As a technology integrator, a trained Learning Design Coach and a Critical Friends Coach, I often get asked by my colleagues, “How can I make this better?” and “Will you help me think about _____?”
So it made sense that my friend and colleague would send me a text message over the summer that read, “Will you help me with ideas on retrieval practice?” He had just listened to a podcast that our division director shared with the faculty. It was Jennifer Gonzalez’s (Cult of Pedagogy) interview with Pooja Agarwal, Ph.D., cognitive scientist and founder of RetrievalPractice.org.
When I think about retrieval practice, I immediately think about throwing a tennis ball for my dog (which I had to teach him to do because he didn’t instinctively know how to retrieve) and I ask myself, what’s the point of retrieval practice? It’s fetch and bring back. Fetch and retrieve. It’s the act of asking a learner to fetch knowledge and bring it back in new and different ways. Retrieval practice can either be off-the-cuff or intentionally planned, but in both cases, a teacher is asking a learner to recall information and make sense of it in a new way. It tells the teacher, what stuck, what’s lasting, and what’s still missing.
Well, that’s an assessment: ongoing and formative. It’s a glimpse of a student’s knowledge construction: how she makes sense of new information and forms a new understanding or reality.
Sounds awesome, right? Isn’t that what all educators seek to provide? My colleague was essentially saying to me, “Yes, and how do I do that?”
Imagining he wouldn’t be alone, I put together three questions teachers can ask themselves when creating opportunities for retrieval practice and ongoing formative assessment.
1. What do you want to know?
Do you want to know if students remember content and facts? Or maybe you want to know how students make sense of the new content? Both? All three are important to consider because they change the type of question you might ask.
For example, you might ask a student if he or she can remember the four types of sentences: declarative, interrogative, blah, blah (I don't remember the other two and I used to teach it myself). This type of question will tell you whether a student can recall facts and definitions from a lesson. But you can also ask a student, "Why would you, as an author, want to use a declarative sentence in your writing? How would it make your audience feel?"
Both questions are retrieval, both tell you what stuck, but the second question relies on accurate information AND exposes how the student personally makes sense of the information and how he or she would imagine using it.
2. What kinds of questions will get to what you need to know?
Do you want purely recall of facts or do you want to see how knowledge has changed? Do you want students to imagine the implications for this new information? There’s not one, best question, but what you ask can change the purpose of the retrieval process.
3. What method will you use?
There are a lot of contexts in which students can retrieve information. It can be in a journal or in a conversation, online or in person, written, drawn, or recorded. My colleague decided that in the example of the types of sentences, used above, he would first use Turn and Talk so that students could retrieve and verbally explain their understanding of the four sentences. Students would then use Seesaw to label four types of sentences and add a voice caption explaining how one of the sentences would be used by an author. Once all students posted their responses, individuals would read and listen to peers’ posts, looking for ways they could improve their OWN post.
Luckily, for all of us, retrieval IS an instinctual, normal process for recalling information that is important to us. When used in contexts that are personally meaningful, it actually becomes fun to retrieve information, stories and experiences that have shaped and reshaped our understanding of the world around us. When learners regularly retrieve information, not only are they practicing the information, but the act of retrieval itself. Retrieval becomes a metacognitive strategy that students can call on to remember information. Retrieving to be better at remembering AND retrieving to be better at retrieving.
Two skills in one.