One of the main quests for any teacher has been to find practical solutions to help students improve their learning outcomes. Since learning is a complex phenomenon and learners are unique individuals with different brains, the task at hand might feel quite challenging and at times discouraging. However, if we look at cognitive processes underlying learning, we might be able to help tackle them more effectively and maximize learners’ achievement. Learning requires memory and a good place to start digging more about memory and how it works is The Science of Learning (SoL).
SoL gives us a clear picture of what research says about how to teach and learn more effectively not only by describing how our different memory systems function, but also by looking at processes such as attention, engagement, motivation, and emotion regulation (Lang, 2016). It has become increasingly important for educators in the past few years and books such as How We Learn, Make It Stick, and Powerful Teaching have covered research-based learning techniques, including retrieval practice, spacing, and interleaving. These techniques have also been featured in magazines including American Educator and Scientific American Mind. However, many educators lack an understanding of how to use these techniques in their class, and how to relay their importance to learners. Moreover, teachers of ESL and EFL might be uncertain how to use these techniques in a task-based or communicative curriculum.
This article covers three concepts: retrieval practice, spacing, and interleaving. These are three of the desirable difficulties outlined by Bjork and Bjork (2011) which seem to make learning more effective. The aim of this article is not just to give you a basic understanding of each technique, but also to demonstrate how students can use them to improve their study skills and how teachers can use each technique in the classroom.
Retrieval practice (otherwise known as self-testing) refers to the technique of recalling previously learned material without relying on notes or books. Done correctly, retrieval practice can help students remember material for longer periods of time as it strengthens neural connections in the brain. In addition, it can make students more aware of their own learning and the gaps in their knowledge, as they will be better able to identify the concepts they can easily remember and the ones they cannot. Therefore, they can spend more time studying the things they were not able to retrieve.
Dunlosky et al. (2013) cite one study where undergraduates were asked to study word pairs in Swahili and English. The undergraduates were instructed to do retrieval practice (or self-quizzing) on some of the word pairs, and they were told to simply restudy (reread their notes about) other word pairs. Recall was 80% higher for the word pairs the students self-quizzed on, compared to 36% for the word pairs the students restudied. Other research on retrieval practice (see Kornell et al., 2009; Karpicke, 2012) has shown similar results.
Retrieval Practice for students
If you are currently learning a second or foreign language, you can do retrieval practice in several ways:
1) Create flashcards – Make flashcards for new chunks of language with L1 on one side and L2 on the other side. You can also use images. You can have a picture of a word you want to practice on one side and the word in L2 on the back. Make sure that you retrieve the answer from memory before you flip the card over. (Many students make the mistake of thinking “I know it” and flip a card over before actually retrieving the answer).
3) Review without notes – After each lesson, take a few minutes to write a summary of what you learned, without opening your book or looking at your notebook. Later, when you think you’ve retrieved as much as possible from memory, go to your notes and book to see if you missed anything. You can then focus your study on the things you were unable to retrieve.
Retrieval Practice for teachers
1) Keep it short – You need to devote only a few minutes of class time to retrieval. The goal of retrieval is to help students remember what they were exposed to, so that they are more likely to remember it later on, and to effectively consolidate their learning.
2) Keep it simple – You can devise a basic format for retrieval practice. Agarwal and Bain (2019) suggest a few formats, such as Two Things (where students write down two things they remember from the lesson), Brain Dumps (where students jot down everything they remember about a topic), and mini-quizzes (where students answer three quiz questions.
3) Keep it low-stakes – Retrieval practice should have little or no effect on the students’ grades, so that it’s a low-pressure activity and it will encourage students to associate retrieval practice more with learning and less with testing. It’s about shifting the focus from assessment of learning to assessment for learning.
4) No books or notes – When doing retrieval practice, ask the students to close their notebooks and put their books away. During retrieval practice, it might be a good idea to ask students to put all of their books on the teacher’s desk to make sure that they don’t sneak a peek at the coursebook pages.
5) Provide immediate feedback – After the Brain Dump or Mini-Quizzes, students should have an opportunity to look at their notes to see if they were correct. They can also benefit from peer feedback. One way to promote it is by having students compare their notes with one another and check for similarities and differences.
