Improving Knowledge Retrieval

improving knowledge retrieval

Is improving knowledge retrieval possible? Yes!

Watching my students’ faces as I explain to them that they will be sitting a test in a fortnight is something to behold.  I often witness a whole range of emotions, from annoyance, to despair, to completely blank and unreadable expressions. It’s never a good look! So, a priority I’ve been working on for the past few months is improving knowledge retrieval, so that when a test is announced, my students can deal with it in a much more positive way.

I’m not a magician or have super-powers though!

I’m using a tried and tested method for improving knowledge retrieval by my students. They tell me that their greatest fear is that they will forget the information they need in order to perform well in the test. So, I’m teaching them a simple tactic for knowledge retrieval. Now, my students react to news of upcoming tests much more positively. They view them as a way to demonstrate their successes, rather than as a log of their failures.

How do teachers test students’ memory in the classroom?

Typically, teachers give little thought to the amount of time spent between the learning and the testing. We often test students’ memories either straight after teaching them, or months or even years later, if they are studying a two or even three-year long course.

This is a problem, but one with a simple and highly practical solution. Not only that, it won’t add to the ever-increasing teacher workload problem.

I’ve discussed this with a number of colleagues in different schools and they have all had the same experience with their students, regardless of the type of school or the nature of the individual students. More research is needed in this area. Fortunately, teachers and educational psychologists are beginning to pay attention to this issue and develop strategies for improving knowledge retrieval.

The research on improving knowledge retrieval

Recently, I read a post by the Learning Scientists, who have explored one solution to the issue of knowledge retrieval. They call it Spaced Retrieval Practice. I’ll leave it to you to read their blog post on it, but I’ll summarise their research here.

We often deliver content to students, then test their memorisation of that content too soon. Students haven’t had enough time to forget the information. Therefore, when they remember it, we as teachers praise their efforts. We shouldn’t! Remembering something that you’ve just been told is a pretty low bar to clear. By allowing students a little longer to forget some of their knowledge, we test their ability to bring back to their memory the information that has temporarily disappeared. This is what will improve their grades when they sit the test at the end of the course.

The Memory Muscle

I describe memory like it’s a muscle. You need to exercise it in order for it to grow stronger. The more stress you put the muscle under, the stronger it will grow. Similarly, the skill of being able to recall information is improved when a little stress is applied each time. The stress, in this case, is the length of time between the teaching and the recall. Practising knowledge retrieval regularly not only aids students in being able to recall the information, but it also helps them assess more accurately just how strong their memory is. Ultimately, over the long term, students will make more progress.

The results are in…

  1. Students remember more information because they have practised retrieval
  2. Students then become more confident and so worry less about upcoming tests
  3. The lack of anxiety about the test then enables them to REMEMBER EVEN MORE!

When you use knowledge retrieval practice effectively, you create a virtuous circle. Now it’s time to share this information more widely so that all teachers and students can benefit from it. Please SHARE this blog post with as many teachers as you can!

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