my students to wade through the distractors to recognize the correct answer? When should I provide recall questions (essay, short-answer, et cetera) that provide no assistance by supplying possible correct/incorrect answers?

I tell my students, when they are studying/practicing for a test they should try to answer recall questions as much as possible. In my mind, if they can retrieve and recall an answer with no assistance, they can certainly do so when provided options for answers. But, when attempting to retrieve material for the first time in class, perhaps 24 hours or 48 hours after instruction, would it be more beneficial to begin with recognition questions? Then, at a later date, during a second or third attempt at retrieving this material, should I move to more recall questions? 

I’m genuinely asking…I’m not sure what’s best. Intuitively, this “move from recognition to recall type questions” during review makes sense to me…but, just because that ‘feels’ correct doesn’t make it so.

I asked the wonderful Dr. Megan Sumeracki about this line of thinking. She brought up a great point to give me pause: Recognition can be just as difficult as recall if the distractors are demanding and require careful discrimination. Yes. Of course. I can actually see how recognition might be more difficult than recall if the student’s understanding of the material isn’t sound and the distractors are quality. Maybe this is a reason to double down on my students studying with recall questions to better solidify their understanding of the material? Maybe this means I should review more with recognition questions to have them work more with multiple-choice questions (the first part of the AP Psych exam is 100 multiple-choice questions)?

I’m at a crossroads. I sincerely don’t know what’s best for my students…and that really bothers me. Where do I go from here? In the past, this sort of indifference would’ve handcuffed my decision making for a while, but I’ve sort of learned to press on. I’ll certainly continue looking for research that answers my questions on this topic (recognition vs. recall). In the meantime, though, I’ll be sure to provide my students the opportunities to review with recognition and recall questions…generally moving from recognition to recall…a gentle release of guidance and assistance. 

What do you think?

What sorts of questions do you generally ask during class reviews?

Do you have any research for me to view on this topic?

*To any researchers out there who may read my blog: These are the sorts of questions teachers would like the answers to…really, anything that has to do with making instruction more efficient and effective. Please contact me. I’d love to talk and work with you.

11 thoughts on “Recall or Recognition Questions When Retrieving?

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  1. Great discussion! I wonder if the “end goal” should be part of this decision: if the goal is “far transfer,” maybe recall items might be a better idea? Here’s what I’m thinking: if the end goal is that students can use the knowledge/skill in the future in an unfamiliar situation, I bet it’s more likely that they will have to recall rather than recognize in that unknown future situation?

  2. Thank you for bringing this up. After a structured learning experience (e.g., explain, model, scaffolded practice, independent practice) that itself includes retrieval, interleaved practice etc., generally, a recall-cued recall-recognition flow seems to be working as well assuming that long enough time to try to recall knowledge would work better at the beginning…Interestingly, sometimes, following similar sequences may need to be impromptu in class thus becoming much more challenging. Still, there might be other effective factors including the nature of the material to be recalled/recognized, working memory capacity, age etc. Here are some readings that may be relevant somehow: /

  3. I am just about to write my own blog post about using recall/retrieval practice in my middle school science classes. For an Ed class I did a lot of reading about this subject and found the information pretty compelling in favor of such practices. Given that your students are preparing for an AP exam, it seems logical to practice both recall and recognition as you suggest. I’ve upped the amount of in-class review I do to benefit the students who do not do any independent study. It seems to help some. I also explicitly teach how to use flashcards effectively.

  4. I start my class much the same, although for quizzes and class retrieval I always use short answer. I teach chemistry and being able to see the steps used to complete or attempt to complete gives me more info into where they are struggling. It makes feedback easier. For exams I do a higher percent of of the recognition.

  5. Hi Blake,
    When teaching Spanish, I always gave two vocabulary quizzes. The first was always recognition (read the Spanish, provide the English) except we called it ‘the easy way’. 1-2 weeks later, the students would have to recall all the words (read the English, provide the Spanish) but, as you probably can figure out, we called it ‘the hard way’. I saw my units in thirds: the first third was spent doing a lot of memorization, recognition, practice, teacher-led instruction/explanation. The second third was spent doing more recall, production in small bits. The final third was application, transfer, longer bits of language. The last third would be immensely frustration and slow if they did not have automaticity via the recognition and recall from the first two-thirds. My metaphors were either teaching a child to walk / to ride a bike. At first there’s huge support (adult carrying the child / walking while holding the hands of the child or a tricycle — low to the ground, many wheels), then there’s less support which leads to stronger abilities but more falls (cruising / first steps or training wheels on a bike). Finally comes independent walking or riding. Both require strength and automaticity from ample practice yet come with lots of bumps and bruises for a while; but both feel amazing when achieved.

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