To Remember, We Must Practice Remembering

We learned to put the quiz at the end.

I’m not sure exactly when this happened.  Probably, it was in school.  We experienced a teacher putting the lesson “into” our heads and then at the end of an interminable amount of time, we experienced a teacher attempt to take it “out” again.  Thank goodness not every teacher did this.  Perhaps they (and we) didn’t know any better.  We know better now.  Let’s do better.

I had an insight recently that if we are to remember things, we should PRACTICE remembering.  This an extension of the maxim, “People come to training to practice their jobs.”  Most of our time in training ought to be in practice and application of the new content. The ratio of 1/3 content and 2/3 practice is helpful but not absolute.  So, why does practice in remembering matter so much?

There is an exploding area of teaching scholarship called retrieval practice.  That is in essence, practice remembering and make this practice a common part of your training.  Retrieval practice on a regular basis does a lot of really great things, like:

  1. Reduces anxiety and stress
  2. Enhances learner self-efficacy
  3. Facilitates moving from short term memory to long-term memory
  4. Hits the sweet spot of effortful learning
  5. Improves performance back on the job

Not everything should be remembered, by the way.  Please know that if we can shift remembering from the head to the environment (say, job aids or guidance) we ought to.  However, there is and always has been fundamental knowledge that must be remembered in order to perform a task to produce a valuable accomplishment.

To quote Pooja Agarwal, of 

Retrieval practice is a strategy in which bringing information to mind enhances and boosts learning. Deliberately recalling information forces us to pull our knowledge “out” and examine what we know.

We’ve known for a while that “pulling knowledge out” is very effective if done consistently and often. Also, the more challenging (but not too challenging) the better it is for long-term remembering.

What ways can we do this that our adult learners would actually enjoy? How can learners test their recall often and NOT have them resent the process? Here are a few ideas that work for me:

  • Stop and Remember.  After presenting a bit of content, stop and ask participants to write down or “think pair share” as much as they remember from my content.  Then provide a summary for them to check their accuracy.  Be ready to learn “not much” the first few times you do this!
  • Journaling.  I adapted Will Thalheimer’s suggested Triggered Action Planning as a ongoing journaling template.  Learners fill in what they’ve learned, their next opportunity to apply it (trigger), and what they plan to do, and what support they need.  This focused approach is based on the evidence that intentions and triggers encourage follow through and persistence.
  • Fluency Builder Cards.  I’ve posted here about how I’ve sneaked in fluency builder quiz games using flashcards to build a habit of retrieval practice.  Add the social dimension and you get a positive reinforcement motivation loop that’s hard to beat.
  • Pretest and Posttest.  I have adapted the tried and true pretest/posttest in that after we give the pretest, we go through all the answers AND I encourage participants to review the test DURING the various lessons.  So, they always have it close at hand.  Then, the posttest is simply the same test with the items randomized.  Call them Quiz Games and your learners will love them.
  • Reviews.  Of course, reviews are so very important.  At the end of a lesson and at the opening of the next.  I’ve adapted Blake Harvard’s “Last Time/Last Week/Last Month” advanced organizer worksheet to review with a purpose.  In short, the activity is just as you’d expect.  The worksheet cues learners to summarize content from each of these increasingly long time periods.  I like blending this with Think, Pair, Share to get the social juju flowing.  Adapt the periods to fit your program.

 “If a test is the first time you’re made to think about or with the class material, we’ve both probably failed.”  Blake Harvard

Yes, learning is hard work.  We ought to encourage our learners to work a bit harder at remembering so that they can and will remember.

Don’t forget it.

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