Brain Dumps: A small strategy with a big impact


Here’s a small strategy that makes a big impact on student learning – based on decades of cognitive science research. In scientific lingo, we call it "free recall." 

Free recall is also known as a "brain dump," "show what you know," and a "stop and jot." No matter what you call it, try this quick retrieval strategy during your instruction before the end of the school year. Here's how it works:

  1. Pause your lesson, lecture, or activity.

  2. Ask students to write down everything they can remember.

  3. Continue your lesson, lecture, or activity.


Watch Pooja K. Agarwal, Ph.D. discuss Brain Dumps with Matt Miller (Author of Ditch That Textbook).


Yup, that simple. Retrieval practice can take 5 minutes or less. A few tips:

  • Have students write down their responses individually. Compared to calling on one student at a time ("cold calling"), individual writing ensures that all students are retrieving.

  • Do not use this activity for a grade. Keep it no-stakes and emphasize that this is a learning strategy, not an assessment strategy.

  • Be specific with your prompt. It helps students to know what they're writing and how much they're writing. If you ask them to write down everything they can remember about a specific topic, set a brief time limit. Or, ask for 1-3 things they can remember about a broad topic without a time limit.

  • If possible, include spacing and feedback, but free recall is still powerful as a standalone activity. To quickly add spacing, ask students to write down what they can remember from yesterday. To quickly add feedback, have students discuss their similarities and differences with each other ("turn and talk") for only a minute or two before moving on.

While brief quizzes may come to mind when you think about retrieval practice, a large proportion of research on retrieval practice uses free recall as the initial retrieval activity. Free recall facilitates learning of past contentfuture content, and even students' organization of knowledge for a variety of subject areas, basic knowledge, and complex learning. Contrary to its name in the scientific literature, free recall improves students' inferential learning and metacognition, too. 

Transforming learning doesn't require a huge investment in instructional time. Use free recall and brain dumps! Make a big impact with a simple, quick strategy for powerful learning.