Active Learning: Practice at Retrieval
Last summer at the 26th International Conference on Improving College and University
Teaching, in Johannesburg, South Africa, I was honored to share keynoting responsibilities
with Nelson Mandela. One of the conference’s best sessions was led by Diane
Halpern, a psychologist from Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California.
From her own teaching experiences and her knowledge of research in cognitive
psychology, Dr. Halpern argues that long-term retention of knowledge is dependent
upon using it. “It’s what the learners do that determines what and
how much is learned
. The single most important variable in promoting long-term
retention and transfer is practice at retrieval.”
You know a conference is successful when your instincts about effective teaching
are confirmed by solid research. When I returned home from the conference, I
increased my resolve to make sure my students get even more “practice at
retrieval.” In addition to a few low-tech changes in my teaching (such
as team projects in class; more class discussion, especially relating contemporary
events with economic concepts; and teams of students working in advance with
guest lecturers to increase linkages between the lecturers’ “war stories”
and our ideas), we were able to increase the quality, quantity, and convenience
of “practice at retrieval” using our computers and the Internet.
Immediately after reading the assigned chapter in our textbook, my students
are e-mailing me their “muddiest point.” Students are getting practice
at retrieval, and I’m reshaping plans for tomorrow’s class on the
basis of their just-in-time feedback.
In an electronic chat session with the entire class, students share a one-sentence
summary of the most important concept in the lecture. These restatements provide
rich opportunities for a classroom discussion that starts from where students
are, rather than from my more extensive knowledge base.
After lecture, feedback, and discussion, I ask students to break out into small
teams and develop PowerPoint presentations on how they would use the topic of
the day to solve an assigned problem. After class, half the students are asked
to describe in a paragraph how they would apply the concept they’ve just
learned to a specific challenge. Each student then shares his or her answer
with a buddy (from the other half of the students) and a volunteer off-campus
alum. Over the Internet the three discuss and agree upon a single paragraph,
which is then submitted for my evaluation. Both students get the same grade.
The techniques being used in my class of fifteen students can be especially
useful in much larger classes. Involving students in the orientation of guest
lecturers, in the evaluation of paragraphs submitted by fellow students, and
in team projects all comprise the active learning process.
Throughout our teaching I believe we need to keep students retrieving and re-retrieving,
then applying the concept. Dr. Halpern suggests that we regularly ask students
to answer thought-provoking questions such as, What is an example of the concept
of the day? How could your newly acquired knowledge be used to create something
new? What are the implications of a particular idea? When time and small enrollments
allow, these questions can be addressed to each student during class. Students
can also benefit greatly from reflecting upon their own answers and discussing
the issue with other students.
To paraphrase Nelson Mandela, “
in the end, the only important thing
in life is having a positive and lasting effect on someone’s life.”
We can hope that many professors, using the computer and the Internet, will
redesign their courses to students’ “practice at retrieval” and,
consequently, exert a longer-lasting influence on each student’s life.
David Brown (firstname.lastname@example.org) is vice president and dean of the International
Center for Computer Enhanced Learning at Wake Forest University.