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

Teaching How to Study

It is no secret that testing is part of the learning process, and it doesn’t matter whether you call it a check for understanding, quiz, formative assessment, pencil game…whatever. Teachers know what they want their students to learn. And students (ideally) should know what they are supposed to demonstrate mastery of, too.

So if teachers know what students need to learn, and if students know what they are expected to learn, why aren’t test scores high across the board? Why do some students perform poorly on tests? And why do others stay up late studying for a test…for hours on end?

When I ask myself these questions, if I dig real deep into the root cause of why students struggle with tests, what I’ve come to realize is that students don’t know how to properly study for tests.

Many students engage in massed or blocked practices (i.e., cramming) which may help in the short-run, but will not persist over time (Roediger & Pyc, 2012). Another study method that students often use is rereading the material…over and over and over again. This type of effort also does not result in long-term retention, but rather a false sense of confidence in remembering the material because each successive reading is easier and seems more familiar than the last (Brown, Roediger, & McDaniel, 2014).

I guarantee if you ask students how they study, they will tell you that they do both of the aforementioned.

And that’s why many of them struggle.

The learning sciences are clear that massed practicing does not lead to long-term retention of information (Brown, Roediger, & McDaniel, 2014; Roediger & Pyc, 2012). But rather engaging in spacing (learning over time or spiral learning) and retrieval practice (deliberately recalling what has been previously learned) are two study methods that have been shown to have positive effects on long-term retention of information (Roediger & Pyc, 2012).

Retrieval practice can occur in a variety of ways (Blunt & Karpicke, 2014). I have used manipulatives, quickwrites, and mind-mapping. I don’t know that the manner of retrieval is as important as the act in and of itself. What I mean by that is that students need to engage in some serious thinking (recalling) of the information in order to make it stick. In fact, Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel (2014) in their book Make it Stick wrote “while any kind of retrieval practice generally benefits learning, the implication seems to be that where more cognitive effort is required for retrieval, greater retention results” (p. 40).

So what does that mean for my students?

Well, today, that meant that I gave my students a blank piece of paper. Together we drew a basic concept map of the main topics or content that they need to know. Then I gave them eight minutes to engage in what I call a brain dump: writing anything and everything they recall about the topics listed on the concept map in pencil. No talking to peers, and no looking on each other’s papers either. Then after eight minutes, I gave verbal prompts in the hope that it would further jog their memory. Still no talking to peers or looking on each other’s papers. I wanted them to focus solely on what they remembered. After two minutes of verbal prompts, students were instructed to grab a pen, share their findings with their peers, ask questions, and fill in the gaps on their concept maps in pen. For the most part, students were fully engaged for the entire 20 minutes. Their concept maps were growing outward like a spider web with details upon details from their peers whether they copied from another person’s concept map or jotted down a thought that came to mind. The best part of this practice was that students were actively engaged in the learning process. Better yet, when they were done, they had a great study tool which told them what they already knew (in pencil) and what they needed to further study (in pen).

It is my hope that my students learn and practice good study skills. I know it won’t come simply by me telling them that a test is coming. I need to pro-actively teach them ways to help with long-term retention of information. And just like anything that I do in my classroom, this is something that will need to be revisited time and time again until it becomes ingrained…a habit for them.


Blunt, J. R., & Karpicke, J. D. (2014). Learning with retrieval-based concept mapping. Journal of Educational Psychology, 106, 849–858. doi:10.1037/a0035934

Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L., III, & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it Stick: The science of successful learning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hardiman, M. (2012). The brain-targeted teaching model for 21st-century schools. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Roediger, H. L., III, & Butler, A. C. (2011). The critical role of retrieval practice in long-term retention. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 15(1), 20–27. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2010.09.003

Roediger, H. L., III, & Pyc, M. A. (2012b). Inexpensive techniques to improve education: Applying cognitive psychology to enhance educational practice. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 1, 242–248. doi:10.1016/j.jarmac.2012.09.002

What Makes PD Worthwhile


It doesn’t take a genius to know what motivates teachers when it comes to professional development…

But just in case that notion is elusive, I’ll let you in on a secret…what motives a person to seek professional development centers on the ideas of choice and empowerment.

I won’t bore you with the numerous times that I have been subjected to forced or mandated PD because let’s be honest, we’ve all been there, done that. No choice. And certainly no empowerment there.

This past week, I attended two different types of PD. One was specific to my content area (i.e., history/social science) and the other one was related to technology (my other passion). Both PDs were relatively flexible in the format and there was time for us to engage in meaningful dialogue not only with peers from our grade level but also with those outside of our normal circle of colleagues.

