On the 15th November 2019, the TILE network invited Dr Pooja K. Agarwal to share her expertise on practical and powerful teaching tools in the form of a webinar. As we have learned across many different TILE talks, there are different learning strategies that are now well-established within academia, but Pooja stresses the importance of importing these findings from cognitive research into the classroom. Offering teachers practical strategies and tools on how to implement them that do not require much extra time or grading is a crucial aspect of this transference of knowledge, on which Pooja focuses this webinar ‘Powerful Teaching: Unleashing the Science of Learning’ as well as her book with the same name.

Educators typically focus on getting information into students, a process that is crucial for learning, but to improve long-term learning, getting information out of students, i.e. practicing intentional retrieving, requires more attention. How can teachers intentionally practice retrieval in the classroom? Retrieval practice, spaced practice, feedback and interleaving, which Pooja describes as ‘Power Tools’, have been shown to be effective learning strategies in the lab as well as in classroom setting.

For more background and information on these research-based practices, check out learningscientists.org or Pooja’s own website retrievalpractice.org.

The key is to use teaching tools that allow to implement those strategies effectively without a change in time consumption and any additional grading as to not increase the teacher’s workload. Additionally, to model to students that practicing what they know is part of the learning process, it is important to use these strategies for learning and not assessing, or if so, then low-stake assessments.

Retrieval Tools for the Classroom:

  • Switch to asking instead of telling
    • Example: At the beginning of class, ask “What did we do last week?” instead telling them “Here’s what we did last week.”
    • Students can take 1 minute to write down their thoughts, given each individual student the opportunity to practice retrieval with little change in time consumption.
  • Brain dumps (or free recall): Ask students to brain dump and retrieve everything they know
    • Example: Ask students to write down everything they have learned that lesson
  • Two Things: A strategy similar to brain dumps, but more constrained
    • Example: Write down two things you remember from yesterday.

These tools can be used in different format, for example as entry/exit tickets or as an extension of the commonly used Think-pair-share, which possibilities Pooja explores in this blog post Think-Pair-Share? Think again!. Apps, such as flipgrid which allows students to post a 30-second selfie-video based on a discussion prompt, allow to bring some variety into the classroom while implementing retrieval practice.

These are strategies that teachers can employ to increase learning success, but what about student’s individual learning? Students often cram instead of using spaced retrieval practice, despite feeling it only works short-term, not long-term. What strategies can teachers model in the classroom so that students will use them and increase their long-term learning? Note-taking, for example, can be taken to the next level by combining it with retrieval practice, which Pooja termed ‘Retrieve-Taking’. Instead of taking notes simultaneous to listening in class or reading the material, she suggests to first focus solely the material, and then taking notes afterwards through retrieval. This can be modelled in the classroom by pausing the lesson for a short to give students the time to makes notes.

Pooja also shared her successful experience with low-stake weekly quizzes that demonstrate students the importance of learning rather than final grades, as it was more important to consistently retrieve knowledge rather than cramming for one final exam. Combining retrieval practice and spaced practice leads to the best learning results.

These tools provide formative assessment not only for teachers and inform them of gaps they need to address, but also for students, as it enables them to judge how they are doing. Metacognition, knowing what one knows, is important step in the learning process to accurately judge what needs to be learned further. To improve metacognition, several of these tools can be used in combination with feedback. Students can give feedback to themselves after a brain dump to realise in which areas they are lacking, but teachers can also support in this endeavour. Pooja highlights the importance of drawing attention to correct answers on top of marking wrong answers to further support the learning process via fun and colourful stamps. Additionally, with the example of weekly retrieval quizzes, Pooja proposes the use of checkboxes after each question, that are only for students’ use. After students answer a question, they check whether they are sure in their answer or not. After receiving their marked quizzes back, they can see whether there was a discrepancy between their judgement and performance and use this for their future learning process.

The take-away of this webinar is to support students in implementing effective strategies and improve their long-term learning. This can be done through the practical ideas that Pooja offered, that require no additional grading and little change in time consumption. If these strategies might drive teachers to spend more time initially on one topic in the classroom, it will take less time in the end as students will require less repetition of the topic. The employment of these strategies will benefit both teachers and students, improving class practice and long-term learning.


About Dr Pooja K. Agarwal:

Pooja K. Agarwal, Ph.D. is an expert in the field of cognitive science. She has conducted rigorous research on learning for more than 15 years. She has a forthcoming book, Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning. Pooja is the Founder of RetrievalPractice.org, a hub of resources and strategies for teachers based on the science of learning. In addition, Pooja is an Assistant Professor at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. She received her Ph.D. from Washington University in St. Louis and she is a former K-12 teacher. Learn more at retrievalpractice.org and follow her on Twitter @PoojaAgarwal.


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