Increasing Student Success By Showing Students How Much You Care

When I was an undergraduate student studying to become a teacher, one of my professors, Coach Gettis Self, made a point to tell us multiple times every class that, ‘Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” He said it with such frequency that the class chimed in and said it with him aloud every time he began saying this to the class. Being so young and self-absorbed, believing we were going to change the world simply because we were in it, we arrogantly repeated his words of wisdom with him simultaneously out of orneriness.

Years later (and after the obvious truth had set in as to the difficult work of teaching and the fact that my classmates and I would not save the world with our mere presence) when I began to serve as a cooperating teacher hosting student teachers in my high school classroom, I found myself repeating this statement to the numerous pre-service teachers who studied under my supervision. When I moved to the university in 2015 and began teaching preservice teachers, one of the first concepts I wanted to cement in the minds of these future teachers was the importance of connecting with students and how critical it was to let their students know how much they care about them as individuals before they ever tried to teach the first piece of content.

Settling into my second decade of teaching, I can say with strong conviction that what Coach Self taught us in the mid-1990’s is still true today. I may even argue that it is of greater importance today than when I first entered the classroom in the late 1990’s as our students have incredible obstacles and challenges to overcome that are different than they were 20 years ago. Additionally, my generation was a more compliant one where we were raised to do what we were told and to not question authority figures under any circumstance – at least the people I knew and grew up with were raised in this fashion. More and more today it appears that students have to know how or why knowing or doing something is beneficial to them. My perspective could be off but this is how it appears from where I sit.

Despite the challenges of teaching an ever growing diverse population, there are a number of steps faculty can take to show students they care and want to help their students succeed. In this post, I would like to share five strategies faculty can and should use in every course without exception to send the message that you care.

1. Preparing the course. One of the most important steps a faculty member can take to show students they care is to put forth a significant amount of time in getting the course ready for students. When students log in to their course on the first day of the semester, the course should be complete and ready. All course content, assignments, assessments, etc. should be in the course and the course, from a development perspective, should be done. While there may be small edits and changes that need to be made throughout the semester, the course should be finalized and student-ready.

In preparing the course, faculty should work with university’s instructional designers or other instructional support staff, especially if they have not received extensive training on course design and pedagogy, to ensure their courses meet the current course delivery standards. The use of backward design, development and use of effective classroom assessments, implementation of the learning sciences, classroom management techniques and practices, as well as motivational and learning theories should all be properly used to prepare the course for students.

2. Making the learning experience meaningful. Ask yourself, ‘Why should students care about this lesson/lecture/assignment/topic?’ Answering this question will help you set the stage for learning by making the connection between what students are learning and why it is important to the goal of the course and/or their career goals. Additionally, thinking about why this lesson is important helps faculty identify ways to best situate students more closely to the real-world experience they are ready for at each stage of their learning.

The more relatable we can make the learning experience and the more intentional we are about explicitly telling students how the learning will benefit them, the more likely students will take the learning opportunity seriously. Let’s face it – in today’s fast-paced, Information Age, students are bombarded with distractions. Faculty must be diligent to thwart those distractions and help their students maintain their focus on achieving their goals of earning their degree and securing a job in their chosen industry.

3. Make failing safe. Think back to a time when you first learned something. Maybe it was a video game that you now love. Maybe it was how to parallel park. Or, maybe it was how to make pancakes. Did you get it right on your first attempt? Did you win the game, park the car perfectly, or make the perfect golden brown pancakes on your first attempt? Heck no! If you are like me, it took lots of practice and I still cannot make pancakes!

Faculty must create a space for students to get it wrong, for them to need to try and try again. Students need to feel as if it is okay to fail and that, more importantly, failure is vital to their learning.

So, how can faculty do this? That’s a great question and the answer is easier than one might think.

  1. Ask a lot of questions in class. Quiz students in class verbally or using some simple-to-use technology that allows for every student to submit a response. Then, provide the correct answer immediately. Doing so prevents students from continuing with their misinformation.
  2. Use retrieval practice activities. This is one of my favorite learning science principles, one that has over 100 years of empirical research that shows it improves learning. There are endless ways to do this and I write about a few of the ways I have done this in one of my classes in this post. Doing a search on Twitter will provide endless examples from educators all over the world. And don’t think you cannot use an idea from an elementary teacher in your higher ed class because you can! I steal ideas from elementary school teachers all the time!
  3. Allow multiple or unlimited attempts on quizzes and assignments. Whoa! Yep! You read it correctly! Isn’t the goal for students to learn? Or, is the goal to measure what students do not know? The latter is the mentality of a system of exclusion, for which I am not a supporter. I am a fan of creating a space so all students can succeed. Allowing students multiple or even unlimited attempts on quizzes and assignments is a strong way to show that you care about students.
  4. The objective is to learn. Particularly for novice learners, failure is a critical step in mastering foundational content that is important as their learning advances. The use of Productive Failure, an approach that requires learners to struggle (Steenhof, Woods, Gerven, & Mylopoulos, 2019), has been shown to better prepare students for future learning of new but related content.

