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Retrieval practice in the classroom: a CogSciSci symposium

It’s pretty easy to get things wrong in education. Brain gym, learning styles, pyramids and more: history is replete with schools and teachers running with ideas that never had any kind of empirical basis to suggest they were worth pursuing. Unfortunately, even when an idea or intervention has evidence behind it we don’t always get it right. The concept of a “lethal mutation” applies when you take something that on the face of it sounds like a great idea and totally mess it up. 

A couple of quick examples might be the use of Formative Assessment and recent developments on Curriculum. For the former, Black and Wiliam’s seminal works used a fairly substantial evidence base to encourage teachers to be more responsive to student understanding in the classroom. Sadly, this work mutated into a craze for three part lessons, mini-plenaries, thumbs up/down and “rapid progress” in the course of twenty minutes. This mutation resulted in Professor Rob Coe claiming that:

“…during the fifteen years of this intensive intervention to promote AfL, despite its near universal adoption and strong research evidence of substantial impact on attainment, there has been no (or at best limited) effect on learning outcomes nationally.” (1)

More recently, the education discourse has been focussed on Curriculum, sparked by grassroots teacher campaigning and bolstered by top down political and Ofsted-based diktat. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a drive towards thinking deeply about the substance of what is to be taught in a sophisticated and subject-specific manner has already mutated, prompting Ofsted to have to publish articles in response before the new framework had even launched. (2)

To be sure then, the threat of lethal mutation is one that we have to treat seriously. We cannot ignore the historical evidence, put our fingers in our ears and say it will never happen again. In a high-stakes system beset by “wicked problems”, the temptation for quick and easy solutions is seductively attractive.

It is with these concerns that we can now swing back to retrieval practice. Data from Teacher Tapp indicates that a great many teachers are starting to employ low-stakes quizzing in their classes on a more regular basis. 

Rosenshine’s increasingly popular Principles of Instruction encourages teachers to begin lessons with short reviews of previous learning and it is probably safe to say that more and more teachers are using it as part of their practice. This is bolstered by its relative simplicity, evidence base and knowledge gained from blogs, papers and online courses like CogSciSci’s free training module on retrieval practice. But given the profession’s history with fads and misapplications, among the clamour and fervour for low-stakes testing in class, is there a danger of retrieval practice lethally mutating when introduced to the classroom?

In a very thought-provoking and challenging blog for the Education Endowment Foundation, Professor Coe teases at the thread which leads from rock solid, lab-based research right the way to dreadful school policies that waste time at best and actively cause harm at worst. Referencing the growing trend for starting lessons with retrieval practice “Do Now” activities,  Coe writes that:

“Why might [retrieval practice] fail to work as the research says it should? Here are a few possible reasons:

  1. Teachers might generate retrieval questions that focus solely on factual recall (these questions are easier to generate) rather than requiring any higher-order thinking.
  2. Questions might be too easy and boost confidence without providing real challenge, which is likely to be a key ingredient for generating the kind of learning hoped for.
  3. Teachers might allocate too much time to the quizzes, effectively losing the time they need to cover new material.

This list could certainly go on.

The point is that avoiding these pitfalls (any one of which could prevent the ‘secure’ research finding that retrieval practice works from being demonstrated in real contexts) requires a mixture of skill (eg, being able to judge whether students have originally learnt the material, being able to create good questions), understanding (eg, that effects are biggest when recall is hard) and commitment (eg, making time to plan the quizzes and keep them going, reducing ‘teaching’ time to fit them in).”

At CogSciSci, this tension between a good idea and a bad implementation interests us greatly. Since our inception, we have tried to bridge the gap between research and classroom practice and show how findings that work in the controlled environment of a psychologist’s lab can be applied to the complex and chaotic classroom. As such, we have organised a short symposium on retrieval practice in the classroom. In the first post, Adam Boxer will describe how he uses the Retrieval Roulette in the classroom to promote both retrieval practice and responsive teaching. In the second post, Damian Benney will build on his earlier research into spacing to push retrieval practice further. In the third post, BioRach will describe how retrieval practice varies depending on the age of the group involved and particularly how it can be beneficial for A-Level biologists. In the final post, Pritesh Raichura will describe how his science department works to get their students into good study habits at home.

We hope that you find the symposium stimulating and helpful, and please do let us know if you want to contribute an article on the same topic or on any other matter of CogSciSci interest.

The first post by Adam Boxer can be found here, the second in the series by Damian Benney here, and the final piece by Rachel Wong here.

CogSciSci Editors

(1) For further reading on AfL in Science, click here

(2) For further reading on Curriculum in Science, click here


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