Faculty Spotlight Series: Betsy Duffy on Retrieval Practice in the Classroom

Jana Cook

Betsy Duffy, Director of Language Arts and Instruction at The Windward School, shares why retrieval practice in the classroom is so important.

The Windward School is a learning community that recognizes the profession of teaching is a craft that takes an incredible amount of study, practice, and reflection to perfect. Thus, it is part of the School's mission to develop a faculty that is expert in teaching children with language-based learning disabilities. In our Faculty Friday series, we will be highlighting Windward faculty members and their expertise on a variety of educational topics. 

How and why do you practice retrieval practice in your classroom?

At the Windward School in New York, teachers are trained to implement evidence-based practices in their classrooms. Retrieval practice—recalling facts, concepts, or events from memory—is a more effective learning strategy then reviewing by rereading (McDaniel, Roediger, Brown, 2014). Students are best able to achieve long-term retention of skills,  strategies, and information by providing consistent practice in retrieving prior learning from memory. This practice can be facilitated by the teacher during daily review or frequent low stakes testing and can be designed in many ways. Teachers can require students to explain orally or in writing previously learned material, answer questions, solve problems, or list steps in a strategy or process. The ability to acquire new skills and knowledge depends largely upon the background information that the learner brings to the table. Thus, being able to remember and generalize previously learned information is key to student success. This is why it is imperative for teachers to assess prior knowledge during the review segment of a lesson. 

 The ability to acquire new skills and knowledge depends largely upon the background information that the learner brings to the table.

After assessment, if teachers find that students do not have the necessary foundational skills or background knowledge to achieve the objective of the lesson, that essential information must first be taught and internalized by the students. For example, students learning about the Civil War would benefit from having a solid understanding about the economic and cultural differences between the northern and southern states at that time. As another example, students learning to write argumentative essays would profit from extensive background knowledge about the debate topic tapping various sources, but also need a great deal of skill and strategy practicing varying sentence types and lengths, writing topic sentences, using conjunctions, inserting transitions within and between paragraphs, developing thesis statements, honing categorization skills, and revising and editing. Clearly, prior knowledge  impacts the design of a teacher’s lesson and must be considered before teaching new content or strategies (MacDermott-Duffy, 2017) 

Effective review requiring retrieval also deepens learning by requiring students to reprocess information. When teachers intermittently provide additional practice opportunities with previously taught skills, students are afforded additional opportunities to grow their schemata about a topic. Reviews should be distributed, cumulative, and varied. The length of the review will be determined by the needs of the learner(s). Reviews that are distributed over time contribute to long term retention, problem solving, and helps students generalize learning strategies. If we want students to commit important strategies or information to memory, review must be recursive.  

The Institute of Education Sciences (IES) publishes a series of practice guides for teachers that are based on reviews of research, practitioners’ experiences, and professional opinions of panels of researchers and experts. Research available from one of the IES practice guides entitled Organizing Instruction and Study to Improve Student Learning provides valuable information about how to improve student learning during review and low stakes testing (Pashler, Bain, Graesser, Koedinger, McDaniel, and Metcalfe, 2007). Within the guide, teachers will find a table summarizing the level of evidence for each of the seven recommendations regarded by the panel as some of the most important concrete and applicable principles to emerge from research on learning and memory. The seven recommendations are as follows:  

  1. Space learning over time;  

  1. Interleave worked example solutions with problem-solving exercises;  

  1. Combine graphics with verbal;  

  1. Connect and integrate abstract and concrete representations of concepts;  

  1. Use quizzing to promote learning by means of pre-questions to introduce a new topic and to re-expose students to key content;  

  1. Help students allocate study time efficiently by teaching students how to use delayed judgments of learning to identify content that needs further study and by using tests and quizzes to identify content that needs to be learned;  

  1. Ask deep explanatory questions 

Windward teachers are provided professional development using these evidence-based practices. Teachers would be well served to read all the guides published by the IES.  

It is central to note that very close attention to how lessons are designed, presented and organized in order to facilitate memory for new learning is the important next step after review and retrieval practices!