Retrieval Practice in Online Teaching

One of the best things about online education is the ease with which we can incorporate retrieval practice, also known as the testing effect, into our teaching. This is the well-established cognitive principle that attempting to get information out of memory, as we do when we are taking a test, greatly increases the chances we’ll be able to remember that information in the future. To take full advantage of this powerful effect, we need to adopt the somewhat counterintuitive idea that quizzes and tests are parts of teaching and learning rather than something that happens after the teaching is done (Miller, 2011).

Systematic, repeated quizzing integrated into learning is hard to pull off in a face-to-face classroom, but it is easily done online. Brief quizzes can alternate with presentation of material and other types of learning activities as frequently as the instructor desires.

Even when quizzes are used for grading, a fast, frequent quizzing style enabled by technology can be a powerful support for student success. One recent study found that administering low-stakes tests several times per week using an online quizzing platform improved learning and grades in an Introduction to Psychology course, a finding that is consistent with what we know about retrieval practice (Pennebaker, Gosling, Ferrell, Apfel, & Brzustiski, 2013).

The instructors in this project took advantage of an additional benefit of technology, the ability to personalize and modify quizzes across students. Questions that a given student answered wrong on one quiz would show up on a future one, encouraging students to do targeted review of material they didn’t understand and further reinforcing learning for the hardest concepts. This kind of innovative, theory-driven application of technology for testing lets us use what we know about retrieval practice to help students learn more in less time.

Similar to the idea of getting students to spend more time retrieving and less time reviewing, there’s the emphasis on practice that’s well suited to fully online courses. A practice-oriented approach intentionally directs more student time toward applying information instead of watching presentation of content.

In mathematics, it’s accepted practice to have problem sets coupled with on-demand help that keeps students moving forward in applying what they are supposed to be learning. However, we don’t have to leave deliberate, guided practice as the sole province of math. In my online Building Memory Power course, students practice techniques for remembering different kinds of information by following along with a narrated demonstration, actually trying the techniques with information I give them and then posting about what it was like to use the techniques. Rather than just reading about memory strategies, they try them and respond right away to report on the experience.

Immediate application is also easier with online teaching. At Northern Arizona University, my colleague Larry MacPhee teaches a fully online biology laboratory course, a challenging enterprise that has students doing hands-on activities with materials in their homes as well as fully online simulations. Just as in a traditional face-to-face biology laboratory course, these activities are intended to reinforce and illustrate the more abstract concepts being taught in the course. But in traditional face-to-face courses, lab activities and concepts tend to be widely separated in time and can come across as disjointed, separate experiences.

In an online course like MacPhee’s, however, students can cycle from concept to activity and back again in a more immediate fashion. Within the structure of the online course, it’s easy to backtrack to instructions and background as needed, and students don’t have to wait for a lab meeting to apply concepts they’ve just read about. This leads to a more seamless integration of learning and doing, which in turn meshes with the mind’s predisposition to take in what it needs when it needs it.

Retrieval practice, skills practice, and immediate application are three powerful ways to improve learning in an online course.

Michelle D. Miller is a professor of psychology at Northern Arizona University.

This article originally appeared in the June 2017 issue of Online Classroom.

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