Use Cognitive Research to Enhance Teaching: Practice at Retrieval

Welcome back!  One of my New Year’s resolutions is to get the blog up and running again, so I hope this post will be the first of several this semester.

As scholars, we are always looking for high quality research related to our disciplines and the courses we teach.  Why not apply that lens to learning?  The field of cognitive psychology has developed dramatically over the past 20 years or so, and we now have quite a large body of research describing how people learn.  I don’t want to overwhelm you with data, so I am going to create a series of posts that describe nine primary principles of learning and how they apply in our classrooms.

The nine principles and some of the examples in these posts come from the Lifelong Leaning at Work and at Home initiative website.  This initiative was started by a group of cognitive researchers dedicated to applying cognitive science research to lifelong learning and higher education.   The website has detailed links to more in-depth information and references if you would like to dig deeper.

This just means that students need multiple opportunities to recall and use information or skills that you want them to remember after your class is over.  If students merely re-read notes or books without practicing retrieving what they have heard and read, they will not retain that material for long.  My first reaction to this statement was “well, duh” but the “single most important” label made me pay more attention, as well as the mention of transfer.

If this statement is correct (and there is quite a lot of research to back it up) what does it imply for the classroom?  What can we do to help students practice retrieving important information?  Here are a few possibilities:

  • Align your classroom activities, assignments and tests so that students must repeatedly access the same information.  For example, ask students questions that require them to recall and demonstrate understanding of material from earlier in the course.  You may want to pose a probing question and have everyone write down a response before you ask for volunteers – that way the entire class gets to practice retrieving information.  Otherwise, only the individuals called on will be engaging in this important task.  This technique also allows you to correct any misunderstanding and it shows students the cumulative nature of learning.  At first, you may get blank stares but if you do this consistently students are more likely to get the message.
  • Test repeatedly on the same material.  My undergraduate self hated the cumulative final exam with great passion, but it is an excellent method for promoting long term retention and retrieval – but only if the material has already been tested earlier in the semester.   You also can get this effect by using chapter quizzes and then repeating important material on exams.  Even giving a unit exam on the last day of class and then a cumulative final a week later will help with retention of recently presented information.   Research suggests that spacing the testing out across the semester leads to better results, and that for maximum effect recall should be somewhat delayed.  As we have probably all experienced, testing or recall efforts that occur immediately after teaching or reading material tends to produce short term positive effects that disappear quickly.   So you might want to start by giving a reading quiz perhaps a week after the reading was discussed in class.  Questions on the same material could appear on a mid-term or be incorporated into a later assignment and then tested again on a comprehensive final.  For maximum effect, the student should be using recall methods like short answer questions or essays and not recognition methods such as multiple-choice, true-false or matching.
  • Encourage students to question themselves or each other instead of re-reading notes or texts.  Give a series of open-ended questions as a study guide or have students bring open-ended questions to class, exchange them, and practice answering them.  Online quizzes can work as recall practice too, although they tend to be more recognition focused.  Assign online quizzes strategically to keep the students repeatedly working with the material over the course of the semester.
  • If you do not use tests, you can still require students to recall and reuse previously learned material for projects, case studies or other activities.  Varying the method of retrieval e.g. using an in-class exercise or presentation instead of a test, enhances retention, since it gives students multiple cues for recalling information.  Material that becomes embedded in a narrative or other rich experience is more likely to be retained (but more on that later).
  • When asking students to retrieve previously learned material, try to provide as few hints (“retrieval cues” in cognitive jargon) as possible.  Thus, a free response essay or an application that requires the student to recall material is better at promoting retention than a multiple choice question that requires only recognition of the correct answer.
  • Give students immediate feedback on their answers to avoid them practicing and learning incorrect material.  When you are working on this kind of long term learning, you want to make sure it is correct!

While these ideas and suggestions can help us design courses that maximize students’ ability to remember and transfer information more effectively, we still have to decide which material needs to be emphasized in this way.  We don’t have the time to require frequent testing and recall of all or even most of the material in a typical course, so it is vital for us to distinguish between material that must be automatically available versus material that can and should be looked up as needed.  The current wealth of easily accessible online information has made this a difficult question, but looking at basic conceptual frameworks, core concepts and strategies is a good place for most of us to start. Using a cognitively informed approach asks us to be more intentional about identifying and choosing the most important material in the course and strategically requiring students to recall it multiple times in multiple ways.  It may require rethinking some aspects of your course, but the reward is longer retention and better transfer of your course’s most important concepts.

Most of this post has been summarized and paraphrased from http://psyc.memphis.edu/learning/principles/lp3.shtml

Next up:  Varying Learning Methods