In case you missed it last week, the podcast is back! We are calling this podcast, TALKING ABOUT PRACTICE – because every episode is focused on actual practical strategies, not just the theory behind them.
Each week you’ll receive a new episode that is focused on taking a concept, idea, or theory and how to actually implement that in practice as a leader, teacher, and coach. You can listen to the podcast here (or on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify) or watch on Youtube.
This week we are chatting with cognitive scientist, Pooja K. Agarwal, Ph.D. She is the author of the book Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning and an Assistant Professor at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, teaching psychological science to exceptional undergraduate musicians.
Pooja’s research has been published in leading peer-reviewed psychology journals; featured in the New York Times, Education Week, and Scientific American; recognized by the National Science Foundation; and highlighted in numerous books, podcasts, and videos.
Highlights From The Podcast (questions in bold, answers below)
The Importance of Retrieval Practice:
There are a few different components to applying what we learn and how that ties into retrieval practice. And one aspect is that a lot of research on retrieval practice until recently has been done in laboratory settings with very simple materials. We might bring a college student into the lab, show them a list of words, literally chair, table, bed, window, and then we ask college students to remember them. And then we have them spit it back out.
Much more recently, a lot of research on retrieval has been done in authentic classroom settings. So I and my co-author Patrice have been doing research in her classroom, her school district for about 15 years. And there’s been research in medical school for instance, having medical students learn neurology diagnosis and working with patients, and looking at how retrieval practice can improve complex knowledge like learning how to diagnose a patient.
And so there has been a lot of research demonstrating, and it’s intuitive, right, if you practice diagnosing a patient, you get better at it. If you practice doing CPR, you get better at it. And there are certain skills like driving or CPR or riding a bike where you do it often enough, you practice it often enough that it becomes sort of second nature, right?
So another example that we start Powerful Teaching off with is where I was trying to walk from an apartment to a coffee shop. And I’m trying to get there and I’m relying on Google Maps and it’s only four blocks away and all of a sudden the next day, I can’t remember how I even walked those four blocks. But of course, we know that after you get used to, let’s say a new job and you start a new way of getting to that job, eventually you pick it up and it becomes automatic. And this gets into what we call the distinction between explicit memory and implicit memory. So implicit memory, just being things that we’re not even necessarily aware of, remembering how to drive somewhere and then all of a sudden you’re there. Whereas explicit memory is usually what we’re talking about in classroom settings, helping students remember names, facts, dates, key concepts from a novel they’re reading, how to diagnose patients. Those are all explicit memory. But retrieval practice and all of these cognitive science-based strategies in Powerful Teaching have all been shown to improve complex higher-order learning, not just that sort of basic memorization.
What are those things, right, if somebody’s listening to that right now, like what are those things that you could do in whatever role, teaching, coaching, mentorship, whatever, that you’re gonna have that return that’s a little bit better than if you’re just kind of going out there and going through the motions?
-One of the big things that of course as educators we’ve all experienced is having to reteach something. So how often do we cover something in class and then two weeks later or even a week later, students just kinda give us the deer in headlights, sort of like, “Wait, what are you talking about”, or “I don’t remember the answer” or “That doesn’t even sound like “anything I’ve ever heard of” and then we have to reteach it.
And of course we know if we’re for instance the 6th-grade math teacher, we’ll teach stuff, you know maybe pre-algebra. And then come 7th grade and all of a sudden the students don’t remember anything from 6th grade. And then when they’re in 8th grade, they don’t remember anything from 7th grade. And here we are just wasting so much time and it’s so frustrating and stressful as teachers to have to keep doing this over and over because students don’t remember, right?
And so if we can use the limited classroom time we have to help students remember more, they’re going to be more successful, and I think part of that return on investment you mentioned is as teachers, we don’t have to keep wasting our time. We don’t have to keep wasting students’ times by trying to re-hammer things into their heads. We don’t have to keep wasting time reteaching, so we can actually cover more content instead of less.
