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How to use Retrieval Practice for group work

How to use Retrieval Practice for group work

4 min read
  • Retrieval Practice

We’ve all heard the phrase “teamwork makes the dream work”, but how true is this in the classroom? While collaboration is a common classroom activity, the most important tests and exams tend to be independent.

So, does this mean that group work is a useless learning tool? Or can it actually help students remember more when exams come around than if they had worked individually?

Let’s take a dive into the research behind group work and how you can use it to your students’ advantage…

Group work and individual retrieval: The four main hypotheses

Retrieval Practice, the act of coming up with answers to questions to strengthen memory and recall, is a core technique for revision and arguably one of the most effective learning strategies out there. As a result, for group work to be a useful way to learn, it needs to support and enhance this strategy.

So, we looked at an interesting study about how group work affects later individual Retrieval Practice, and gives a possible answer to the question: should students work as a group before or after studying alone?

To do this, the researchers tested the four main hypotheses surrounding the combination of individual retrieval and group work. Before we dive into the results, here’s what you need to know about each of the hypotheses…

1. Collaborative Inhibition

Collaborative Inhibition is the widely accepted suggestion that when students work as a group, they recall less information than when they work individually. The reason behind this is that the responses of others can disturb a student’s retrieval process.

2. The Individual-Strategy Hypothesis

This hypothesis suggests that to benefit from group work, a student needs a session of independent Retrieval Practice before working with others to secure their own retrieval process. This rests on the idea that the responses of other group members won’t disturb individual retrieval but will instead provide extra knowledge that a student can memorise.

3. The Combined-Strategy Hypothesis

This hypothesis suggests that individual Retrieval Practice after a session of group work can help students retrieve more information, because multiple people working together in a group can come up with a wider range of ideas to individually memorise. Essentially, this suggests students get a head-start if they work together first and then practise what they have learned on their own.

4. The Group-Strategy Hypothesis

This last hypothesis suggests students remember more by starting off with multiple group sessions and then working individually. According to it, group work allows all members to discuss and develop retrieval strategies which students can then use during individual practice. Multiple sessions of group work on a topic would also mean that students can revisit learning material provided by other members, helping them to remember it in the long term.

So, what did the research find ?

The study gave four groups of participants a list of words and tasked them to remember as many as possible. So, what did the findings suggest about each hypothesis?

The results showed evidence of Collaborative Inhibition – when the participants’ first session was a group session, they remembered less content in their final individual session. 

The researchers also found evidence to support the Individual-Strategy Hypothesis, meaning that when students are confident with independent retrieval strategiesbefore working as a group, they can remember more in the long run. 

The authors didn’t find evidence for the Combined-Strategy Hypothesis.

However, there was an overwhelming amount of evidence in support of the Group-Strategy Hypothesis. This means that when your students engage in more than one session of group work before doing independent Retrieval Practice, they can actually remember more material than when they only practice on their own. The key is that students need multiple group work sessions to reap the benefits of collaboration for individual retrieval.

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How to apply the evidence in your classroom

There is a range of activities that you can use in your classroom that are in line with the evidence found in the study – you may even be using some already.

For example, tasking students to teach each other a topic (also known as the Protégé Effect) challenges them to organise their ideas and communicate them clearly. This method helps students gain a deeper understanding of the content they teach. If they do this repeatedly, your students will master the learning material then use independent practice to keep this in their long-term memory.

You can also encourage groups of students to come up with strategies that they can use when they study on their own. For example, they could create summaries of important information or mnemonics.

Final thoughts

To help students make the most out of group work, it can be helpful to ensure that students are confident with independent Retrieval Practice techniques before introducing group work.

You may also find repeated group work sessions before students practice on their own, in line with the Group-Strategy Hypothesis, a good strategy for your classroom.

It’s definitely worth trying both techniques to see which approach works best for your students.

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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