And it was great.

I enjoyed talking with my colleagues at the high school level because it helped me to better understand the skills that I need to help instill in my middle schoolers. Now, I don’t consider what I do in the classroom as solely preparing for high school…because that’s too myopic. What I’m trying to do in my classroom is instill the love of learning for historical content as well as renew their curiosity for the unknown and sharpen their creativity skills.

The other PD I attended last week focused on instructional technology. This time, I spoke with elementary teachers to gain insight on the skills my students would be bringing with them to my classes. It was certainly enlightening and exciting to talk with lower level elementary teachers (I’m talking Grade 1) as I now know my middle schoolers will be better equipped to take their learning and use of technology tools to the next level.

The only downside to both of the PDs I attended was the short duration. An hour and half can seem like a long time after teaching a full-day of classes, but in reality, the conversations just started to get really good when 5 o’clock rolled around. #bummer

The good thing is that these groups meet monthly so there will be time to continue the conversations. It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to speak with colleagues from both elementary and high school. As we are a unified school district, what impacts one level ultimately impacts the other…so yeah, we’re all on the same team.

Needless to say, the end of last week left me excited for what’s to come. Were there areas from both PDs that could be improved? Of course. There’s always room for improvement. But I’m liking the fact that there was flexibility in what we could do and discuss. Because that’s the foundation of choice and, ultimately, empowerment. It’s what makes attending PD motivating for teachers like me.

Reflecting on Reflecting

So…I finished reviewing the first reflection assignment I challenged my GATE/PreAP students to complete, and I have to say that I am quite impressed with the results!

As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, I ended up giving my students several options for their blog assignment:

  • Individual or with partners
  • Blog (written) or vlog (video)
  • Public (world-wide) or semi-public (viewable by class members only)

Some students created their blogs using Wix, Weebly, and even YouTube. Quite a few opted to use Google Slides for their reflections. Either way, I loved the creativity that was reflected in many of their entries! Some students jazzed their blogs up with still images, creative fonts, or animations. I also had those who were to the point (nothing fancy, just the facts, Jack). I especially enjoyed the blooper real my trio of bloggers did for their YouTube video! Middle schoolers are so neat!

Truth be told, I wasn’t sure how this was going to work with my students. I mean, I only have them for 20 weeks, and we have a ton of things to learn. I was thinking that adding a bi-weekly reflection was going to be too much, but I think it will be fine…I just need to cut something somewhere else. I believe that having the students reflect on their learning will be more beneficial to them in the long run anyway.

I have committed to blogging alongside of them, so I will be posting my thoughts here on a regular basis. This is a learning journey that I am excited to be a part of.

The best is yet to come. I can feel it!

What is Fair?

At church today, our pastor was reviewing the passage in Matthew 20 of the parable of the workers in the vineyard. In this parable, groups of workers agreed to work for the landowner for a certain wage. Some groups were hired early in the morning, whereas others were hired towards the end of the day. When it came time to receive their wages, the ones who worked the longest were angry that they received the same wage as those who worked less. The landowner pointed out that they all agree to work for him for a certain wage, and it was not based on how much they contributed to the workload. The idea of fairness was rooted in the discontent of the workers who put the longest hours in on the vineyard. What is fair in this case? Or are we really talking about equity?

The lesson from the parable made me think of how our educational system is organized and run. Many years ago, I read a book by Rick Wormeli Fair isn’t Always Equal. In it, Wormeli (2006) points out that fairness is based on what each child needs, not on what other children need. This is the goal behind differentiated instruction which focuses on providing learning pathways for students based upon their interests, skills, and academic abilities.

However, no matter how teachers differentiate for students (and trust me when I say that it is very difficult to do that when one has 180+ students), the bottom line is that students are still all judged by the same standard.

That notion seems unfair, no?

Multiple measures are supposed to ensure that students are not judged by one standard or measurement. However, if all students are judged by the same multiple measures, how is that equitable? It may be equal, but it certainly is not equitable.

I struggle with this because I have come across instances throughout my years of teaching when the teacher’s judgment of a student’s academic ability was superseded by this idea of multiple measures. How is it that what a teacher knows from experience with the child is discounted because it doesn’t match with what the “multiple measures” state? This is not an isolated incident, and it doesn’t just happen to me. I’ve seen it occur across other schools and even districts because, yes, my PLN extends beyond just the teachers at my school.

This is a wider problem.

