The Small Ball Approach to Retrieval Practice

Over the course of the past year, I’ve given a lot of attention to the memory research of Henry Roediger. We were fortunate to have him for last year’s TLTCon, and his research is the nexus of neuroscience and psychology. Of primary importance is the role of retrieval in the testing effect. Spaced learning and interleaved learning follow. The research readily excites teachers when they begin to think of how much of an impact the information can have on learning.

Applying memory research in the classroom, however, can be pretty overwhelming. Especially when you get into ratios of how much testing to reviewing should happen, when to retest, how to interleave learning, etc. For numbers, the ideal ratio of reviewing to testing is something like 40:60; retesting should happen 24 hours after the initial lesson, one week later, and then a month later; interleaved learning should mix up material in the same way that learning to hit a curveball means learning how to see a curveball amid sliders, fastballs, and changeups. I recently attempted to apply the testing effect to my lifelong effort of keeping up with my Greek. I chose Plato’s Phaedrus and meticulously created material Quizlet could then test me on. The discipline of testing myself constantly proved cumbersome. I can see why students and teachers may not be thrilled with what the testing effect can require.

Jim Lang’s book, Small Teaching, is a gift in many ways, one of which is that he begins with Roediger’s work in the Memory Lab at Washington University. He astutely notices, however, that getting bogged down in the application of Roediger’s work is likely: we imagine having to rework our courses completely just to apply the research coming from St. Louis. Lang argues that small teaching is a great way to begin applying the learning strategies memory research advocates.

Take retrieval, for example. Lang suggests a number of “bite-sized moments” occurring at the beginning and end of class. You begin with an opening question asking students to retrieve what was learned in the previous class. Questions at the class’ end can do the same. Both can be written or oral. Also known as the “one minute exam,” you get to judge how accurately students recalled information and measure class participation with minimal grading. The upshot for the students is that they’ve begun moving information from short to long-term memory.

Lang’s most unique contribution comes in what he calls the “retrieving syllabus.” How often does the syllabus make a shining first day entrance only to be stuffed away into binders for the rest of the semester? Sure, we probably refer to it often, but my guess is that most of us don’t frequent the syllabus with our students. The retrieving syllabus exercise functions in this way: (1) have students pull out your syllabus (or pull them up on their computers); (2) point them to any past class; and (3) ask them to spend a couple of minutes journaling what they remember from that lesson. You can accomplish this exercise informally as the beginning of a class discussion or you can collect the papers to ascertain what is sticking, what is not. In the end, you’ll find yourself mildly pleased that you are participating in vanguard learning research by playing the small game instead of swinging for the fence.

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