So oftentimes, very understandably, a concern is while all this retrieval, getting information out sounds great, but how do I still cover my class content? In my opinion and based on research I’ve conducted is that if students remember more, you actually save time. You don’t have to keep rehashing things out.
So even when I meet some of my college students on Tuesdays and then see them again on Thursdays, if on Thursday they remember stuff from Tuesday, I can jump straight into a new topic. Or I can jump straight in and keep moving on. I don’t have to review, “here’s what we did on Tuesday.” I can just ask my students, “what’s one thing you remember about Tuesday,” moving on. And it saves me time, it gets them engaged, that attention component, right? And it improves their long-term memory.
This is always a hard thing when you’re doing professional development or professional learning is trying to find things that would work for a 2nd-grade teacher, a high school biology teacher, a middle school language arts teacher. What are some of those things that you would kind of harp on in your training that you think would work for them?
-One of the reasons I love these evidence-based strategies, so we talked about retrieval practice and a little bit about interleaving. Two more that we cover in Powerful Teaching, are spacing and feedback-driven metacognition. So spacing, again these are all intuitive and we’re all great teachers, we use this stuff anyway. But you just use it a little more mindfully. Spacing is just literally spacing things out or returning to previous content. So somewhat often, especially in older grades and depending on the content area, we might teach something once and then assume students have got it. And, just like we said, they have the deer in headlights, they forget. And spacing doesn’t mean reteaching. It just means something like, for instance on Thursdays, me asking students what they remember from Tuesday. Or on Thursdays, asking them what they remember from last week.
And then feedback-driven metacognition is important because when we give students feedback, which we do, then students improve their learning and retention. But a key component of that is the next step toward metacognition. So having students reflect on their own learning or thinking about their own thinking. So you know, something so meta, is that you’re thinking about your cognition, that’s metacognition. And all of those play into any of the content areas. So these four power tools or evidence-based strategies, there’s research on them, ranging from math and science to the humanities and history and medicine and engineering and foreign language, and these strategies, all of the basic foundation, the basic core of them work the same way.
When students practice what they know, when they have to return to content and kind of bring it back to mind and make it fresh again, it’s sort of content-agnostic. It really doesn’t, it’s more about what students do while they’re learning and it’s just so much more flexible than other things. So when I give workshops and talk with teachers, really it’s not any different for if you’re a second grader or a college student and it’s not any different if you are in a science class versus a humanities class.
What about note-taking?
One question about technology that comes up often is note-taking. So what about note-taking that’s handwritten versus laptops. There’s a study that came out now five years ago about how handwritten notes are maybe better, I’m air quoting here, but better than laptop taking notes. We know that students nowadays can type so fast that they’re transcribing lessons when they take notes, and their notes aren’t very organized. At the same time, the research is mixed. There have been replication attempts by my colleague John Dinlaski and they haven’t been able to replicate that 2014 study. And this is a situation where similar to these power tools in my book Powerful Teaching, where I like to say you do you. Whichever is easiest, it’s more important that students retrieve, it’s more important that we give them feedback, and it’s much less important how they take notes so much as what they do with those notes to help them remember. So I talk about a strategy called retrieve taking in Powerful Teaching that could be done handwritten or laptops or notes.
If there was one piece of practical advice that you had to give our listeners in terms of improving learning, improving performance, improving achievement, what would that practical advice be?
It would be to start small. There’s 100 years of research supporting these power tools and these strategies, but again they’re intuitive. We do them every day, lots of different ways, so one tiny practical thing is rather than starting class by saying, “All right, class, here’s what we did yesterday,” or “Here’s what we did last week,” is to just turn it into a question. “Okay class, what did we do yesterday, “what did we do last week,” and providing all students silent time to think and retrieve. So with think pair share for instance, we often skip the think phase and move on to the share and the pair. And just a simple switch from telling students and getting information into their heads to getting it out is really powerful for long-term learning.