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March 1, 2020
Vol. 62
No. 3

Powerful Learning Is All About Retrieval

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Instructional Strategies
When you walk into my classroom, everyone is silent. My college students are writing furiously with their heads down. It might look like my students are taking an exam to assess their learning. On the contrary, this is when students are doing their best learning. It's what scientists call retrieval practice. Typically, educators focus on getting information into our students' heads. But in my classroom, and in line with my research as a cognitive scientist, I focus on getting information out of my students' heads.
The premise is simple: Although teachers aim to help students "encode" information through lessons, lectures, videos, and activities, research demonstrates that some of the most durable learning takes place when students use what they know and practice their knowledge—just like practicing an instrument or a foreign language.

Don't Leave It. Retrieve It.

Take a mental walk through your classroom lessons. What are the key concepts you want students to learn each week? How do you help them learn those concepts? Now, ask yourself this question: Once students have learned a key concept, how often do they practice it?
Too often, we teach, students learn, they take a test, and we move on. But if you want your students to remember what they've learned (and you can stop re-teaching), students can't just take what they've learned and leave it. They have to retrieve it. For example, at what age did King Tut become a pharaoh? Before you Google it, I want you to think and bring this information to mind. You might not know the correct answer, but by having to retrieve this information, you'll remember King Tut's age much better than if I simply told you the answer. (Okay, now you can Google it and give yourself feedback!)
How can you use retrieval practice in your classroom to create powerful learning? Here are a few quick retrieval practice activities you can use tomorrow, without any additional prep or grading. These activities take what you're already doing and make a simple swap to focus on retrieving, not just encoding. I use these strategies in my classroom, and they're all backed up by decades of research, too.

Start with Retrieval, Not Review

Do you start class by saying, "Here's what we did last week. Now, moving on…"? A simple swap is to instead ask, "What did we do last week?" Students can quickly jot down a note to themselves, which could be followed by a quick discussion, or you could move on as you typically do. No prep or grading and very powerful for learning! You could put the prompt on the board or a screen, so that this becomes a quick entry ticket as students get settled. Soon, starting class with a question will become a part of your classroom culture and your students will enjoy this no-stakes challenge.

Swap Think-Pair-Share for Retrieve-Pair-Share

Whether you teach at an elementary school or a medical school, you've probably heard of the instructional strategy think-pair-share. Here's how it typically works:
  1. Students think about a topic in response to a question or prompt.
  2. Students pair up with another student and talk about their reflection.
  3. Students share their thoughts in a larger class discussion.
Simple, quick, and interactive—the trifecta for a valuable instructional strategy. But how can we ensure that students are learning during think-pair-share, instead of thinking about and sharing their plans for the weekend? During think-pair-share, it's possible (or likely). You can increase learning and get information out by making a tiny change to the first step of think-pair-share—students retrieve their knowledge about a topic and write it down silently.
Too often, we skip the "think" stage of think-pair-share. By writing down a response first, all students are engaging in retrieval practice and they have something concrete to pair and share. This works particularly well for English language learners and students who are less comfortable speaking up in class. Just swap think-pair-share for retrieve-pair-share.
Again, no prep, no grading, and no extra class time; just powerful teaching for powerful learning.

Swap Note-Taking for Retrieve-Taking

Note-taking is a popular learning strategy both inside and outside the classroom. While some students may be effective note-takers, this is probably not the case for all students. Here's how note-taking typically works: Students take notes simultaneously while reading a book, watching a video, or listening to a lesson. This is another form of learning that focuses on encoding.
Now, here's the simple swap to focus on retrieving: Have students close the book, pause the video, or you can pause during a lesson. Then, students retrieve and write down what they just learned. After this retrieval practice, students can simply open the book, start the video, or continue with the lesson! Retrieve-taking is like closed-book note-taking. No extra time for students, just a small change to power up learning.

Use It or Lose It

We want our students to learn and remember. Retrieval practice is a powerful strategy that has been shown to dramatically boost not just fact learning, but higher-order learning for students of all ages, in all content areas (for more research and teaching strategies, visit The best part is you're already using retrieval practice! You ask questions and your students retrieve what they know all the time. Just remember to ask yourself: "Am I getting information into my students' heads or out?" For powerful learning, it's all about getting it out.

Pooja K. Agarwal is a cognitive scientist, educator, founder of, and coauthor of the book Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning (Jossey-Bass, 2019) with Patrice M. Bain.

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