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How to Help Students Remember

It is believed that everyone who once took exams will never forget the stressful hours with racing heartbeats, fidgeting and nail-biting on the exam day despite efforts of cramming the night before. Such a nerve-racking situation may also be encountered by industrious students having a plan of revisiting textbooks, key concepts, etc. throughout their semester. These facts have been justified by interesting results of experiments reported in some studies. They show that re-reading or last-minute revision instead of a schedule of revisits beforehand is less effective than a learning strategy called “retrieval effect” (a.k.a. retrieval practice).

James Lang (2016) defines it as that only when you actively try to remember without glancing at the original papers, will your capability of retrieving the knowledge from your memory will improve. According to Ph.D. Pooja K. Agarwal, retrieval practice is described as a strategy of deliberately recalling information to examine what we know, thereby boosting learning.

Here is a simple example of retrieval effect,

Suppose a student is revising name of countries in Southeast Asia, s/he could try to recall as many as possible before checking the textbook instead of starting her/his revision session with the list of SEA countries on the table.

To clarify how powerful the retrieval effect in improving students’ performance, Pooja K. Agarwal (2014) carried out an experiment on a middle-school class in Colombia Missouri. This class was given lectures on 3 different topics, and each was delivered differently. The first topic was taught with regular retrieval practice in the form of no-stakes quizzes (no grading required) whose keys were given after the quiz time. The second one gave students one opportunity to review before the exams. The final topic was instructed without any additional or retrieval practice. As a result, students scored a full grade level higher on the first topic on which they were quizzed than on the others when taking the exams. Thus, it was concluded that extra study time and mere re-reading multiple times yield no additional learning benefit, while frequent retrieval periods help strengthen the neural pathway between the long-term memory and working memory (Lang, 2016).

It is worth noted that retrieval learning techniques should be applied differently to different age-groups. For those of secondary classes upward, it is easier for teacher to develop a routine of retrieval practice. Due to higher synthesizing ability of college students, instructor could just ask simple guiding questions and let them freely recall prior knowledge.

For those in primary level, Karpicke and her colleagues (2014) concluded that younger students are not likely to achieve successful retrieval without guidance and structure through an experiment. When being asked to write down as much as they could on a blank paper after reading a text, fourth-graders were able to recall only 9% of the information of the simplified reading text comparing to at least 50% of the original text recorded in group of university students.

Therefore, scaffolded activities were suggested to help primary school-aged students to achieve retrieval success. Incorporating these activities into teaching needs to be based on principles as recommended by James Lang, one of which is “Require Thinking”. More specifically, teachers may use questions that stimulate students to work on given information themselves to figure out answers rather than those in the form of multiple choices from which students select the best option.

Here are some concrete ways to boost retrieval models for primary children based both on our current research and our ongoing practices at several educational organizations:

  • Using concept checking questions to help students find out answers

  • Presenting/Reviewing lesson content with graphic organizers with provided cues such as mind map, concept map, etc.

  • Encourage students to free-recall their prior knowledge instead of flipping through notes to look for answers


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