The objective is to learn. Particularly for novice learners, failure is a critical step in mastering foundational content that is important as their learning advances. The use of Productive Failure, an approach that requires learners to struggle (Steenhof, Woods, Gerven, & Mylopoulos, 2019), has been shown to better prepare students for future learning of new but related content by assisting learners in obtaining the conceptual knowledge needed for future, more advanced learning concepts.

4. Provide Thoughtful & Timely Feedback. Another way to show students you care is by providing thoughtful and timely feedback on assignments and assessments. Nothing frustrates students more than not knowing where they stand in the class or thinking they are performing well only to find out near the end of the semester they are not performing as well as expected.

Providing feedback is another way of increasing student content knowledge. For students who performed well, this is a fantastic time to extend student understanding and advance their knowledge beyond the set standard in the course. However, when students do not perform as expected, this is a great time to correct misconceptions before they are strengthened further. Unlearning is actually more difficult than learning.

When teaching large classes, providing timely feedback can often be a challenge. I like to keep a spreadsheet with each assignment and the feedback already created for different levels of achievement. Typically, I will include additional comments per individual student, but at least I have the gist of what I want to be sure to share with all students depending upon their performance.

Below is an example of the way in which I organize my database of feedback per assignment and based upon performance level. Notice the positive and friendly nature of the feedback. This is one of the ways that I work to develop the growth mindset in my learners. For more information on Mindset, I recommend reading Carol S. Dweck’s 2016 edition of her book, Mindset – The New Psychology of Success.

Trick of the Trade. Notice the {FirstName} in each set of feedback. Within your Learning Management System (LMS), most systems will offer a list of strings such as {FirstName} that allows you to personalize the feedback, in this case, without having to type the student’s name individually. So I like to copy and paste this well-thought out feedback based upon what I want learners to know and be able to do at every juncture of the course. Now I can easily add a little individual feedback on top of this and students think I spent so much time giving them feedback, which I did do, but working smarter and not harder.

Quiz Feedback
Perfect ScoreA perfect score! Woo-hoo! Nice work, {FirstName}! This is great work! Although you have earned full credit for this quiz, I really want to encourage you to come back before taking the midterm and final exams and continue practicing this quiz. You will never lose your perfect score so no worries about your grade! Retaking quizzes is an excellent way to study for your exams and ensure that you have mastered the content! Yay! I’m so proud of YOU!!
Above AverageGreat job, {FirstName}! You are off to a great start!Keep working until you earn a perfect score! Plus, retaking quizzes is a great way to prepare for the midterm exam!
AverageThank you for taking this quiz, {FirstName}!I encourage you to continue working to improve your grade for this quiz until you are happy with the grade.Remember, you can take each quiz an unlimited number of times until 11:59 pm on the university study day (December 6, 2018). Retaking quizzes is a great way to study as well! Keep up the great work!
Below Average{FirstName},Keep your head up! I recommend that you read the chapter, take your notes, and practice the Kahoot!s before taking your quiz if you did not do those things already.If you did do those things and are unsure of how to help yourself perform better, consider changing up the way you take notes. Research has shown that taking what is called sketchnotes is a lot more beneficial to learning than the traditional outline-style notes we have taken for years. For more information, check out the Verbal to Visual site here:
Not Attempted{FirstName},Remember to take the assigned quizzes before class begins the following week. When you do not take the quiz, I will score the quiz as a zero until you take the quiz, at which time your grade will be updated to your new grade/score. No need to worry. So long as you take the quiz, your grade will surely improve. Let me know if you have any questions or if you need any help!
Not SavingYour grade has not come through because you did not save a couple of your answers. Please go in and save the answer so the grade can be submitted. Until this is done, your grade will show up as a zero in the grade book.

5. Frequent & Consistent Communication. In all relationships, communication is key to the quality of that relationship. Similarly, faculty should see educating learners as a relationship as well. The relationship is one of where the learner depends heavily upon the instructor to take the lead on setting most of the parameters of the relationship. For example, an instructor might have firm office hours or only allow communications via email.

