This story is part of an EdSurge Research series about how educators are changing their practices to reach all learners.
Sometimes the details former students recall from class is nothing short of amazing. A few years ago I had a student named Abby in my history class, who had always been in self-contained special education classrooms. Her teacher wanted her in my class for socialization purposes, and she did well. A year later, Abby began stopping by my class to deliver notes from the office a few times a week and I was always delighted to see her.
One day I had been planning to discuss metacognition—a learning strategy I teach to my middle-school students. Abby walked in just in time to hear me ask the class, “What is one of my favorite big words that begins with ‘M?’” After a split second, she enthusiastically replied, “Mesopotamia!” Although I had been going for “metacognition,” I could not have been more proud. It had been more than a year and a half since she had studied Mesopotamia, yet she was able to pull it out of memory without a second thought.
Abby’s story is hardly unique. I often teach students who react with surprise when they do well in my class. “But I’ve never done well in history,” they say. This is almost always followed by a common, heartbreaking confession. “I’m not smart.” Every time I hear this, I am faced with the gut-wrenching realization that the student has internalized failure by age eleven. Yet every year I see these same students soar and complete the class with high grades.
This raises two questions for me: How can we turn eleven-year-olds who have internalized failure into students like Abby who retain information for years? And how can we teach that poor grades don’t indicate failure, but rather that we haven’t found the correct learning strategy?
When Abby walked in, I was speaking about metacognition for a reason. Part of that concept has to do with differentiating what is known from what isn’t. Top students often figure out that they must focus their time studying less familiar material. But for most students this is not intuitive. That’s where I come in. Students learn early on that my first commitment is to teach them how to learn, and my second commitment is to my course content. Students go from “I’m not smart” to “I just haven’t learned that…yet.” It’s a mindset shift that can make all the difference.
On some level I had always suspected this about students, and tried to put it into practice informally. But it was a serendipitous encounter that changed everything for me. Years ago, I met two cognitive scientists, Dr. Mark McDaniel and Dr. Henry Roediger III, from Washington University in St. Louis, whose research on psychology and learning really resonated with me. They obtained a large federal grant and asked to conduct research in my classroom. Of course I said yes. The research that started in my class grew much larger and became an authentic and rigorous study that spanned multiple grade-levels, schools and years.
The study included more than 1,500 students at the middle and high school levels. The purpose? Researching how students in classrooms learn best. Many studies had been conducted in university labs. However, this was one of the first studies done in authentic classrooms. Results showed that using researched principles of learning science—specifically feedback-driven metacognition and another process known as retrieval—increased individual scores one to two grades higher, often turning Cs into As.
These principles of feedback driven-metacognition and retrieval would take my teaching skills farther than I had imagined. In short, I began to understand why my students were learning (and if they weren’t, why not).
Learning How to Learn
I’ve often heard students tell me they studied for hours on a test only to fail. Why? It is not unusual for some students to review what they already know and skip more difficult tasks. Yet evidence exists that providing timely, effective feedback is particularly beneficial for struggling learners. It is this feedback that allows students to differentiate what they know from what they don’t—metacognition.
The second part of my strategy involves retrieval. According to my favorite definition of the term, when we think about learning, we’re often focused on getting information into students’ heads. Retrieval, on the other hand, focuses on getting information out of students’ heads. You may think you know all about ancient Mesopotamian society. But it’s not until you’re asked to explain what you know that the lightbulb goes on and you realize what you don’t know. For too many students, that aha-moment happens while they’re taking the big test. And by then it’s too late.
As the research became clear to me, I realized students weren’t getting much out of copying homework and taking tests. Metacognition and retrieval were powerful tools I needed to incorporate into my classroom. More than a decade ago, I began to incorporate these tools into my everyday teaching. I eliminated homework and came up with the idea of a mini-quiz: a low or no-stakes retrieval exercise. I’d randomly choose five things we learned the day before and ask them to write what they could recall. We’d discuss and students would get immediate feedback.
Those mini-quizzes became a way for the students to differentiate what they knew from what they didn’t. Was retrieval possible? If not, that particular question required more study. The time I spent grading homework shifted from two hours per night to a fifteen-minute analysis of mini-quizzes after school, in which I looked for trends in what students hadn’t learned so I knew where to focus my attention during review sessions.
After seeing the success of the mini-quiz, I took delight in looking at other strategies I was already using, and with a few tweaks, turned them into powerful strategies as well. I began using clickers to give kids a series of informal, formative assessments. There was a pretest before I taught a lesson, a post-lesson check-in a few days later, and a review before a chapter test. I wanted to see what kids were remembering, and when.
Particularly, I started seeing great success with my students with IEPs—who typically form a portion of my classes, including students like Abby. These students spent extra time with a special education teacher, and I wanted to see whether my learning approaches were helping them grasp new material for the first time. While many of them had modifications like extra time and study aids for exams themselves, they always took the same formative assessments as their peers using clickers.
One year, as I tracked the results for my 14 students with IEPs, I found that these students really were learning—and retaining—information. For a lesson on Egypt, these students received an average of 39 percent before material was taught. A few days later they scored 70 percent. And later still, before the chapter test, they were up to 82 percent on the formative assessment. As I tracked progress for my IEP students over the next few years, I found similar results. To me, it indicated that students were using their time with their dedicated special ed teacher wisely and learning to review what they didn’t know.
Changing methods to incorporate research-based principles of learning science has drastically impacted my students’ retention of material. And teaching my students how to learn has been a life-changer for them. In fact, the research I’ve been involved with has shown that the relationship between a student’s understanding of their own learning, compared with their actual learning, has significant long-term impact on study habits, motivation and overall learning.
Over the years, as mini-quiz grades rose and confidence improved, many of my students shared with me that they no longer felt like failures. They often credit me with their success; I, in turn, always point the success back to them. They learned how to learn. And that’s a skill you don’t quickly forget.