Jamal Merritt on “Transform Educational Technology with Powerful Tools from the Science of Learning”

Dr. Pooja Agarwal speaks to a group of education professionals at the LearnLaunch Institute.

“What did you have for breakfast yesterday?” “What is your least favorite ice cream flavor?” What initially seemed to be trivial questions to the crowd of experienced teachers, education researchers, and edtech professionals at LearnLaunch last Wednesday was shown to be a powerful tool for teaching and learning.    

Dr. Pooja Agarwal, professor of cognitive science at the Berklee School of Music and Vanderbilt University, led a session on the science of learning, presenting research-backed techniques like retrieval practice, interleaving, feedback, and spacing that can help every learner store and recall information.

Retrieval practice, put simply, is a learning strategy that improves long-term memory through the retrieval of information. This can be done a number of different ways, such as using clickers, pen and pencil, or on dry-erase boards. These methods not only both engages students and encourages them to recall information, but it also improves their learning.

A cool thing about retrieval practice is that we’re already using it every day in the classroom: almost all educators are giving their students exams, quizzes, or homework. Some audience members expressed concern with the effect of feedback from the retrieval practice strategy would have on a student’s testing anxiety. Dr. Agarwal alleviated any concerns by stressing one of the main components of effective retrieval practice: that it is a no-stakes learning opportunity. Students focus on remembering information in a non-stressful and judgment-free environment, maximizing collaboration among peers, student engagement and expression, and the improvement on the student’s learning and memory skills.

The success of the retrieval practice method on student learning is due to how the brain works. The brain’s long-term memory can be practiced and improved like any other skill such as playing an instrument or a sport. Because of this, the retrieval practice strategy doesn’t have to be linked to a specific subject in order to be effective: whether you ask students to remember their least favorite ice cream flavor or the capital of Australia, it all helps improve their ability to recall information across a variety of subjects.

One challenge to implementing retrieval practice successfully in the classroom is time: why should teachers spend precious class time on retrieval practice exercises when they could instead be teaching the next concept or chapter? Dr. Agarwal pointed out that, given the goal of helping students learn, these tools will actually save time in the long term by reducing the need for re-reading or re-teaching.

Other questions also arose from the audience from teachers who were contemplating how and if they would use the concept of retrieval practice in their curriculums. “How does retrieval practice account for differences in learning between students” and “How often does retrieval practice need to be spaced out to be effective?” were among some of the examples. You can check out Dr. Agarwal’s website on retrieval practice, www.retrievalpractice.org/learnlaunch , which goes more in depth about these questions and provides helpful guides on implementing it into the classroom.

So what? Although the concept of retrieval practice is exciting and applicable, it isn’t anything revolutionary in terms of memory and learning research. But it can be instrumental in shifting the classroom learning experience from an input-focused to an output-focused mindset. “The research that my colleagues and I have done confirms that much of what educators already do improves learning,” Pooja says. “We do have intuitive notions of how students learn, and there’s research to back it up. Because I do feel we spend a lot of time going through fads or picking up the next shiny object, and using it to teach as opposed to using some of the basic principles from the science of learning.”

Now that you’ve read about retrieval practice, you can practice it too: after you close this blog, take a moment to remember two things you learned about retrieval practice and memory.

Be sure to also visit www.learnlaunch.org/events so you don’t miss any of our upcoming events!

Jamal Merritt is an intern at LearnLaunch Institute.