One of the best ways to establish the communication parameters in this learner-instructor relationship is through the use of a Welcome Email. A well thought out friendly Welcome Email can set the tone for the semester and let students know before the semester begins that you are a caring instructor.

A Welcome Email is also a fantastic time to collect a little demographic information about your incoming learners, which will help you be a better instructor for this particular class as each class is different and instructors should adjust as needed to the needs of each set of students. Below is an example of the Welcome Email I sent out to my Intro to Exercise Physiology students for the Spring 2018 semester.

Hi, all!! Welcome to ESMS 3700, Introduction to Exercise Physiology. 

I am very excited to have you in this class and look forward to getting to know you better this spring. 

In the past, many students have struggled with this course so I wanted to take a few minutes to share some information with you about the course so you could have a little extra time to get prepared for the semester. Please read this email carefully and let me know if you have any questions. 

First, do know that I have designed this course with you, the student, at the center! 

This course is designed to allow you to be successful. Please make no mistake –  the content in this course is rather challenging, especially if you are new to the material, and you will have to work hard to learn and be successful. However, I think I have designed the course in such a way as to put the student in control of their final grade, but more importantly, their learning. 

With this in mind, please take a few minutes to complete the student information survey to help me learn more about you and to help me make the final preparations for the upcoming semester. 

Follow the link below to complete the survey. 

Please read through the syllabus carefully as you will be quizzed on it the first day of class. I will not read the syllabus to you in class. We will play a Kahoot! game (so please download Kahoot and Nearpod to your phone prior to coming to class on Wednesday, January 17, 2018), which is part of your grade and one of three ways to earn bonus points. 

We will get into groups for your class project and get started with learning right away on the first day of class. 

Kahoot will also be used to take attendance so if you do not join the game, you will be considered absent. 

Course Syllabus: (Pay careful attention to how you will be graded. Do note that you will take a quiz after each class that has new content. Each quiz will be delivered inside of eCourseware and will consist of 30 questions (15 from the current day’s lesson and 15 questions randomly pulled from all the previous quiz banks from previous lessons/quizzes). Students can take each quiz an unlimited number of times, keeping your highest grade earned. Quizzes are worth 30% of your total grade! FThqwIQzmc24BHcJymVbUHPbbs/edit?usp=sharing

Preview Group Project: (I am only sharing the first page of the project guidelines until I finalize a couple of things on the details page. This project will bring the content we will learn to life. Your group will work with a live client and will work together to create a website that demonstrates your learning and growth.) LCpQmfvqE/edit?usp=sharing 

I think the information above covers some of the bigger topics that students always want to know. Please feel free to email me if you have questions! 

Happy Learning! 

Niki Bray, Ed.D. 

Instructor & Instructional Designer School of Health Studies Physical Education Teacher Education (PETE) The University of Memphis 
Go Tigers!

One of the best ways to communicate with learners on a frequent and consistent manner is through the use of your LMS’ course homepage. Most courses offer a homepage that will allow the instructor to post messages to learners. Using the News widget allows all students to stay abreast of the latest updates in your course. I also send the exact same message to students using the university’s email just as a way to increase the likelihood of each learner seeing my message. Here are a couple examples of messages I left for students on the News section of our course homepage.

Example of a message posted to the course homepage for my Spring 2018 Intro to Exercise Physiology course.
Example of a message posted to the course homepage for my Spring 2018 Intro to Exercise Physiology course.

Although there are many more, these five strategies can help you create a climate and culture in your class that lets learners know you care about them. For many learners, all they need is just one faculty member somewhere throughout their program to show an interest and belief in them to help them increase their own self-confidence. I encourage you to take every opportunity to let students know you care through word and deeds.

As we embark on the Fall 2020 semester with so many unknowns ahead of us, learners need all the support we are capable of giving them. Remove the fear of failure in your class. Make sure students know how much you care by the way you prepare the course, ensure that their experience is meaningful and safe to take risks by providing thoughtful and timely feedback in a consistent and frequent manner.


3 Ways I Use Retrieval Practice In My Classroom

Historically, content-heavy courses in higher education tend to use traditional, lecture-based strategies to deliver content. I would like to illustrate how I implement three student-centered strategies, gamified learning, unlimited quiz attempts, and concept mapping, in my Intro to Kinesiology and Intro to Exercise Physiology courses and how these strategies actively involve students in the learning process in my classroom.

