Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

03.09.18Retrieval Practice is the Perfect Tool to ‘Win Back the Margins’

At a recent video review session, TLAC analyst John Costello edited a video of older clips that we suddenly saw in a new way.  He wrote this reflection about what we noticed and why it was  important (and useful):

Recently, the TLAC team spent time screening videos that featured great teachers “winning back the margins.” That phrase refers to moments when teachers are able to rescue minutes during the school day that might otherwise go to waste, re-purposing them to allow for a little more learning.

Stray minutes can really add up. Winning back three minutes on the margins of each day—a minute waiting for the rest of the class to show up; a minute at the end of class when there’s not time to start something new; a minute of unproductive time put to use–would translates into 60 minutes of instruction each month or ten hours of teaching over the course of a year.

This clip highlights two of those moments.

EA.RetrievalPractice.GRM.’Retrieval Practice anytime.’Clip2771 from TLAC Blog on Vimeo.

The first is one of our very first TLAC clips- from James Verrilli ‘s classroom at North Star Academy in 2005.

Well, it’s from actually the hallway outside his classroom, where he stood waiting for the rest of his students to arrive from the gym and began peppering the kids he had with questions about Islam.  Class hadn’t officially started but the learning had.

In the second clip, Annette Riffle–also at North Star, this time in 2009–has just asked Kadisha to put an outline of a “stadium” she drew in a coordinate geometry exercise on the board to give the class an opportunity to review her work. This activity  is useful for the class, but it takes just over 60 seconds for Kadisha to draw the stadium. In many classes we might see the teacher encourage students to patiently give Kadisha their attention while she works out the problem, but Annette uses the downtime to greater effect. She Peppers the rest of the class with questions about coordinate geometry while Kadisha is working.

These two clips are not new. Previously we’d mostly been impressed with when these teachers won back the margins, but hadn’t thought as much about to how. Our recent interest in Retrieval Practice helped us realize that it was the tool that empowered these brilliant moves.  Retrieval Practice is portable! It’s ideal for doing anywhere and so valuable that it’s hard to think of a reason not to. (It’s also kind of fun and makes students feel successful).

These moments show just how easy it is to deploy Retrieval Practice in your classroom- or frankly, just about anywhere else. You don’t need to always set aside a dedicated 5 minute block; with a little preparation you can use Retrieval Practice to shore up the 45 second gaps that would otherwise erode instructional time or those moments when you’re waiting in the hallways outside the Art room for the previous group to be finished.

And the Retrieval Practice is high value in several ways.

James’ students are familiar enough with the content that they’re able to recall it, but they struggle with the proper terminology. And the information is not yet in long-term memory where they can access it easily for deeper thinking.  The additional practice his students a step closer to ready accessing to the content both now and in the future—once knowledge is in long term memory it tends to stay there.

Annette isn’t merely “keeping her students busy” while Kadisha works on the stadium, she’s priming her class to use precise language when they discuss Kadisha’s work. She gets everyone on the same page regarding the fundamental facts of coordinate geometry, democratizing access to the more advanced discussion that follows.

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