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Total recall: helping students retrieve content

Come exam time, if you haven’t gone back over previous content, the students will simply be relying on short-term memory to succeed, writes Paul Moss

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Come exam time, if you haven’t gone back over previous content, the students will simply be relying on short-term memory to succeed, writes Paul Moss

Students forget stuff. After reviewing the science, it makes sense why. It basically comes down to survival: our brains discard or put to the back of the mind items that aren’t needed in the present, to make space for items that are needed. The implication of my unabashedly dumbed-down science is that unless we retrieve information from our long-term memories reasonably often, it becomes harder to recall it when required. A student needing to retrieve content some six or nine months, or even two years, after it being taught is going to have serious issues unless they have reviewed the content along the way.

It’s also important to bear in mind that students will have more than just your course to contend with. When you think about how much they have on their plate, and the various technical terms and specific subject requirements they have to grapple with, it very much validates the need to help students with their memory of content as much as possible.

A simple quiz

There are many ways to engage the process of retrieval, but I prefer a simple quiz delivered at the beginning of each lesson. 

The process is simple. In the first 10 minutes of every lesson, I give my students a six-to-10-question quiz based mostly on content from the previous lesson, but with a few questions from lessons further back in the sequence, sometimes from months ago. Every fortnight (sixth lesson), I give them a longer quiz (25 minutes), based more on older content. The questions are focused on key things from the lessons, including key ideas and concepts, quotes (being an English teacher), or vocabulary and technical language. After the questions are asked, usually verbally, students self-correct, as the answers are discussed via some very active questioning, normally with me getting a few other quick questions in, too. Students correct in a different-coloured pen, which makes it easy for them to see if mistakes are evident. This is a practice I magpied from @effortfuleduktr and Lynsey Penwill, and it serves as an excellent diagnostic for students in their revision.

Recalling content with ease

The results of doing this now for some four months are fantastic. My students are recalling content with ease, and they readily engage with the low-stakes aspect of this type of assessment. They can easily see what they don’t know, and because I have been focusing on their metacognitive processes by telling them that the content in the quizzes is key information from the course, they are developing stronger revision practice. In short, retrieval practice is working.

In fact, the results I’m getting out of the process have swayed my opinion on whether a course characterised by controlled assessment is better than an exam-based course. I now prefer the exam-based system because my students are gaining so much more knowledge and understanding of the key aspects of what I teach. It’s a joy to be able to ask students about something we covered months ago and not get the usual "I don’t know" or "can’t remember". Instead, the students' confidence has risen; they are able to recall content at will, which ultimately allows them to keep linking what they are learning with previous learning, giving them a more holistic vision of the course, a view that we as teachers have. I can confidently say that by the time the course ends, my learners will be better learners; they will know how to master content for the rest of their lives; and they are more likely to pass and gain their desired qualifications because of retrieval practice.

Ready for exam time

The usual question I’m asked about the quiz strategy is "How can you cover the prescribed content if you spend so long going back over previous content?" My answer is: come exam time, if you haven’t gone back over previous content, the students will simply be relying on short-term memories to succeed, and because short-term memory has a limited capacity, the chances of success are reduced. You are better off teaching less content but with depth (incorporating retrieval into a scheme of work) than ploughing through until exams in the hope students can cram like crazy for multiple subjects. I now know which option I will always go with.

Learning about a more strategic approach to recalling content is no longer an end-of-term CPD day option, a session you may casually glance at and ignore because you are sure that your students know how to revise. Learning about retrieving content is a modern teacher necessity.

Paul Moss is a teacher and consultant

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