Gamified Learning

I use active learning strategies, in this case, gamified learning, in lieu of lecturing. I do not lecture. At all. Ever. I never stand in front of the classroom with PowerPoint slides on the overhead projector and read from them. Now, I am not saying that this practice is bad or wrong in and of itself. All I am saying is that I do not do it. While I a tech fan, I also love active learning strategies that are low-tech and no-tech and have spent most of my teaching career using no-tech strategies. However, once I made the move to higher ed and my class sizes ballooned well over 100 students, I found that using simple-to-use free tech tools allowed me to be just as effective in large classes as I was in smaller classes and students enjoyed learning how to use their devices to learn and not just socialize.

How I Use Gamified Learning In My Classes

When I present new content to my didactic-based (content-heavy) classes, both in my face-to-face (f2f) and online courses, regardless of the size of the class, I use gamified learning. My students have access to and are allowed to play the games prior to class. Once students arrive in class, content is delivered, or discussed, using the gaming system (I have used Kahoot! since the fall of 2017 although I am shifting to the gaming feature in Nearpod beginning spring of 2020). If more than a set number of students (say 3, for example) miss any given question, we stop and discuss the question. In the beginning of the semester, I lead the short discussion. As the semester goes on, I begin to require that students provide the explanations as to why an answer is correct or incorrect. By the midterm, the students in the class are running the games.

Immediate Feedback

This is an image of the feedback provided by Kahoot! immediately after a question is answered by the class.

During the game, my students and I are given feedback on the performance of the class as a whole on each individual question (as you can see in the picture above). What’s great about this is the performance data drives the class not a PowerPoint slide deck! Additionally, we do not spend time discussing the content and concepts students already know and have mastered, rather, we spend more of our class time focusing on what students do not know and the concepts they are still struggling to comprehend. Like I explained above, at first, I do most of the explaining but as the semester moves on, I put the onus on students to explain why answer choices are or are not correct which helps to strengthen students’ knowledge and understanding. This in-class activity is an example of elaboration, one of the 7 research-based strategies that improve learning, as students are working to explain and describe ideas to their classmates.

Not only are my students and I given immediate feedback about what the class as a whole knows about a particular topic or concept, but students are also given individual feedback about their individual performance on their personal devices – laptop, tablet, mobile device (as you can see in the pictures below). They are told if they got the answer correct or incorrect, how many points they have accrued, what their answer streak is (how many correct answers they have gotten in a row), how many questions remaining on this game, and a few other pieces of information not related to their performance. In addition to all of this data, they are also given information about how their performance rates in comparison to other in the class that day. I will have to admit I was concerned if this would be a good thing or not, but so far students have seemed to enjoy the competitive nature of this feedback and have left positive comments in the course surveys. Maybe they are fine with it because no one else can see this information except them, but I will admit I am still not sure how I feel about it and how it impacts my most vulnerable learners.

Face-to-Face Vs Online

The difference in my online courses from that of my f2f courses is that students play the games on their own, asynchronously. The effect is different, although I cannot yet speak on the impact. I am currently conducting research on using gamified learning in my class and will have more to share in the coming months. Students are able to compete, though, against their classmates or against anyone they want by sending a link to the game. In this way, students have a little more autonomy than the f2f class, although they do not get the opportunity to have the discussions related to each question like the f2f version of the class. They are able to see how they compare to their classmates (Image 4) and once the game closes, they can see who was at the top of the leaderboard with a Podium view of the top three scores (Image 5).

Student Feedback

Image 6: Survey Feedback ESMS 3700 Intro to Exercise Physiology Spring 2019

Overwhelmingly, student feedback with regards to using gamified learning has been positive (See Image 6 above). There has been a very small percentage of students who have stated in their feedback that they would prefer more lecture. Sure they would. Being fully engaged in class each day requires hard work on the part of the student whereas sitting back and allowing the faculty member to do all the work lecturing means the student doesn’t have to do much work if they do not want. Not happening in my class! Harry K. Wong, educational specialist, is famous for saying, “Whoever is doing the work is doing the learning.” I agree with this statement. Faculty should do their work prior to class; once class begins, students should be the ones doing the hard work and faculty should be facilitating their learning. I have shared a couple of comments from students in my Intro to Exercise Physiology course from my Spring 2018 class. Comments like these are extremely representative of the feedback from students as a whole from one class to the next and from one semester to another.


