Making Retrieval Practice a Force of Habit

As I mentioned in a previous post, students need guidance on how to study. So I instruct them on the various strategies that they can use to help them remember the information as well as make connections across concepts. To that end, I use checks for understanding as well as various types of activities that require students to recall information (aka retrieval practice).

And we practice them. Over and over and over again.

The students know what’s in store if the following words appear in the agenda for the day:

  • Brain Dump
  • Retrieval Practice

Before I go any further, I have to admit that I didn’t come up with the term of a brain dump on my own. I actually came across this term in my Twitter feed and it stuck. The term brain dump accurately sums up the purpose of retrieval practice: dump all of the knowledge that one can remember on a blank piece of paper.

When asking students to do a brain dump, however, I think it is important to give them a structure. Students work better with parameters. The type of structure will depend on how you want students to make connections across concepts. Now, I’m a fan of Tony Buzan’s Mind Mapping strategy as I am a visual learner and I like to doodle. In fact, mind mapping is what helped me prepare for my oral comprehensive exams. I used a combination of mind mapping and retrieval practice for the six months preceding my examination date.

One of a bi-jillion mind-maps I created while studying for my comprehension exam as part of my dissertation study.

To be clear, I define mind mapping as a specific strategy that uses colors and visuals to make connections across concepts. Thus, mind maps can be quite complex or refreshingly simple.

I have taught my students the basics of mind mapping, but we haven’t explored the extent of this practice using color coded branches (yet). There’s only so many instructional minutes in a day, so believe me when I say that this is on my list of things to do with my students.

Onto the point of this post…

Our current unit is China (during the Middle Ages). Students are required to identify the cause and effect of the rise of the Tang Dynasty. I began the study of this standard by giving students an envelop with little slips of paper inside. Students were instructed to organize the strips of paper however they best saw fit. During this time, I walked around asking students to explain their reasoning for the format and order of the slips. When all tables were finished, I projected a multi-flow map on the board and then told the students to reorganize the slips so that they aligned to that format…essentially asking them to identify cause and effect.

Once again, I walked around asking the students to explain their thinking to me. If you’re wondering if the students had any background knowledge of the Tang Dynasty prior to this activity, the answer is no. Students reviewed information from 6th grade (about the fall of the Han and Sui Dynasties), but the information for the Tang was presented cold turkey.

Throughout our three-week unit, students were periodically asked to recall the information for the multi-flow map. They used pencil when writing down their recollections. The initial recall was done independently. I gave them about five minutes to literally dump their brain onto the paper in a multi-flow map format.

Students use pencil to write what they recall on their own.

Then students were given three minutes to chat with their tablemates about the gaps in their recollections. Using a pen, students added the information gleaned from their peers onto their multi-flow map.

Students use pen to add additional notes after talking with their peers.

This practice always ended with the students dumping out the contents of the envelop and organizing the slips of paper accordingly. After that was finished, students added any further missing details (in pen) onto their multi-flow maps.

The last step is to organize the details and add any other missing information to their multi-flow map (in pen).

We repeated this exercise several times throughout our unit. The last time my students did this particular retrieval practice activity, I passed back their original multi-flow maps that they did three weeks prior. I had the students compare their progress over time, paying particular attention to the amount of detail written in pencil from the first to the last multi-flow map. I can attest that students were amazed at the amount of information that they could now remember.

The whole point of this practice was to ensure that students were able to make the connections between cause and effect as well as remember key facts related to the rise of the Tang Dynasty. I always stress to the students that they don’t need to study what they’ve written in pencil as they already know that information. But rather, whatever is written in pen is something that they should focus their attention on because they did not know it first-hand. Middle schoolers struggle with time management, so I feel that it’s important to help them figure how what should be a priority. Pencil versus pen is an easy visual reminder.

Students have two opportunities to demonstrate their ability to recall or retrieve key details about the rise of the Tang Dynasty: a quiz and unit test.

Almost all of them rocked the quiz. Now we just have to wait and see how well they do on the unit test in two weeks. #fingerscrossed

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