Retrieval as Communication

Maybe it’s just because we’re nearing the end of the semester, but I find myself talking with students and teachers more about reviewing for exams. Probably the question I’m asked most is, How should I study for my exams? which is a fantastic question to ask. The answer is retrieval practice. And this is the correct answer whether we’re talking about studying for a final exam or just your daily quiz in class. A plethora of research points to retrieval practice as an effective and efficient learning strategy. Here is a wonderful summary of more than a century of research on the topic.

Really quickly, if you’re not familiar with the testing effect or retrieval practice, basically the strategy involves a learner attempting to retrieve information from their memory. This can be accomplished in a number of ways: answering a multiple-choice question, writing an essay, a class discussion, using the material to apply to a new situation, and/or creating something with the knowledge they’ve accrued. Notice, in all of these instances (and more), the learner has to use the knowledge they have to successfully complete the task. You can’t write an essay about the Ottoman Empire if you don’t have that knowledge in your brain. You cannot discuss the ethical issues of Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment if you cannot access any memories of that experiment. Quite simply, retrieval is a venture of cognition.

It’s easy for students (and teachers) to view retrieval in the forms of quiz/test/exam reviews as an attempt at answering a question, and nothing more. And while doing so is better than many other forms of studying, with just a little more effort and consideration, retrieval can be so much more powerful.

Retrieval is communication.

Attempting to retrieve information communicates what we know and what we don’t know. A successful retrieval attempt tells us that, at least, the information is accessible. If I’m tasked with describing three failures of the Articles of Confederation and I can do so (with no aids and without guessing), I can feel somewhat confident in my ability to utilize that information on an assessment (Actually, the fact that I accessed that material means it will subsequently probably be easier to retrieve). An unsuccessful retrieval attempt communicates the information is not accessible. Using the same example, if I could not (using only my brain) recall three failures of the Articles of Confederation, that communicates I do not know the material well enough.

So, what does all this mean to a learner?

It means using retrieval as an honest assessment of one’s knowledge doesn’t just tell me what I’m getting right and wrong. It also communicates what needs to be prioritized for study. Thinking about it very simply, the information I do answer correctly and completely can be placed in the ‘study queue’ behind material I cannot retrieve. It sounds silly to say this, but we spend a lot of time studying content we already know. Doesn’t it make sense to isolate what we don’t know and prioritize that information for study? Retrieval practice is the way to do that.

Unfortunately, in my experience teaching high school students, this sort of metacognition is not intuitive. It takes effort. Explicit effort. By the teacher and the students. I frequently say to my students during retrieval practice:

“Make sure you’re only using your brain to attempt to answer these questions.”

“Do you now know what you know and what you don’t know?”

“How are you indicating what you cannot retrieve?”

“How are you going to tailor your studies after this task?”

By frequently asking these questions, I’m attempting to have students really think about their knowledge and see this retrieval as communication of their level of understanding. Obviously, the ultimate goal is for students to incorporate this thinking into their study habits all the time, without my prompting. But, as stated above, without discussing the value of this thinking and practicing it, they won’t utilize retrieval practice to its full potential.

Retrieval practice is communicating with you. Are you listening?

How do you talk with your students about retrieval practice?

What strategies of metacognition do you use in your classroom?


Feature image by Katerina Holmes from Pexels

3 thoughts on “Retrieval as Communication

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  1. Great article, as usual! I get this question all the time too. My answer boils down to “Identify gaps in your knowledge and then fill those gaps.” And I have a list of actions that will help them accomplish each of those steps. I think this is pretty similar to what you do though the language differs.

    Have you played with Duolingo? It’s a language learning app, and it’s the #1 education app in the Apple App Store. My whole family is addicted to it as we learn French (me) and Spanish (everyone else). It’s super-gamified, but the reason I bring it up is that it is almost entirely retrieval practice.

  2. Great article. As you say, this metacognition and recall is not intuitive for students. I’ve been teaching over 30 years and I find students these days have a harder time with this. Is tit their over-reliance on cell phones to search what they don’t know? Lack of explicit practice using flash cards and tools to help with recall? Or, is it that their teachers in elementary and middle school simply have not required them to exercise their brains in this way. I now as my freshmen students if Japanese, when they struggle to memorize the Japanese syllabary, “Have you ever memorized your times tables?”, as a kind of litmus test. If they haven’t (and many have not been made to do this), I know I have to spend extra time in explicit teaching of recall strategies in class.

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