One of the most important ways I use retrieval practice in my classes, f2f and online alike, is through the use of weekly quizzes. As suggested in this article by Megan Smith and Yana Weinstein-Jones, quizzing provides a number of benefits beyond those that come from retrieval practice:

  1. Quizzing improves learning
  2. Quizzing provides feedback to me about student learning needs
  3. Quizzing improves attendance
  4. Quizzing promotes the expectation of upcoming quizzes
  5. Quizzing improves studying

The questions I created for the Kahoot! games discussed above were used as the questions for the test bank for the quizzes. Since I created my own questions, I only allowed students three attempts on each quiz when I first began allowing more than one attempt because it took me some time to build out enough questions. As the test bank grew (over 1,200 questions in Intro to Exercise Physiology), I allowed students an unlimited number of attempts on each quiz to encourage students to spend more time studying using retrieval practice, one of the 7 research-based strategies that improve learning. While most students attempted 3 or less quizzes most of the time, there were a number of students who needed more attempts on some quizzes. I loved being able to provide additional access to students who needed the extra time. I must add one key piece of information – each quiz in my class is cumulative and the questions are randomly drawn from the growing test bank. Obviously, this design option increases the rigor as it becomes less and less likely that students will draw the same question with each additional attempt each week.

From a motivational standpoint, students see an assignment labeled a quiz and their approach to it is completely different than that of one labeled class participation, for example. Wouldn’t you agree? And, since I have so many quizzes (sometimes 2-3 each week these days), quizzes in my classes are often worth 30-60% of the grade depending upon the course. For example, in my summer Maymester course, which lasts 14 days, quizzes account for 60% of their grades but they are only worth 35% of their grade this fall.

The use of unlimited quiz attempts allow me to see how much time students are spending with my content whereas before I never knew if they were even reading the textbook. For me, time is not my greatest concern, rather, I am more concerned if my students are mastering the content. What I mean is, I am less concerned if students know something in week 3 of the course; rather, I am more concerned that they have mastered the content by the end of the course. For some students, mastery on a piece of content may not occur until week 10. Check! For others, mastery of the same content may happen much earlier. Fine. I do not penalize my students because they need more time to learn. I reward them for not giving up and for continuing to put forth the effort they needed to master the content.

In the graph above, you see data from the first quiz students take in my Intro to Exercise Physiology course. At the end of the semester, one student did not attempt the quiz. Forty-seven students attempted the quiz only once (not too surprising as this is the first quiz of the semester and the easiest quiz). Notice the other end of the graph. One student needed 10 attempts on this quiz. Let’s take a deeper look into the quiz attempts of this student (see below).

There are a number of thoughts one could have about this student’s performance on this first quiz. Here are some of mine: What if this student is entering this class with little to no incoming knowledge around this topic? What if this student does not yet have the textbook? Does this student have a learning disability? I wonder if this student is working while going to school full time. 

What if I told you this student had had open heart surgery a few months prior to the start of the semester and was still recovering from a congenital heart condition? Would you see this data set differently now? 

The point is, because of this data, because I allow students an unlimited number of attempts, I was able to have this possible red flag about this student who needed so many attempts on arguably the easiest quiz of the semester. Upon reaching out to the student, I learned that the student was recovering from another open heart surgery – one of many over the course of this student’s life. The data helped me make a connection with this student I might not otherwise have made.

Had I given students only one quiz attempt, this student would have earned a 53% on the first quiz of the semester. Ultimately, this student went on to earn a 95% A in the course but would likely have scored lower had my course been designed with only one attempt per quiz. Luckily I have been able to build out a pretty robust test bank in my courses (over 1200 questions in the course for the student above) and am able to allow my students the opportunity to take quizzes an unlimited number of attempts.

Concept Mapping

I absolutely love using concept mapping for helping students see the connections between concepts within a lesson, across lessons, chapters, units, and even across the course as a whole. Concept mapping forces students to retrieve what they know about a topic and make note of what they do not know (identifying gaps in knowledge). It also helps students build the mental schema needed to help move information into long-term memory (something we will discuss more in an upcoming post) and be able to attach new information to. 

Concept mapping was invented by Dr. Joseph Novak and is a visual representation of a student’s knowledge. I like to introduce concept mapping to my students by discussing the Anatomy of a Concept Map. I use concept mapping in my class for retrieval practice. Sometimes I provide students with a list of key terms and have them create a map showing the relationship between the terms. Other times I ask students to work in pairs or small groups to create a larger concept map. One of my favorite concept mapping activities is what I like to call Concept Map Gallery Walk. In this activity, students work in groups (video) before moving to another group to provide feedback (video) on their concept map. Student feedback from the Concept Map Gallery Walk is pretty good. Take a look: video. (For more videos from my class, visit my ePortfolio.) 

In my Intro to Kinesiology course this semester, we took concept mapping to another level. We used them to help students take notes prior to and during class and to use for differentiated self-assessments (see the message posted in the course to students below). If you click on the Motor Behavior example below, you will see that Self-Assessment A is easier than Self-Assessment B. This allows students to test their knowledge at varying levels of complexity based upon what they think they are ready to demonstrate, which gets students thinking about their learning. Examples of a few concept maps are provided below.