I’ve often heard that we should not treat students as numbers. Yet isn’t that exactly what we are doing when a student’s progress is narrowed down to a score? It’s as if only quantitative measures count. But what about the qualitative data? Qualitative data provides depth that mere numbers cannot reveal. It is my hope, that at some point, what a teacher says will carry just as much weight as “multiple measures.” But perhaps more importantly, I would like to see student voice become part of the measurement process. Their recollections of and reflections on their learning should be counted alongside the teacher’s perspectives. This type of qualitative data will be more revealing about student academic achievement and learning than mere numbers would suggest.

And that, I believe is a fair and equitable way to determine learning.

Never Forget

As I was preparing my lesson for tomorrow, I was reminded that my students were not born when the events of 9/11 forever changed how I (and likely many others) view the world. I am not the only one who likely struggles when watching the video clips, reading the first-hand accounts, or viewing the still photographs from that day. In fact, I found myself in tears today as I compiled some resources for my 9/11 collection in Wakelet. It was surprising to me just how powerful imagery is and how easy it is to slip back in time to the morning of September 11, 2001.

Living on the West Coast, I was up early getting ready for work when my landline rang. Nobody in their right mind would call me at 6:20AM PST unless something was wrong. When I picked up the phone, I heard my dad quietly ask, “Have you see the news?”

“No,” I answered.

“Turn on the TV,” he said.

And so I did.

To my horror, I could not believe what I was seeing on the screen. My dad and I watched in silence, him from his house and me from mine.

It was eerie. All I wanted to do was run to his house because I knew I would feel safer just being in his presence. But I couldn’t because I knew that in two short hours, I was going to have 35 seventh graders waiting for me outside of my classroom.

I hung up with my dad and proceeded to get to work.

It was a surreal day. Many teachers were visibly upset, and some were outright crying. All I could think about was, “What am I going to tell my students?”

I had no answers. No one did.

Flash forward to today.

My students have no first-hand knowledge of 9/11 other than what they’ve heard from their parents, seen on the news, or gathered from social media. Thus, my goal for tomorrow is to share the events of 9/11, the personal stories of the unsung heroes and the innocent people whose lives were tragically marred or taken that day. I know from past experience that my students have family members who joined our armed forces because of the events of 9/11…so even though they may not have been born to see the events first-hand, they do have a personal connection through their loved ones.

Developing historical empathy has been a theme of mine for many years now. So tomorrow, I’m going to show video clips and still images as well as share first-hand excerpts from kids their age all in the hopes that they will gain a better understanding of the impact of 9/11 on those who lived through and witnessed those events. My story of that day isn’t important. What’s important is that we do not forget the thousands of people who died that day. It’s their stories that need to be told. It is their stories that need to be remembered.


New School Year, New Goals

Bitmoji Image

This past week marked my 25th year as a classroom teacher. As others have aptly posted (as evident in my Twitter feed), there’s no tired like first day of school tired. #truestory But I’m excited for this new school year because it’s another chance to do things better. Each year, I set goals for myself. Some of them pertain to me personally, others are for my students. This year (and I’m putting this out there in the universe to help me stay accountable) is the year that I will finally have my students reflect on their learning via a blog or vlog. I’ve been wanting to do this for many, many, MANY years…but something always took precedence.

Not this year.

Having just finished my doctoral studies, I’ve found myself with quite a bit of free time. One of my personal goals is to be more consistent about reflecting on my teaching and learning via my blog. One of the goals for my students is to give them opportunities to reflect on their learning journey via their own blog.

Though I’m still marinating on the details, this is what I’ve decided so far:

  • Students can choose to write or record a video of their learning
  • Students can reflect individually or with a partner
  • Their reflections need to be somewhat public (meaning at least their peers need to be able to see/comment)

That’s all I have so far. I’d love for parents to be somehow involved, but I’m not sure how that will work or even where to start. If you have any ideas, I’ll take them!

Potential platforms/apps that students can use:

  • Google Slides
  • Weebly
  • Wakelet
  • Flipgrid
  • YouTube
  • ???

I’m going to let my students choose whatever medium best works for them. Links to their reflections will be posted in our PowerSchool site as I think keeping the information in a central location will help when it comes time for students to review the work of their peers.

I’m thinking that students will post a reflection once a week (due Sunday by 9PM). I’ll hold myself to the same standard in which I will post a reflection at least once a week, too. Though I have six sections of world history, I think I’m going to roll this out just to my GATE/PreAP kiddoes at this time. I need to take baby steps because I’m not sure how this will play out. If all goes well, I’ll push out blog/vlogs second semester to the rest of my classes.

Wish me luck.