Teaching and Learning through Retrieval

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Four summers ago, I read “Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning” by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III and Mark A. McDaniel. This book changed my life by teaching me how to use a teaching and learning tool called “retrieval.” Retrieval means putting away study resources such as books and notes and recalling information from memory.

“Make It Stick” describes a classic experiment in which groups of students either read an essay up to four times to capture the information or read it fewer times and then retrieved it by writing down what they remembered about the essay on a blank page. A week later, the students were asked about their confidence in their knowledge and were tested on the essay. The results are fascinating. The students who read the essay once and retrieved it reported the lowest confidence but scored the highest on the test.

After reading the book, I understood why all the hours I spent highlighting my textbook, reading and re-reading my notes, and staying up all night studying for an exam was so darned ineffective. I should have used retrieval instead because it would help me organize the information I had learned.

Learning about retrieval also helped me understand and teach my students better, particularly the ones who spent hours reading their notes and listening to videos. I share this experiment with my students and then I give them essay questions that they need to answer without any notes. If they don’t know the answers, they might feel awful. But I don’t leave them hopeless and hanging their heads. We discuss what they could learn from the experience.

Before our in-class retrieval practice, many students have a false sense of what they know. After learning retrieval, they don’t just rely on a feeling of whether they know the material or not—they have evidence of their knowledge based on their ability to retrieve. To me, this is the power of retrieval.

Like many educators, I want to prepare my students to be passionate, committed and lifelong learners. Shifting the way they think about their assignments and giving them new tools to help them problem- solve can help them achieve their goals. So, when things get tough, my advice to my physiology students is: Keep calm and retrieve on!

Lisa Carney Anderson, PhD, is an associate professor and director of education for the Department of Integrative Biology and Physiology at the University of Minnesota. Anderson’s experience as an educator in both basic science and professional programs led her to the scholarship of teaching and learning. Her interests are teaching critical thinking through reflective writing and improving student learning outcomes with retrieval practice.

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