Instructions posted in the learning management system for Intro to Kinesiology Fall 2019 course.

Sample concept maps that my graduate assistant and I created for our Intro to Kinesiology students this fall:
1. Lesson on Joints:
2. Structure of Muscles:
3. Synovial Joint of the Knee:
4. Anatomical References & Terminology:
5. Motor Behavior:

Whole Class Concept Mapping Midterm Review Activity

To build off of the ideas from the Gallery Walk concept mapping activity students did in previous lessons and classes, I wanted to see what would happen if we engaged in a whole class concept mapping activity where we mapped the content for the entire midterm exam on one large piece of butcher paper.

After organizing my students into groups, each group chose a section of the content we have learned this semester and were given about 10 minutes to jot down key terms on sticky notes related to the content. Next, each group moved to the large piece of butcher paper on the wall at the back of the classroom and began to map out the content using the sticky notes before using pencils, pens, and markers to add any additional information they could remember about the content.

After students worked in small groups to retrieve everything they could remember about the content for their chosen section, students were given a chance to move across the map and add content to other sections if possible. Then, students were asked to sit back and review the larger map as a whole and to look for connections with the content across the map (see the video below).

Connecting to the Research

What is important to note about using gamified learning, increased quizzing, and concept mapping is that the success of my students is supported by the following research-based learning sciences: retrieval practice, spaced practice, and feedback, discussed in my workshop 7 research-based strategies that improve learning conducted prior to the start of the Fall 2019 semester. Gamified learning, specifically the use of Kahoot!, incorporated the use of retrieval practice, spaced practice, and immediate feedback. Students had to recall the information in order to answer the questions and earn points in the game. Additionally, they could play the games prior to and after class as often as they wanted, incorporating the use of spaced practice. Immediate feedback was provided after each question and at the end of each game on individual and class performance.

Allowing multiple or unlimited quiz attempts increases the retrieval practice opportunities students are exposed to and since I use the learning management system to deliver these quizzes, I am able to capture the data for further evidence and analysis. Additionally, the design incorporates the use of spaced practice because the quizzes are cumulative and the questions are drawn randomly from the growing test bank. Immediately after each quiz, I allow students to see their responses and the answers to each quiz. Having immediate feedback allows my students to know exactly what they know and what they still need to spend time studying. With quizzes being cumulative, students’ knowledge of content will be tested multiple times with increased attempts, increasing the likelihood of greater mastery.

Concept mapping also allowed students to retrieve information from memory but it also allowed students the opportunity to elaborate on their understanding and the development of their own mental schema. While concept mapping can also be used for quizzing (formative assessments, low-stakes and no-stakes assessments), it is really good for see the big picture, something we as faculty do not always help students understand – how what they are learning from one week to the next connect and relate to one another.

So How Do You Get Started?

My biggest advice to faculty and institutions who visit my classes, attend my workshops, or hire me for consulting is to focus in on one thing at a time and implement one activity at a time. Additionally, I tell them to talk to your students. Let them know you want to try some new strategies because you want them to be more prepared for the work once they graduate from their chosen program of studies. Let them know that the activity might not go as planned and if it falls apart, no one is going to panic. Explain that you will adjust similarly in the real world – you will analyze the break down, determine a solution, implement it, and see what happens – together. Keep it low-stakes, no-stakes when implementing new strategies for the first time and make sure students know their grades will not be negatively affected should it all fall apart. Model that your classroom is a safe place to fail – to innovate – and that the greatest learning comes from some of the most epic failures. When students know you care about them and are only trying to help them learn and be successful, they will be grateful for your efforts. 

Final Thoughts

While attending The EDUCAUSE 2020 Top 10 IT Issues session at the EDUCAUSE Conference in Chicago this fall, one of the presenters on the panel said the following to those of use in attendance:

    “Raise your hand if you would buy a car that worked 40-60% of the time. Raise your hand if you would buy a house that leaked 40-60 % of the time. Raise your hand if you would use a mail service that delivered your mail on time 40-60% of the time. I wonder why we continue to accept graduation rates of 40-60% in this country.”

Opinder Bawa (@obawa), VP & CIO, University of San Francisco EDUCAUSE Conference, 2019
Slide from Opinder Bawa’s Presentation on the 2020 Top 10 IT Issues

It is difficult to accept that the student success rate is this low in our colleges and universities. We have more knowledge than ever about how the brain works, how people learn, what works, what doesn’t work and the empirical data to prove it. If we keep doing what we have been doing and expect different results – well, you know the rest. What do we have to lose by trying a new way – an empirically conclusive way?? It’s time to break the 900-year tradition of passive learning in higher education and engage students in ways that are meaningful to them and will help prepare them for the demands of the workforce. Won’t you join me?

