Improving Student Learning–and Confidence!–with Retrieval Practice

As we move past the middle of the semester, exams and other big-ticket assessment items are likely on the radar screen for our students. This means, of course, that test anxiety and other underminers are also on students’ mental radar screens, and they can cause unintended difficulties as the higher-stakes, more summative assignments begin to intensify. How many of our students, after doing poorly on an exam, have said something like “I thought I was ready for the test, but once you passed it out, I just got so nervous I couldn’t remember what I studied?” This type of anxiety, where nervousness interferes with cognition, is a real and constant problem for some of our students. For others, it is a more sporadic, but just as difficult, phenomenon. Either way, though, it’s worth thinking about ways in which we might be able to help students mitigate this anxiety and allow for their work to accurately show us what they’ve really learned.

First things first: if a student reports a constant and debilitating anxiety surrounding things like exams or presentations, consider letting them know about our campus counseling and mental health resources; most of us aren’t qualified to diagnose things like anxiety disorders, but we are capable of referring students to those who can be of assistance. But for students who are simply nervous about exams or assignments that may seem new to them, or that cover material with which they struggle, there are pedagogical measures we can take to alleviate some or most of this stress–and improve learning as well.

One of the most significant factors underlying test anxiety is a lack of confidence; students who aren’t confident in either their knowledge of the material or their preparation for an assignment report higher degrees of anxiety regarding these tasks, a finding that shouldn’t surprise us. If we know that increasing student confidence can help reduce test-related stress, the key question then becomes how can we make them more confident in completing this type of high-stakes learning activity?

One powerful answer is to give students regular opportunities to engage in retrieval practice. Also referred to as the “testing effect,” retrieval practice is predicated on the insight that learning which lasts is best assured when the learner has to practice actively retrieving material (as opposed to passively “going over the notes”). As James Lang writes in his book Small Teaching, retrieval practice involves students’ “pulling out” information rather than “putting in” more material to their brains. Basing his observations on the memory research done by Henry Roediger and colleagues, Lang offers a number of suggestions about how strategically testing students on course material in a variety of formats will lead to better retention–and thus increased student confidence.

The more opportunities our students have to “test” themselves on course material, the more likely it is that the material remains active and prominent in their memory. The power of retrieval practice lies in the combination of its simplicity and its payoff. Activities that can be done within minutes lead to learning outcomes that are exponentially more powerful than this simple investment of time would suggest. For example, if you’re teaching a course where students need to memorize a fairly large set of terms or match names and locations of course material (like elements of the nervous system in an anatomy class, or the stages of a Kondriatev Cycle in an economics course), having students take a pre-class and post-class quiz over the material on a regular basis can help them retain it better. Moreover, you can continue to recursively interleave material in these brief quizzes, continuously circling back to stuff you’ve already covered; this type of repeated retrieval is a potent way to help ensure retention of course content. So for example, one week, I may end class with a brief 5-question quiz on specific terms I’ve covered that week; the next week, I’ll do the same, but with three new terms and two from the prior week–and so on. I only have to give up five minutes at the end of one class a week, but I’m giving my students not only good retrieval practice, but a model of how they might study the material on their own, too.

But retrieval practice is good for more than just straight memorization of content; it’s also useful to help build students’ ability to apply specific course knowledge. Again, the operative principle is to provide regular opportunities to practice the type of cognitive activity you want students to master, and doing so in a variety of formats. For example, in mathematics courses, one of the consistent issues students face is learning how to apply a method or technique to problems that look different from the ones they saw that technique used to solve in class. But demonstrating a specific technique, then circling back around with end-of-class quizzes that use differently formatted problems with the same method for the solution, gives students a chance to practice with a variety of different applications.

As part of a regular set of classroom practices, retrieval practice has the potential to mitigate one of the chief lamentations of students who don’t do as well as they thought they would on exams: “I read over my notes a bunch of times; why didn’t I do well?” As the research on retrieval practice shows, this type of passive re-reading doesn’t really do much to help students learn or retain material. Rather, it simply creates an illusion of mastery (“I read this stuff ten times! I know it cold!”) which is cruelly dispelled by the actual assessment. We want our students to be confident, but we want that confidence to be based on something more substantial than the illusion of mastery gained from repeated superficial and passive readings. Our students benefit from the confidence that comes from regular, successful practice with the tasks and materials they’ll be asked to engage with on our assessments.

There is a wide range of ways in which we can build retrieval practice into our courses, whether it’s in-class activities, helping students develop these techniques for their own studying, or–ideally–a combination of both. The most comprehensive resource out there is, a site dedicated to research and application of retrieval practice maintained by Pooja K. Agarwal. The site includes research, downloadable resources, and a number of strategies useful for integrating retrieval practice into your own pedagogy. Also useful are the Lang and Roediger, et al., books linked above. And of course, CETL is happy to help with resources, brainstorming, and/or further conversation about this powerful learning practice.

Have a question? Need some assistance? Want to check out a book? Come by the CETL in Rasmussen 208 or contact us to set up an appointment.

Finally, let’s hope that we’re able to help all of our students develop the type of efficient and direct problem-solving skills this doggo has mastered:


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