Retrieval Practice: Unlock the Power of Self-Quizzing

If you’re not familiar with retrieval practice or active recall by name, you’ve certainly implemented this powerful learning strategy in its most basic instantiation: flashcards.

A few years into my career as an educator, I came across this Cult of Pedagogy article, which then prompted me to read the book Make it Stick. I can count on one hand the books or articles that have had a bigger impact on how I approach teaching than these two.

While Jennifer Gonzalez at Cult of Pedagogy and the authors of Make it Stick certainly do the subject justice much better than I can, here’s my summary of retrieval practice in an AP Environmental Science context: students effortfully trying to remember everything they can about a topic, then checking notes/slides/textbook/etc to see what they mis-remembered or couldn’t recall. 

As straightforward as it seems I’ve found that a lot of students actually need to do it in class a few times before they really understand how it works. They’re so used to just looking at their notes or Googling/Chat-GPTing the answer at the first hint of struggle, that to sit there and stare into space trying to recall a vocab definition or topic we covered in class really is a foreign concept. 

If you have the time and think your students would be receptive to it, I’d consider actually taking a bit of class time to go over some of the science behind active recall. I’ve found that they take it more seriously when I show them that I’m really trying to give them the best possible strategy for committing information to memory and getting the most out of their time studying.

The graph below from Jeff Kapricke's research at Purdue University is one I'm particularly fond of using to remind my students of the value of spaced, repeated retrieval practice.

I have students make a set of flashcards each unit (1 per topic). At some point in the 48 hours after they watch the video for a topic, they flip that notecard over and try to rewrite the 3 most important ideas in their own words, using a pencil. Then they go back through their notes and add in any of the 🏔️ emoji (essential knowledge) concepts they missed or make corrections to things they recalled incorrectly in pen. 

Typically, I have them do the first few topics during class so I can actually ensure that all of their computers and notes are put away and they are genuinely struggling with the task of retrieving the information. Inevitably, there are some students who have watched the video and taken the notes and can’t recall a thing. This is a great opportunity to remind them of the importance of actually listening to flipped video notes and trying to put notes into their own words, rather than playing the videos on mute and copying the slides word-for-word.

It’s also a great opportunity for students who are really engaged with homework and class each day, but disappointed in their test or FRQ performance to dig a bit deeper into their study habits. Are they recalling important concepts from the videos on the back of their retrieval practice flash cards or are they latching on to more peripheral details? Are they genuinely trying to answer all of their study guide questions from memory, and then going back through and reviewing concepts they couldn’t recall, before trying those questions (from memory) again? 

During this review, I try to help students see that spaced, repeated retrieval practice is really the gold standard for remembering anything that they’re learning. If they take seriously the MCQs and the mini-FRQs at the end of each video, the retrieval practice flashcards, our in-class labs and exit tickets, and the study guide for each unit, attempting to answer each set of questions from memory as if it were a test, they should see significant improvement in their recall come test time.

We use the lined side of the notecard for writing analogies, mnemonics or other ways to remember important information that students come up with during labs/activities or targeted reteach sessions. A few recent examples include an analogy comparing Luigi and Ratatouille to the nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the root nodules of legumes and "E. O Wilson’s 2 rules of Island Biogeography" (associating him and his ants with the rules seemed to help).

Each day when we answer mini-FRQs or exit quizzes (the 3 MCQ “topic quiz” questions from AP Classroom for each unit), I ask students to get out their progress monitoring sheet for the unit, so they can track their scores. I also ask them to update the sheet to reflect their progress on the flipped EdPuzzle videos and retrieval practice flashcards. 

It’s a great way for them to make the effort they’re putting into reviewing each topic visible and to identify gaps in their review process as we get closer to test time. I also ask that any student that wants to meet to discuss their grade brings their notes, flashcards, and tracking sheet to the meeting. That way they can lead the conversation by highlighting what they did or didn’t do to be prepared for our unit tests and FRQs, which make up the majority of their grade.

If you want to grab your own copy of these progress monitoring sheets for all 9 units as well as tracking sheets for unit tests and FRQs, check out my free flipped instruction mini-course.

In the words of the great Paul Andersen: “I hope that was helpful.” As always, don’t hesitate to reach out with questions, comments, or concerns you have about progress monitoring, or APES more broadly. 

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