Science of Learning

The Science of Learning Physics: Retrieval Practices

This post is part of a series on the Science of Learning Physics

In light of my recent post regarding the learning and teaching of physics, which is much more than mathematical derivations, I’ve decided to dedicate a series of posts not only to what I’ve learned about teaching and learning, but also how I’ve applied those practices directly to my physics classroom. It’s time for some SciEDUComm 🙂

Often it can be easy to read a practice or idea that sounds good, in theory, but in practice seems difficult or inapplicable to the very specific setting of physics. 

One of the most powerful practices I’ve recently adopted is retrieval in my classroom

Pooja Agarwal explains it excellently in her book, Powerful Teaching. Retrieval leverages what cognitive scientists know about memory: that the more frequently we ask students to pull content out, the stronger the pathways become and the more easily they are able to accomplish this task when the summative assessment comes along. 

Later I will discuss how I use these practices together with metacognitive practices to truly bolster student learning. 

The process is rather simple: ask students to retrieve some amount of knowledge
“using only your brain” Pooja explains that this should be preceded by a no-risk, easy-entry warm-up such as “what is your least favorite flavor ice cream” or “would you rather be locked out of your car or your house” the warm-ups have answers that are only correct to the unique student, but not so easy that the answer is a knee-jerk response. 

Then, students are asked “using only your brain” to do one of the following:

  • Write down everything you can remember about __________ or from (yesterday, last week, last unit). 
  • Write down two things you can remember about
  • Write down one thing you can remember about (provide a list of topics)

There are, of course, many other iterations of this and the activity can be as short or as long as you’d like. I would like to discuss two uses of this activity. 

After the first day of reflection I asked students to write just two things. That was it! I collected the slips and we carried on.

On another day, while students were learning refraction, I did the same. However, I set up my room “speed-dating” style and as students moved through the room they added something new to the boards. Eventually the boards were exhausted and by the end of it we had nearly everything on the board that we knew about refraction. 

While this is a good lesson in the power of retrieval, I leveraged this moment to teach another important lesson: the 100% is always in the room. Students had, without my interference, discussed everything they knew about a topic. Too often I find students feeling that they need to do everything on their own, or they limit themselves to their friend circle. However, true collaboration takes advantage of everyone’s strengths. After we completed this activity we dove into the day’s “actual” activity that involved making observations of various refraction phenomena and then describing them.

It may seem at first glance that this process takes up additional time that cannot be sacrificed. However, as I quickly learned, the time spent actually pays off in several ways. First, students have a lot of critical conversations that would otherwise be 30 hand-raises and me going around answering the same question half a dozen times. Next, it put the learning process right in the hands of the students, and they see the pay-off. This leads to students working more efficiently and working more readily together. Thirdly, it makes it clear to students that no one has all of the answers, but together as a class they have everything. 

I also generally enjoy using retrieval as a launch-point for further application and practice of whatever we are doing. While Pooja will explain that just the process of going through retrieval is important, I particularly love using it as a way to build community and confidence before jumping into a new task. I presented on this topic within my school’s small learning communities. The presentation slides can be viewed here

But what about the pandemic?

I was really sad that at the completion of my first unit using retrieval practices, students reported the best test ever and then the state shut the schools down. I have continued to do retrieval in my classes by setting up enough break-out rooms for pairs and then moving students into larger groups. Like most activities online, the process is not as seamless as it is in the classroom, but it still gives students the opportunity to practice retrieval. 

Coming soon…how I used retrieval in my gifted AP class and interleaving.


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