Discovering the Perfect Balance for Student Retrieval

If you’re a physics teacher in high school preparing to begin a lesson on atomic structure, you are the expert in the room. How can you convey your deep understanding of electron behavior to students and ensure they truly grasp the concepts?

Typically, instruction follows a sequence from “I do” to “we do” to “you do.” The first and last steps are important when students are dealing with complex material: Teachers need time to explain challenging ideas, and students need to apply their knowledge to different situations on their own, such as sketching the electron configuration of an element not covered in the lesson.

The middle step, the “we do” part, is often overlooked, according to a growing body of research.

When students first learn new information, they often have misconceptions and incomplete understandings, making it difficult to identify and address knowledge gaps. If students are left to figure it out on their own, they may struggle with imprecise and fragmented information, hindering comprehension and impeding progress in the subject.

While there are no easy solutions, recent research suggests that when teacher-experts actively participate in the review and application process, students experience significant improvements in comprehension and recall. This involvement can take the form of collaborative drawing sessions, highlighting activities, or scaffolded graphic organizers.

Collaborative Drawing

Independent work is not wasted time. In fact, research shows that self-directed review has substantial benefits. For example, a 2018 study found that drawing newly learned material significantly enhances recall compared to writing about it, viewing pictures, or mentally visualizing it. Students who drew pictures of new concepts like “isotope” and “spore” performed nearly twice as well on recall tests compared to those who simply wrote down provided definitions.

However, a 2022 study suggests that there is often an overlooked middle step in drawing, especially when dealing with challenging material.

In the study, 94 eighth-grade students participated in their first lesson on plate tectonics. Some students read a passage on the topic, while others read the passage and then drew a model representing their understanding of plate structure and movement. A third group worked directly with teachers, collaboratively drawing a model of plate tectonics. The teacher asked questions and incorporated student responses into the drawing process.

After the lesson, all students took tests to measure their recall and transfer skills. Surprisingly, the students who independently drew models performed no better than those who only read the material. The researchers attribute this to the independent drawing task using cognitive resources that were no longer available for deep processing of the concepts. However, the students who collaborated with their teachers to create tectonic drawings achieved significantly better results in both recall and transfer. The researchers credit the immediate correction of inaccuracies and misconceptions by teachers for enhancing the accuracy of students’ mental representations of plate tectonics.

Powering Up Your Graphic Organizers 

Collaborative drawing sessions are beneficial because visual representations help students understand how key concepts fit together. Similarly, graphic organizers like concept maps, T-charts, and Venn diagrams are valuable tools for learning. Numerous recent studies show that graphic organizers improve students’ retrieval abilities.

Which type of graphic organizer is best? According to a 2021 study, a middle ground approach yields the best results. Twelve-to-14-year-old students were given an informational text on Chinese geography and climate. Some students received only the text, while others received a completed graphic organizer comparing China’s northern and southern climates. The remaining students received an interactive version of the same graphic organizer that was partially completed. In a follow-up test, the group with the completed graphic organizer saw a 64% boost in comprehension compared to the text-only group, while the group with the interactive organizer saw a remarkable 155% improvement.

It is better to provide students with slightly less information at the beginning and then assess where they struggle with a new topic. From there, teachers can engage students collaboratively to address gaps in learning.

Helping Students Take Better Notes

Note-taking is often seen as an independent task for students, a “you do” rather than a “we do.”

However, note-taking is a preliminary form of learning, and first drafts are never perfect. A 2023 study confirmed that students’ notes are often low quality and incomplete, capturing only 46% of the main ideas and supporting details from lectures, on average.

Students need support to make their notes effective. Teachers can create a shared document where students contribute their notes and lead discussions that prompt connections and synthesis among students. This approach helps students create successful notes. Additionally, a 2016 study found that allocating class time for students to partner up and discuss their notes leads to better revision and understanding of the material.

Finally, teachers can guide students in reviewing their notes and other class materials more effectively. For example, instead of simply highlighting important information, students can be trained on successful highlighting strategies that differentiate between main ideas and supporting details. The right approach to highlighting can significantly improve memory and comprehension. Just as collaborative drawing sessions can be beneficial, collaborative highlighting sessions can also yield positive results.

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