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.

About the Author

David Brown (brown@wfu.edu) is vice president and dean of the International Center for Computer Enhanced Learning at Wake Forest University.

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