6) Link retrieval practice to other work such as fluency practice – After doing a Mini-Quiz, you may ask students to do a role play or discussion where they put the vocabulary into practice.
The next technique, spacing (spaced practice or distributed practice), involves dividing up study over time, instead of cramming all of the course material into one long session. The key to spacing is inserting intervals of time between study sessions on a particular topic, thus allowing memory networks to deactivate, consolidate, and reactivate. As time passes, students will have forgotten some of the material, but reviewing the material at intervals can make it easier to remember each time. As Agarwal and Bain (2019) put it: “a little forgetting is key to spacing: When we let time pass and space things out, students’ knowledge has time to solidify and ‘simmer.’” It is also connected to the notion that we consolidate memories in our sleep (Maquet et al., 2003).
Dunlosky et al. (2013) refer to a study where students learned the English translations of several Spanish words. They reviewed the vocabulary over six sessions. However, they were divided into three groups which had different time constraints. One group studied the vocabulary on consecutive days, while another group studied the vocabulary every other day, and a third group studied the vocabulary in sessions 30 days apart. The results? The students in the third group remembered the English translations the best. As a matter of fact, the authors reference more than 200 studies (totaling around 14,000 participants) where tested subjects scored 47% when spacing compared to 37% when cramming.
Spacing for students
1) Don’t cram – Instead of having a long cram session the night before a big exam., plan to study in several short sessions over the weeks of a course.
2) Schedule time for short study sessions – Look at your calendar and mark a time that’s convenient for you to do one or more study sessions a week.
3) Make retrieval study guides – Agarwal and Bain (2019) recommend using retrieval study guides for retrieval practice. A retrieval study guide is a list of short answer questions that can help students study on their own. You can write your own retrieval study guides, and refer back to them as the course progresses. Make sure you add specific deadlines to refer back to them, following the concept of spacing.
4) Make the most of waiting time –If you’re waiting in line or in a waiting room, or waiting for a series of TV commercials to end, you can use this waiting time to your advantage. Do a quick review of material from this week’s and last week’s lessons.
Spacing for teachers
1) Set a block of time for spaced retrieval practice – Use the first few minutes (or last few minutes) of class to do a quick quiz on contents students studied last class or even weeks ago. If you usually give your class a short break, you can put some quiz questions on the board, and ask them to tell you their answers later.
2) Keep track of what and when to retrieve – Using a calendar, a Learning Management System (LMS), or Project Planner (such as Trello), can help you keep track of which contents you taught and when they should be retrieved by your students again. A rule of thumb to guide you is: have students retrieve the same content one day after the input, one week after, and one month after.
3) Add some variety to your retrieval work – Spacing out your study sessions doesn’t mean doing it the same way each time. Jones (2020) suggests ways to make retrieval activities more social, with two formats: Quiz Trade (students have quiz questions, they mingle, find a partner and ask each other the quiz question on their cards, then they find a new partner and repeat) and Cops and Robbers (students do a brain dump on the left side of their paper, then get up from their seats and find more information from others, which they write on the right side).
4) Try Big Basket Quizzes or BBQs – Agarwal and Bain (2019) recommend keeping a big basket (or big box) of quiz questions, which you add to each week. Choose questions at random so that each spaced quiz covers material from different weeks of the course.
Next up is interleaving, which is similar to spacing. Interleaving means mixing up the study subjects in a single session. For example, if a coursebook unit covers vocabulary, pronunciation, speaking, listening, and grammar, students should study two or more of these areas in one study session. In addition to covering different skills and language areas, students should employ interleaving by mixing up materials from different parts of the course. As mentioned in the previous section on spacing, students should review material from earlier on in the course, not just recent material. One benefit of interleaving is that it’s more challenging to work on a diverse set of problems, and this challenge creates the desirable difficulties mentioned at the beginning of this article.
Another benefit of interleaving is discrimination. If students review two different verb tenses (which were studied in different lessons) at the same time, they will be able to discriminate clearly between the two, which will help them learn the tenses better over the long term.
Interleaving for students
1) Don’t focus your study sessions on one area – If you have one hour and thirty minutes to study, a great idea is to use the Pomodoro Technique, which basically breaks the study session into 25min blocks + a 5min break. You can devote 25 minutes to vocabulary and have a brain break for 5 minutes (you could listen to music), then 25 minutes to listening and another 5 min. brain break (you could water your plants), and finally 25 minutes to pronunciation and one more 5 min. brain break (you could stretch or even meditate using Headspace).
