Use classroom time for learning, not forgetting

Need more hours in the day?

Apparently, a day is longer than 24 hours! (Well, it depends on how you calculate it.) Either way, time is limited and learning is vast. How can we implement retrieval practice in our classrooms, but cover all our course content, too?

It doesn't have to be one or the other.

This week, we provide research and recommendations on how retrieval practice doesn't require more time to transform learning. Small adjustments can make a big difference.

Do you have a challenge, success, question, or idea about using retrieval practice in your classroom? Reply to this email and let us know. We'd love to feature it next week's email update.


Swap Reviewing for Retrieving

Ask yourself two questions:

  1. How do I spend my instructional time?

  2. When can I switch from getting information into my students' heads to getting information out of my students' heads?

The key: Identify what you're already doing and tweak it, even just a little bit. With retrieval, we can use the time we have and make it more effective for learning.

Here are 3 examples: 

  • Instead of saying "Here's what we did yesterday," ask your students, "What did we do yesterday?"

  • When one student asks a question, have the class retrieve and provide the answer (instead of you).

  • Rather than summarizing the day's lesson, ask students to write down their 2 takeaways. (Bonus: Have them swap papers and add one takeaway for another student.)

Research from middle school, college, and medical school classrooms demonstrates that retrieval practice dramatically increases learning in the same amount of time as in-class review. Because students learn more from retrieval practice, we also save time – we don't have to re-teach what students already forgot. For more tips and strategies, we highly recommend the book Small Teaching by James M. Lang.

With limited classroom time, get a bigger bang for your buck with retrieval practice. Sometimes, we default to reviewing. Instead, use that valuable time for retrieving. 


Swap Forgetting for Remembering

In addition to swapping reviewing for retrieving, we also want to take retrieval practice to the next level in our classrooms – weekly low-stakes quizzes, frequent free recall, or clickers – for instance. But what does this mean for content?

Yes, we know this is tricky. There's so much we need and want to cover, but we also want students to remember all that content, too. What can we do about this tradeoff? 

Try this example: 

  • If you teach 100 things and students remember 10%, that's 10 things.

  • If you teach 90 things and students remember 20%, that's 18 things.

We know that retrieval practice improves learning, and often doubles retention over the long-term. It can take students' grades from a C to an A. In this example, content is slightly reduced, but learning is doubled. This tradeoff is small, but it can yield a large impact for student learning.

As another example, K-12 educator Matt Miller describes a time tradeoff he makes in his classroom: When students have a few minutes to run around and use up energy, they come to class more ready to learn. Does he tradeoff a little teaching time for physical activity? Yes. But it's the benefit we see after that tradeoff – just a small adjustment of teaching time – that counts most. 

We always have time tradeoffs to make – in teaching and in life. And we have a single priority in our classroom: learning. Start small by swapping students' forgetting of lots of content for students' robust learning of a little less content. Let's make sure that our time spent teaching is time spent learning.