Happy Learning!

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Using Retrieval Practice to Improve Learning

7 Research-Based Strategies to Improve Learning slide showing each of the 7 strategies: 1) Spaced Practice; 2) Retrieval Practice; 3) Interleaving; 4) Elaboration; 5) Concrete Examples; 6) Dual Coding; 7) Feedback.

Prior to the start of the 2019 fall semester, I led a short workshop on using these 7 strategies you see in the image above in the college classroom. Each of these strategies are relatively easy to use and require very little, sometimes no, preparation to implement in your classroom yet the impact on learning can be tremendous. Although it is listed second in the presentation, I am going to focus this blog post on Retrieval Practice.  In the next post, I will share ways I use retrieval practice in my classroom.

Let’s get started!

What Is Retrieval Practice?
Think flash cards! Remember the days when we created endless numbers of flash cards to help us study for some of our most difficult classes? Turns out it was an excellent study tool even if neither we nor our teachers truly realized it! Why? Because it required the use of retrieval practice.

Retrieval practice is an instructional strategy that boosts learning by requiring students to pull what they know about a topic, concept, or lesson out of their head (e.g., quizzes, flash cards, brain dumps, etc.). In education, faculty usually spend most of their time working to see how much information they can get into students’ heads (e.g., lecturing). Retrieval practice does just the opposite. It requires effort and it is this struggle that improves learning because it strengthens one’s memory. It “is a no-stakes learning opportunity that increases student performance, beyond formative and summative assessments” (Agarwal & Bain, 2019, p. 4). Additionally, there should be a short delay after learning has taken place so that students have had some time to begin to forget what they have learned. This delay increases the effortful struggle which also improves the learning. 

So retrieval practice is not just assessing. As a matter of fact, it shouldn’t be thought of as an assessment at all. Faculty should see the use of retrieval practice as a learning tool – a way to help students learn. Although seldom used in most classrooms across the country at any level (elementary school, middle school, high school, or post-secondary education), retrieval practice is one of the most powerful and effective strategies one can use in the classroom and is backed by over 100 years of empirical research (Abbott, 1909Roediger, Agarwal, McDaniel, McDermott, 2011Adesope, Trevisan, and Sundararajan, 2017). In fact, Agarwal & Bain (2019) cite a 2011 study by Roediger, Agarwal, McDaniel, McDermott that found student performance on quizzed material compared to material that was not quizzed to be was significantly greater (94% vs 81%) on chapter exams; equally strong retention results were witnessed at the end of the semester (79% vs 67%) on content that quizzed.

So, if retrieval practice is so powerful, why isn’t everyone using it?? Great question! 

Why Isn’t Everyone Using Retrieval Practice?
Unfortunately, the problem begins at the teacher preparatory level. Most teacher preparatory programs across the country make encoding, or getting information into student’s heads, the focus of their curriculum training instead of retrieval practice. In fact, a 2016 study showed that every year, roughly 190,000 teacher candidates that graduate from these preparatory programs are not accurately taught what we know about how students learn, how to teach for understanding, or how to improve retention (Pomerance, Greenberg, & Walsh, 2016). Most college and university faculty, particularly those who are not trained educators, tend to rely on the way they were taught when they were in college to inform the instructional strategies and decisions they make in their own college classrooms. 

Unfortunately, the use of such informal training described above is not translating into the kind of student success that is acceptable to the various stakeholders impacted. It is obvious radical changes are needed but what’s not as obvious is what any institution is doing to solve the problem. The use of improved instructional strategies that are backed by empirical research and have been proven to work in real classrooms is a great start! Getting this information into the hands of those faculty responsible for teaching students by developing a system of faculty development and support is another great strategy. My reason for creating this blog and writing posts (and inviting others to write posts) is to help fellow colleagues who may not have support at their institutions have a place to come for reliable ideas, information, and research related to student success, learning, and pedagogy in higher education.

Before we focus in on the benefits of retrieval practice and why you should be using it in your classroom, let’s take a look at the three stages of learning to understand how all of this works. You may be thinking about the ways you use retrieval practice in your classroom already and that’s great! The difference, though, may be that you have not really focused on using it as Agarwal & Bain (2019) suggest – using it “purposely, intentionally, and frequently” (p. 6). I want to encourage you to be thinking about how you might use retrieval practice in these ways as you read the remainder of this post.