2) Make sure your study materials cover material from earlier lessons as well as the most recent lessons – If you use flashcards, you should use vocabulary from all sections of the course. Likewise, if you use retrieval study guides, you should include questions covering every week of the course.
Interleaving for teachers
1) Aim for a mix of questions for retrieval practice – In a quick quiz, you should cover material from different language areas, different skills, as well as different periods of the unit. (You may wish to use the Big Basket Quiz idea from earlier.)
2) Seek ways to include material from the beginning and middle of the course – A good tip is to put two lists of vocabulary on the board: one list including vocabulary from the first few weeks of class, and a second list including vocabulary from the middle of the course. Invite students to choose one word from each list and make an imaginative sentence with them.
3) Use The Dice Game Strategy and The Fishbowl Strategy – Agarwal and Bain (2019) describe these two strategies for using spacing and interleaving. In The Dice Game Strategy, students receive a numbered list of vocabulary. In groups, they take turns rolling dice (a random number generator app might be better), and then defining the word that corresponds with that number. In The Fishbowl Strategy, prompts are written on slips of paper and put into a fishbowl or a box. Students draw a slip of paper, do retrieval practice on the prompt, then discuss with a partner, as in Think-Pair-Share. (Note: the prompts could be in the form of short tasks, such as “Think of ten words we learned related to transportation” or “Make 12 sentences, using the present progressive, about your classmates”).
This article has discussed three effective and ready-to-implement techniques based on The Science of Learning that might have a positive impact on students’ memory. We believe that research-informed teaching practices have the potential to equip teachers with tools that can be quite inexpensive, easy to use, and yield lasting results when it comes to learning. By no means do we wish to claim here that learning effectively can be oversimplified and summarized into a fixed formula. However, if we understand that learning consists of different and integrated processes and if we seek to understand them individually, we might be able to better cater to our students’ needs and create more positive learning experiences. How about giving these three techniques a shot in your next class?
Agarwal, P., & Bain, P. (2019). Powerful teaching: Unleash the science of learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Bjork, E. L., & Bjork, R. A. (2011). Making things hard on yourself, but in a good way: Creating desirable difficulties to enhance learning. In FAABS Foundation, Psychology and the real world: Essays illustrating fundamental contributions to society (pp. 59-68). New York, NY: World Publishing.
Dunlosky, J. (2013, Fall). Strengthening the student toolbox: study Strategies to boost learning. American Educator, 37(3), 12-21.
Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K., Marsh, E., Nathan, M., & Willingham, D. (2013, September-October). What works, what doesn’t. Scientific American Mind. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-works-what-doesn-t/
Gonzalez, J. (2019). Simple ways to integrate four evidence-based teaching strategies. Edutopia. https://www.edutopia.org/article/simple-ways-integrate-four-evidence-based-teaching-strategies
Jones, K. (2019). Retrieval practice: Research and resources for every classroom. Woodbridge, UK: John Catt.
Karpicke, J. D. (2012). Retrieval-based learning: Active retrieval promotes meaningful learning. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21(3), 157-163
Kornell, N., Hays, M. J., & Bjork, R. A. (2009). Unsuccessful retrieval attempts enhance subsequent learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 35(4), 989.
Lang, J. (2016). Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Maquet, P., Peigneux, P., Laureys, S., Boly, M., Dang-Vu, T., Desseilles, M., & Cleermans, A. (2003). Memory processing during human sleep as assessed by functional neuroimaging. Revue Neurologique, 159(11), 6S27-6S29.
André Hedlund is a bilingual program mentor and teacher trainer at Edify in Brazil. He holds an MSc in Psychology of Education from the University of Bristol. André is a guest lecturer on Bilingualism, Active Methodologies, Innovation, and Neuroscience in postgraduate courses and a representative of the BRAZ-TESOL MBE SIG.
Hall Houston currently teaches at National Taipei University of Nursing and Health Sciences in Taiwan. He has a Master’s degree in Foreign Language Education from The University of Texas at Austin. He has written five books for ESL/EFL teachers, including The Creative Classroom, Provoking Thought and Creative Output.