Retrieval, Retrieval, Retrieval

The New Year brings with it an opportunity to reset and realign goals after the festivities that take place in December. New Year's resolutions are devised (and probably almost immediately broken); gym memberships are spiking as people look to undo their overindulgence and aim for a fresh start to 2020.

In the world of education, schools close for roughly two weeks, meaning that most students probably haven't reviewed any content in roughly 14 days, 336 hours, or 20104 minutes, thus leading to the infamous "brain drain." Research in the field of memory tells us that to develop long-term memory, information to be forgotten. The Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve helps us to understand the amount of time needed for information to be forgotten, as well as the prime time to force the recall in a student's brain. Even with this information...14 days is still a long time!  

You probably notice this with your students throughout the year. Blank stares? Confused looks? Connections to concepts that don't connect! The key to supporting and helping memory at this point is simple! Retrieve and recall! I'm here to propose that every classroom should be spending the first week back after a long break, the first Monday back after a weekend, or even the first 10 minutes of a class period, retrieving information that was learned "last week, last month, and last year." From Preschool to 8th grade, the neurons in a student's brain should be firing at unprecedented rates to recall information and prime them for incoming content.

In a previous article, I discussed active working memory and how its limitations can create problems when it comes to consolidating new concepts into long-term memory. Let's look at the other side of it. Imagine everything has gone perfectly in your classroom. You have interleaved your curriculum and ensured that students have ample opportunities for spaced retrieval, and by Friday, your students really know their stuff. But Monday comes, and the cracks start to appear. Even the best students will have forgotten what they learned just a few days prior. Why? Just like the old saying, "synapses that fire together, wire together." Similarly, when synapses don't fire, the brain begins to prune the unused ones to make room for new things. Over time, the brain will weed out synaptic connections that are not being utilized and start the process of "synaptic pruning."

They say that the key to a successful sale in real estate is "Location, Location, Location." In your classroom, the key to successfully strengthening student memory is "Retrieval, Retrieval, Retrieval!"

Tools for Tomorrow's Classroom Use:

Retrieval Grid—Try your hand at designing a simple grid (3x3) and in the spaces create questions that students are currently studying and have in the past. A good rule of thumb is to design questions from "last week, last month, last year." Not only are retrieval grids helpful for supporting recall, but they are also a great example of spacing and interleaving. 

Brain Dump—Encourage students to write down everything that they know about a particular topic before they begin studying. This can be in the form of words or pictures—whatever comes to mind. A Brain Dump is great when starting a new topic and asking students to connect their prior knowledge.

Flashcards—These have been around for decades and are still highly effective—when used correctly. Encourage students to have someone else quiz them on the flashcards. Often, students turn over the card before they have tried to retrieve the information, creating a false sense of understanding. 

Quizzes and Tests—The testing effect is a real thing and highly effective when it comes to supporting memory storage. Low stakes are the name of the game here and a key element, especially when it comes to student buy-in. Try calling attendance in the morning and asking a recall question from yesterday's lesson!

About the Author

Peter McBride
Far Hills Country Day School Grade 4 Teacher