September 13, 2011
"Retrieval Practice"-Creating Tests that Reaffirm Knowledge
What do you want your tests to accomplish? Are they meant to measure learning that has already occured? Are your tests meant to provide an end of term grade? Are your tests meant to assess how much material students covered in the semester? If you use tests in any of these ways, I challenge you to see tests in a new light: as a teaching tool. Before I begin, I want to hat tip several people who already use this technique in their teaching: Ingrid Michelson Hillinger of BC, Rory Baduhur, Jeremiah Ho, and Michael Hunter Schwartz of Washburn, and Paula Manning of Western State. I am certain there are more people who use this technique; these are the people I know off the top of my head on a Monday morning.
"Retrieval practice" uses tests as a method of assessment and reinforcement, seeing the test itself as a learning experience that helps consolidate knowledge. For students, retrieval practice means something they need more of but dread: tests. But testing should be frequent and involve self-quizzing, as well as tests that build upon previous skills so students are reviewing as well as consolidating new information. Each of the law professors above have presented at conferences on different methods of frequently assessing student learning in ways that build skills; there is no one correct way to use retrieval practice. Prof. Hillinger uses group work that challenges students and builds skills throughout the semester. Prof. Badahur and Ho use frequent mini-tests, which students can peer-correct or self-correct, to test skills as they are being learned. Prof.'s Manning and Schwartz use so many different testing methods throughout the semester to keep students active and engaged.
Based on what I have learned over the past year, I have dramatically changed the structure of the Remedies course I teach each fall. Instead of giving fours tests throughout the semester, I give four exams (each with increasing value towards their final grade) and a mini-assessment at the end of every class. I start each class with a lesson on a skill, such as outlining for learning. This is the most typical "ASP" part of the course. I move into a doctrinal lesson in Remedies. Unlike traditional doctrinal teaching, I use visuals, give note-taking guides, and explain my pedagogy as I am teaching. Students know why I am using any particular teaching method, how it is used in their other courses, and how this teaching method relates to a practice skill. I make my thinking explicit. In other words, I don't hide the ball. I give them the ball, and then explain why I use the ball, the other ways of using the ball, explain it's character and design, and how the ball can be used outside the classroom. The last part of my class is a mini-assessment that tests their understanding of the lesson and asks them to apply the skills they have been learning in class. This past week, when we reviewed the science and skills of reading and briefing cases, I asked them to brief next week's case in class, with me, trying the techniques they just learned. I gave them a 1/2 hour; far more time than they would take if they were rushing through the brief at home. I assured them their was no "wrong" answer, that this was a chance to experiment with technique and format and get feedback on their efforts. The benefit to me from this lesson is that I get to see if they understand before I move on to a new skill. Because skills build on each other, I can assess early in the semester if we need to spend more time on a skill, before we all become frustrated with a lack of understanding later in the semester.
While it is at best a brief introduction to retrieval practice, there is an article in the NYT's on it in practice. The article mentions Mind, Brain, and Education. There is a Mind, Brian, and Education journal from Harvard's Graduate School of Education; it is excellent and well worth the very modest subscription pric (I have been subscribing since 2007). I have also been to a Harvard conference on mind-brain connections in students with learning differences, and I regularly use what I learned at the conference. (RCF)
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