According to research, retrieval is a key process for both learning and understanding. As well as being a neutral assessment of a learner’s knowledge, the act of retrieval itself also produces learning.
But how best can teachers test what pupils have learnt in the classroom? What do you know about memory and how can you develop its capacity to learn?
Knowing whether a pupil has learnt something
One problem with trying to demonstrate learning is that the word itself is often hazily defined. In their research piece Retrieval-based learning: A perspective for enhancing meaningful learning, Jeffrey Karpicke and Phillip Grimaldi believe that “learning represents the ability to use past experiences in the service of the present.”
However, another way of looking at it is that there has been a shift in long-term memory, acquiring knowledge. If someone has learnt something, they can then use that information in the future.
But learning is more than just encoding information and often depends on the ‘type’ of knowledge acquired. For example:
- Declarative knowledge = the need to know something.
- Procedural knowledge = knowing what to do with that information.
This is why its so important for teachers to have a good grasp of memory, and by association, retrieval.
What is retrieval practice?
Retrieval can be described as the “analysis of learning”. Karpicke et al argue that “Despite the positive effects of active retrieval practice, several findings converge on the conclusion that many students lack metacognitive awareness of the benefits of active retrieval.”
For this reason, schools and teachers must encourage pupils to think about their learning – something the EEF has looked to support with its guidance reports about metacognition.
Karpicke et al also suggest that for “decades, researchers in cognitive psychology have made the argument on both logical and empirical grounds that [pupils] do not store copies of past experiences and reproduce them verbatim at the time of retrieval…
[Pupils] sometimes experience illusions and distortions when they reconstruct knowledge… The knowledge a [pupil] expresses can vary greatly depending on the retrieval cues available… The inferences one might make about student learning depend entirely on the retrieval conditions.”
How to make retrieval practice work?
The research advocates that information should be retrieved at least two, if not three times for optimal performance. Even so, it is vital for every teacher to regularly check the learning of their students. Simply assuming that lesson content has been understood is very dangerous.
“If retrieval merely assessed the learning, then we would not expect to see much gained by increasing the number of repeated retrieval opportunities. Yet repeated retrieval produced large gains in long-term retention,” says Karpicke et al.
“Repeatedly retrieving words during initial learning, which amounted to only two or three extra retrievals in this experiment, produced about a 150% improvement in long-term retention.”
The authors go on to add that one of the challenges for future development is to identify the best ways to leverage active retrieval to promote student learning.