Friday, January 21, 2011

Quick: What Did I Just Say? Tests as Learning Tools

“I think that learning is all about retrieving, all about reconstructing our knowledge. I think that we’re tapping into something fundamental about how the mind works when we talk about retrieval.” - Jeffrey Karpicke, Purdue University.

A new study published this week by Jeffrey Karpicke and Janell Blunt suggests that when students are asked to recall what they just finished reading, they will retain (remember) 50 percent more of the information a week later than they will by using classic studying techniques (i.e., cramming) or by using concept maps. Although studying and using concept maps are effective, what the researchers call "retrieval practice" - the active process of reconstructing knowledge by recalling information in order to answer questions - appears to be superior as a form of active learning. The authors write, "retrieval is not merely a read out of the knowledge stored in one's mind - the act of reconstructing knowledge itself enhances learning."

This supports something I've learned from Confer instructors: the virtual classroom, because it is synchronous and interactive, is a great place to do quick assessments that have an impact on learning. Instructors want to make the most of every online minute with their students, but those minutes may be wasted unless students are asked to reflect upon, respond to, and remember what you've taught them.

Larry Green, for example, has found that the "1-2-3: Put it in the Chat Box" method works well as a way to spot-check students' learning and understanding.
By using this simple and spontaneous assessment method, Larry reinforces retrieval practice and thus (if the researchers are correct) enhances the learning process.

Another quick and effective tool in the Confer classroom is the Polling tool. This works well because it engages students' attention, can be used to enforce retrieval practice, provides immediate feedback, and protects (at your discretion) student anonymity. All that, and it's incredibly easy to do. This video demonstrates the process, and you can print out this PDF to use as a "cheat sheet" if you like.

While retrieval practice is important, you may find that the quick assessment is useful even before students have started to learn new materials. By forcing students to answer a question (take a stand), you're increasing their commitment to discovering the answer. Now it seems that we're also increasing the chances that they will retain that answer in long-term memory. So, as every good host reminds every guest, "don't hesitate to ask."

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