A new study shows that many teachers promote more active forms of learning like retrieval practice, but the research suggests that some of the other hallmarks of active learning, like waiting for students to respond, are not occurring. The science on retrieval practice is well-established. Answering short questions or self-testing is far more effective at improving learning than other commonly used practices, such as restudying and concept mapping. With this in mind, the study sought to investigate how often and what type of questions teachers ask that require retrieval practice, as well as if teachers whose students showed high growth in mathematics achievement used retrieval questions differently from teachers whose students showed low growth.
The study, conducted by Dr. Lisa K. Fazio, Assistant Professor of Psychology and Human Development at Vanderbilt University, was entitled “Retrieval practice opportunities in middle school mathematics’ teachers oral questions.”
Drawing on earlier studies in educational and developmental psychology, the study was the first to directly examine teachers’ natural use of retrieval questions during their oral instruction. Unlike other studies, which often relied on experimenter-provided questions, Dr. Fazio’s study focused on questions that teachers naturally asked.
The researchers found, on average, that middle school mathematics teachers asked a whopping 210 questions per hour, or 3.5 per minute. Additionally, the researchers determined that “almost half of the non-classroom management questions provided an opportunity for retrieval practice.”
While the high number of questions in the classroom bodes well for opportunities for retrieval practice, the study also pointed to three hypothesized areas that are necessary for student learning and, unfortunately, are often missing from the classroom: time to respond, a norm of participation, and questions that require effortful retrieval.
Time to respond refers to the research-based observation that teachers typically do not allow students enough time to think after asking a question. Ideally, teachers should wait three to five seconds for students to process a question, think, and formulate a response. A norm of participation relates to the idea that the majority of students need to be engaged in the classroom if retrieval questions are to improve classroom performance, while effortful retrieval speaks to the fact that the level of difficulty often corresponds to the quality of learning. In other words, harder retrievals are more valuable for students.
Dr. Fazio took to Twitter to announce the results of her study, echoing the above: “We also found lots of variety across teachers/classrooms in their use of retrieval questions. But, questions often lacked features that the research lit suggests are imp: time to respond, an expectation to respond and q that require effortful retrieval.”
The implications for people interested in teaching and learning are far-reaching in the world of education, with the conclusion of the study pointing to one way that the abundance of retrieval opportunities in the classroom could help students: “Given that most teachers are already providing retrieval opportunities to their students, providing instruction to improve their effectiveness may be a simple way to improve student achievement.”