What are some hesitations when putting this research into practice?
So far, we’ve presented a few basic principles of learning from cognitive psychology, briefly described the research behind them, and shared some flexible teaching strategies to improve learning (take a moment: Can you retrieve the four strategies?). However, we know it can be daunting to change teaching practices or add yet another approach to an ever-increasing pile of instructional tools. So here are a few responses to common hesitations about implementing strategies like retrieval practice and spacing:
These strategies only apply to memorization. Actually, a growing body of research demonstrates that simply encouraging students to retrieve what they know improves their ability to apply that knowledge, transfer it to new situations, and retain complex ideas in content areas ranging from Advanced Placement social studies to medical school. In one study, for example, college students learned about the structure of bat wings using retrieval practice. On a final test, students were better able to transfer their knowledge to questions about the structure of airplane wings (Butler, 2010). A wealth of both lab and classroom research has demonstrated that retrieval practice improves students’ learning beyond rote memorization.
I have to spend more time prepping for class and/or more time grading. As we mentioned earlier, small changes in class (like swapping reviewing for retrieving) can make a large difference for student learning. Many teachers already use these strategies, and cognitive psychology research affirms that teachers should aim to increase the amount of retrieval, feedback, spacing, and interleaving in the classroom. In addition, because these strategies are most effective when they are no- or low-stakes, they don’t require any grading at all. When students respond to a quick writing prompt in class, for example, there’s no need to collect their paper — it’s simply a retrieval opportunity for learning, not for assessment.
I can’t cover as much material. When it comes to the trade-off of time vs. content, think about it this way: If students remember more, you save time by reteaching less. If we want to make sure that time spent teaching is time spent learning, then using research-based strategies to boost learning at the outset will make a large difference for you in class and for your students outside of class: They won’t need to do so much cramming before an exam.