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Improving Metacognition with Retrieval Practice

Improving Metacognition with Retrieval Practice

3 min read
  • Metacognition
  • Retrieval Practice

More and more schools are starting to talk about the power of both Retrieval Practice and Metacognition. But what actually are they, how do they help, and can improving Metacognition in one lead to an improvement in Retrieval Practice?

What is Metacognition, and what are its benefits?

Metacognition refers to a student’s ability to be aware of their thought processes, and hence ensure that these are effective and helpful. Students with good metacognitive skills also have high self-awareness and choose appropriate strategies to deal with tasks.

Metacognition is thought to be one of the most cost-effective and efficient ways to help students progress. Research from the Sutton Trust reported that metacognitive strategies, when used alongside self-regulation strategies, increase student progress by 8 months, with the effects being particularly prominent in struggling and older students.

In addition to this, use of metacognitive strategies can lead to improvements in academic performance. Higher attainment in Science and Maths and better comprehension skills can all be attributed to an enhancement in metacognitive strategies.

What is Retrieval Practice, and what are its benefits?

Retrieval Practice, sometimes referred to as the ‘Testing Effect’, is a strategy in which students are required to generate an answer to a question. It can be applied in a number of different ways, for example, using past papers, quizzes, multiple-choice testing, or even having a friend formulate questions on a certain topic.

Retrieval Practice has clear benefits. Research has shown that students who use it retain information for longer. This is because retrieving previously learnt information serves to commit it to the long-term memory store. Furthermore, other research has shown Retrieval Practice to reduce nerves in 72% of students – it can help improve student well-being, that often declines around exam season.

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Using Retrieval Practice to improve Metacognition

So, if Retrieval Practice is the act of prompting students to generate an answer, how can this help improve Metacognition?

Helps students acquire knowledge

Retrieval Practice is one of the most effective ways to learn material. Recent research has proved this – students who were taught material and quizzed on it scored 79% on an end of semester test, whereas those who were taught the same material but not quizzed scored only 67%.

Essentially, students shouldn’t revise in order to do well in a test; they should do lots of tests in order to revise well. Knowing how to learn effectively is central to developing independent learners. To achieve academic success, we need efficient learning strategies – completing a large amount of work and trying hard are not enough on their own.

Helps them know what they don’t know

Answering a question explicitly prompts students to confront what they do and don’t know. This can help improve self-awareness as students identify existing gaps in their knowledge.

Can lead to students seeking out feedback

If students use Retrieval Practice as a way of improving their rate of learning, then getting an answer wrong can act as a call-to-action to seek out feedback on what they need to do better next time. Actively seeking out feedback (and then using it) is a hallmark of a metacognitive learner, as it can help them monitor, direct and evaluate their subsequent learning more effectively. 

Final thoughts

Retrieval Practice and Metacognition are both areas of psychology with an impressive research base behind them. Schools looking to become more evidence-informed would be well advised to start here. By focusing on Retrieval Practice, students can improve how much they learn, as well as develop independence, self-awareness, and an ability to monitor and evaluate their learning. These are key skills for improving Metacognition, which will in turn further accelerate student performance.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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