I bit and read the article --and the copywriters got one more view with this super seductive headline.
The article by Annie Murphy Paul in the August edition of Scientific American was a disappointment and a surprise. I was disappointed because I was ready for a fight and didn't receive one. I was prepared to start swinging with my 'kids are tested too much already' rhetoric but I didn't even get in a small shoving match. I agreed with the arguments presented and that surprised me. I was surprised because Annie Murphy Paul reiterated what every effective educator already understands: recall is as important as content exposure.
Evidence of memory formation comes in the form of retrieval or recall through some sort of observable behavior. If you teach a dog to sit and you'd like to make sure they learned the behavior, ask them to sit. It they plant their butt on the ground, they were able to retrieve the memory and you were a successful teacher.
The same can be said in any classroom. Teach the students content. Follow up by engaging them in a behavior that requires them to retrieve and recall that content.
Is content retrieval synonymous to testing? Yes and no. All tests are acts of retrieval but not all acts of retrieval are 'tests'. To complete a test, a student must search their content 'bank' for bits of knowledge they can weave together for a coherent thought. So yes, a test, in the formal standardized sense, is retrieval.
However, standardized tests are obviously not the only way to practice retrieving content.
I can hear your murmurs now- "Practice retrieval? What on Earth do you mean?"
I mean practice getting the knowledge back OUT of your students brains. Effective techniques pitched at conferences normally discuss how to get information IN. But getting it in is only half the battle. Getting it OUT, or recalling content, needs more attention.
Annie Murphy Paul and Scientific American, to make their headline catchy, bet that teachers, and people in general, forget the importance of the recalling aspect of learning because teaching is normally analogous to the dissemination of information. By stating that "Researchers Find That Frequent Tests Can Boost Learning", they were simply saying that researches find that frequent acts of retrieval can boost learning.
Is there evidence to support this? Does practice recalling content lead to deeper learning?
Yes, yes it does.
Hermann Ebbinghaus is a celebrity in the world of psychology. Ebbinghaus developed monumental ideas shedding light on how we remember by investigating how information is forgotten.
He is most known for his forgetting curve.
Unless, of course, and hence the purpose of this article, we recall the information frequently. Said differently, we lose a memory quickly unless we practice retrieving it.
The last sentence in the abstract (and the title) of this very important article says it all:
(this article is worth your time and very well-written)
Or how about the last line in this abstract:
"The results demonstrate the critical role of retrieval practice in consolidating learning and show that even university students seem unaware of this fact."
(another very readable article worth your time)
Literature is stuffed full of conclusions like the ones cited above. Educators, myself included, often forget about the importance of recall because we are so focused on instruction.
The bottom line is this: not only do teachers need to take several approaches to getting information IN, but also numerous approaches for helping students get the content OUT.
Practicing retrieval makes thinking easier.
Engage your students in meaningful activities where they practice recalling information. Make the activity multisensory and mix in a little variation to keep the activities novel (which in its own right is a powerful learning tool).
How do you pave the retrieval pathway? Connect with the Pragmatic TV Teacher and share you ideas!
Thanks for reading.