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I have always been interested in how people learn and how I can use that knowledge to be a more effective teacher. This past summer I read the book, Make it Stick, by Mark McDaniel and Peter Brown, which describes current mind and brain research and how it can be leveraged to improve learning. As I was reading the book, a fellow teacher recommended a video by Christine Harrington entitled, “Dynamic Lecturing.” Like the book, the video focused on applying mind and brain research to create more effective instruction.

Examining my own teaching, I discovered that while I did many of the recommended practices, I did not engage with them as frequently as recommended. I decided to adjust my approach to address an area highlighted by both resources: the importance of daily retrieval practice opportunities for students.

Increasing retrieval practice

The idea behind retrieval practice is that increasing students’ opportunities to “generate” or retrieve information strengthens their retention of that information. In her video, Dr. Harrington recommends that teachers build such opportunities into their instruction every 15 to 20 minutes. Evaluating my teaching practice, I found that I did provide students with opportunities to practice, but not as frequently as recommended. I decided to increase the frequency of these opportunities, and also to add new ways to get students to practice with the concepts we were investigating.

One technique that was already part of my approach was occasionally starting class with a “problem of the day.” When the students enter, I have a problem posted that either relates to something we talked about previously or that we are about to discuss, or that they have had previous exposure to (see Figure 1 for examples). Students are given five minutes to work individually on the problem (with no help from their notes or friends). At the end of this period, they can submit their responses or, if desired, take them home and submit them the next day. If they choose to take them home, they make a line on their paper and then complete any additional work below the line to delineate the work done in class and at home.

While I do not review the problems in class, I collect and provide brief individual feedback to students for each problem. This year, I made the commitment to start all non-lab or assessment classes with a “problem of the day,” so it could become a near-daily experience for students. While it is quite time-consuming to collect and provide feedback each day, I have found it very valuable in my instructional planning. Not only does it give me an insight into the daily mastery level of the class as a whole, but it also allows me to identify individual students who need more assistance to develop their understanding.

Figure 1. Examples of Problems of the Day for multiple levels of chemistry classes.
Voting Stick

A second example of retrieval practice that I was already doing was periodically pausing to pose multiple choice questions to the class (see Figure 2 for examples). In order to make sure everyone engages with the question (and gets the benefit of the practice), I use “voting sticks” made out of popsicle sticks, construction paper and laminating paper. After a minute or so of reflection, and a countdown of “3, 2, 1, vote!,” students simultaneously “vote” for an answer. The different answers are color-coded, so I can quickly scan the room and see if the class is converging on the correct answer. If not, I ask them to share their thinking with a neighbor and then we have a re-vote. Usually this results in the class coalescing on the correct response. If not, we pause and revisit the concepts. Like the problem of the day, before this year I only occasionally used the voting sticks. I now use them or the new approaches outlined below once or twice in each class.

Figure 2. Examples of multiple choice questions for use in different levels of chemistry classes .

A new reflection opportunity I have added this year is to have students periodically demonstrate their understanding as part of the notes they take. Sometimes this takes the form of a one-minute write where they respond to a prompt asking them to explain something we have just discussed (see Figure 3 for some examples). After the writing period, I have students share their thinking with the class or their immediate neighbors.

Figure 3. Students have one minute to write down a response to the questions.

Other times, I have students solve a problem in their notes while I circulate and observe how they are approaching the problem (see Figure 4 for some examples). Whether or not I have students share with each other, I always end by asking if anyone has questions or would like clarification of any part of the topic. If there are questions, we discuss them as a class, where I try as much as possible to have students take the lead in helping their peers develop their understanding.

Figure 4. Example problems that students are asked to solve independently in their notebooks.

Integrating pre-planned multiple choice questions and one-minute writes into my daily instruction poses a few logistical issues, and also requires me to be flexible in where and how I pause to reflect. Sometimes my pre-planned reflection breaks do not relate to the topics or the difficulty level that students need in that moment. I have found myself sometimes spontaneously omitting, editing, and/or adding questions as appropriate to the needs of individual classes. It is my hope that with more experience, I will develop a better sense of how to make these opportunities work best for student learning.

In addition to adjusting my daily instruction, I also redesigned my assessment approach to include more opportunities for retrieval practice. Since I see all of my classes on Monday, every Monday during non-testing weeks I give students a mini five-point quiz on the concepts that we worked on the past week (see Figure 5 for an example). These quizzes take about five to ten minutes to complete, and are designed to make sure students are grasping the fundamentals of the concepts we have been investigating.

Figure 5. An example five-point mini quiz for advanced chemistry students.

Student reaction

Overall, students have had a very positive response to these changes. In a survey at the end of the first quarter, several students commented how the periodic “pause-and-reflection opportunities” really encouraged them to engage with the material during the class itself. Others said the weekly quizzes gave them an opportunity to evaluate how things were going as we worked through each topic, as opposed to only figuring out their level of understanding as they prepared for a larger unit test. Students also reported that both the problem of the day and quizzes forced them to keep up with the material on a daily basis, which resulted in less preparation time required for larger assessments.

My initial assessment

While it has only been a few months since I tweaked my approach, I really like the early results. Despite some of the logistical challenges described above, overall students seem more engaged during whole-class activities and can better identify what they do and do not understand. Not only do students now have a low-stakes way to assess their own understanding, but I have a greater insight into how well specific students, and the class as a whole, are doing in developing their mastery of the material.

Furthermore, more students now feel comfortable about asking and posing questions, so our class discussions have become much more dynamic. I am definitely going to continue to make frequent retrieval practice opportunities part of my teaching approach, and intend to explore integrating other aspects of mind and brain research into my daily practice.

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