Retrieval Effect and Testing for Learning

The retrieval effect is a powerful tool to enhance student learning.

retrieval effect

Why Not Testing?

As a student I loved taking tests, largely because I was good at them.

As a writing teacher, my attitudes about tests have been mostly negative. For one, grading handwritten essay exams sucks a whole lotta squirrel shit.

The fact that students freak out about exams, to the point where they don’t do their best writing and thinking on them, is another consideration. In their panic, they lose what little thread of sense we think they might have acquired in our classes, and they write wacktacular theories about how more guns and processed food will make preschoolers healthier.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want students to suffer like that anymore than I want to read that crap.

Testing, as done by most schools and most teachers, is a pedagogical nightmare I have avoided as much as possible.

That is the attitude and experience I brought to James M. Lang’s work earlier this year. The key thing his work has asked of me is to re-think the value of testing for students.

How Might Testing be Valuable for Students?

It’s no surprise to most of us that we’ve been doing testing wrong. Schools and teachers have been stuck in a rigid and unproductive box when it comes to testing, which does nothing to show students’ best work.

It’s time for a paradigm shift about testing; not only can we test outside the box…there is no box.

The fact is, there is no box when it comes to the kinds of tests we can design for the benefit of our students, there is only bad habits and longstanding patterns we must overthrow.

A test is not something that has to happen on paper or come at the end of the unit or be done exclusively as a solo activity. A test is not something that needs to count for a large percentage of a grade or even be graded by the teacher.


The question we need to ask is: how can we create tests for the benefit of our students?

Think about that for a minute.

What happens to the whole education system when we explore ways to help students shine through testing?

The Retrieval Effect can Help Students Shine

The work of James M. Lang provides the foundation for my understanding of the retrieval effect. In his book, Small Teaching he defines the principle that underlies a new way of testing:

Put as simply as possible the retrieval effect means that if you want to retrieve knowledge from your memory, you have to practice retrieving knowledge from your memory. The more times that you practice remembering something, the more capable you become of remembering that thing in the future. (20)

Teachers might assume this is what students are doing when they study, but that is only one form of retrieval, and most students haven’t been taught strategies to help them do it.

Another hitch in this process, is that many of us who go into secondary and post-secondary teaching were naturally good at and interested in our disciplines. This made studying and retrieval less arduous and didactic for us as learners.

Assuming students don’t need in-class opportunities to practice retrieval is dangerous.

As teachers we often reiterate material for students, emphasizing important points. We might provide a study guide for them to use outside of class. But re-reading and reviewing are not retrieval practices, and not testing the knowing in ways that enhance long term memory.

At a very basic level, our class structures and testing strategies are failing students, and not the other way around.

What this means for teachers is that to design a good test, we need to start way before the actual test, giving students opportunities to practice retrieving their knowledge. In addition, there are many ways to practice and demonstrate knowledge retrieval beyond what we think of as the typical formats of college exams: multiple-choice, short answer, or essay.


Retrieval Practice Ideas

  • At the end of each lecture teachers could ask two or three of the exam questions for students to answer on a note card anonymously or via a google forms link or some other social media survey if your students are media savvy. This way, teachers get an immediate sense of what material students know and don’t, which could be reviewed at the beginning of the next class.
  • Teachers might open each class with a question that would be on the exam pertaining to material from one of the last two classes, and ask students to answer the question either individually in their notebooks, on note cards to collect and look at immediately, or in small groups. This, of course, takes time, but it does get them practicing recall regularly. It also conditions them to review their notes before class, because they will be asked to recall what they learned in previous class sessions.
  • If you use an online course management system you can have regular quizzes that students can take as many times as they want (for no points or extra credit) but you can look at the results of those and can see which questions they’re missing and note patterns. Many textbooks have free quizzes on their websites you can encourage students to use as supplement, and the course management systems often have textbook tools that integrate without you having to do more than select and import. Since you’re not pointing these practice retrieval activities activities, you don’t have to go through them and monitor them the way you would if you were using them as part of your own exams, so the workload is minor.
  • Another option is two day testing. On the first day students took the exam by themselves, turned it into the professor for scoring, and then went home to study what they were unsure about. On day two they come back to take the exam again in small groups. Now, some teachers might think it is cheating that they get to work in groups, BUT, what we know about the neuroscience is the important part here: by retaking the same test they reinforced their own learning by testing their memory. It’s the retrieval effect in action that matters, and not that they got to work with peers. The result is that everyone, even the slackers, had the chance to learn the material a bit deeper and test their own knowledge twice. You could let students choose if they want the individual or group score, you could weight them both, or pick the highest score of the two.

Practice and Experiment

However you choose to do this, give it time. These are new strategies for teachers and students. Many students will find them completely foreign and stare at you like you’re crazy. They may even resist. I’ve had stubborn classes that refused to participate in my new ideas and other classes that jumped right into the crazy void with me.

If you have more ideas or thoughts to add, leave them in the comments.

Post script: there is an interesting rubric in this article for conceptualizing the kinds of questions we might design for exams I found really interesting.

I do want to specifically recommend Lang’s Small Teaching and his online columns. His work both synthesizes the current research and contains practical examples of what teachers are doing in their classrooms across the curriculum. If you’re a new teacher, his On Course book is worth your time.

Originally published by Cherri Porter August 20, 2016.

Image by Aaron Burden, Unsplash.

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