Stages of Learning
​As I mentioned already, the focus in education has been on students encoding information, or getting information into student’s heads, which is the first (and critical) stage of learning. In higher education, the primary way encoding has taken place for the last 900 years has been through the use of lecturing (Brockliss, 1996). 

As information comes into the brain, it must be converted into a storable form so it can be recalled at a later time. This stage of learning is storage, or how long something can be kept, or stored, in the mind. To reference Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger, & Mark A McDaniel’s 2014 book , Make It Stick, The Science of Successful Learning, this is the part of learning where the information sticks! But oddly, it’s what we do in Stage 3 that impacts Stage 2 – (a little backwards if you ask me).

Information can be stored in short-term or long-term memory. Short-term memory can store much less information for a shorter amount of time while long-term memory can store what is thought to be an unlimited amount of information for a lifetime. Our goal is to get as much information from our courses into students’ long-term memory as possible, or an approach known as Mastery Learning (Zandvakili et al., 2018).

The third stage of learning is retrieval, which occurs when we recall the information we originally encoded and stored. The more you recall what you know, the greater the chance the information gets stored in your long-term memory, which is why retrieval is the most critical of the three stages of learning (Agarwal & Bain, 2019). Agarwal & Bain (2019) state in their latest book, Powerful Teaching, “In fact, research demonstrates that retrieval practice is more potent than other techniques commonly used by teachers and students, such as lecturing, re-reading, or taking notes” (p. 27).

Setting the Stage
When we think about what takes place in most college and university classrooms across the country today, surely this makes us think we have really been doing things wrong for a long time. It is my sincere hope that by the time you are done reading this blog (and hopefully some of the research linked up in this post and on this site), you will earnestly begin to understand how important and urgent it is that faculty begin making changes in their classrooms. The good news is that none of these strategies require more work by you. Actually, the work needs to shift more to the student. As education specialist, Harry K. Wong, is noted saying, “Whoever is doing the work, is doing the learning.” 

What Are The Benefits of Using Retrieval Practice?
Contrary to the opinion of many, the use of retrieval practice is more than memorization. There are many benefits to the use of this powerful instructional strategy. In fact, Agarwal & Bain (2019) research in Bain’s classroom show that retrieval practice improves learning for (p. 32):

  1. “Diverse student populations (e.g., K-12 students to medical school students)” – Students come into our classrooms with varying levels of incoming knowledge. Incoming knowledge has the greatest impact on future knowledge (Shute) and adequately meeting the needs of those with less incoming knowledge is critical to their success. Implementing retrieval practice strategies in class and as part of out-of-class activities can help to close the knowledge gap for those students with less incoming knowledge at any level.
  2. “Subject areas (e.g., introductory history to CPR skills)”– Retrieval practice can be used in every subject area; it is subject-agnostic. Any content or information that students need to remember is perfect for retrieval practice. 
  3. ​​“Time delays (e.g., ranging from weeks to months)” – In study after study, student performance was significantly better when using retrieval practice weeks and even months later (Agarwal & Bain, 2019).
  4. “Developmental stages (e.g., preschool, young adults, and older adults)” – Retrieval practice is effective for every age group. Developmentally, the use of retrieval practice can not only help identify the learning gaps in students sooner but also allow faculty more information to better assist those students who demonstrate a need for support.​

Why Retrieval Practice?
In addition to the benefits addressed above, Roediger, Putnam, & Smith (2011, p. 38) gives us 10 reasons why faculty should be using retrieval practice.

  1. Improves students’ learning and retention of information over the long term ​​​  ​
  2. Increases students’ higher-order thinking and transfer of knowledge 
  3. Identifies students’ gaps in knowledge, which provides formative assessment for teachers and students 
  4. Increases students’ metacognition and awareness of their own learning 
  5. Increases students’ engagement and attention in class 
  6. Increases students’ use of effective study strategies outside of class 
  7. Increases students’ advance preparation for class 
  8. Improves students’ mental organization of knowledge 
  9. Increases students’ learning of related information that isn’t initially retrieved 
  10. Increases students’ learning in the future by blocking interfering information​

To learn more about each of the 10 reasons why faculty should be using retrieval practice, read the full chapter here. You will be able to see that these benefits make sense and are actually very practical. With that, it is my hope that higher education faculty and leaders will begin to see that small changes in classroom practice can make a huge impact in learning and retention.

The goal of this blog, Transforming Paradigms, is to radically transform the way we think about the impact and power of learning and teaching in higher education. Please stay tuned for the next post where I share detailed examples of what retrieval practice looks like in a real classroom. Thank you for sharing this post with your learning community!

Happy Learning!

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