In my last blog post, I shared my teaching ‘New Year resolutions’ and item No. 6 on the list was ‘use better tech’. One of the tools I am keen to use more regularly in class this year, to aid teaching and learning, is Carousel Learning – an online tool to strengthen students’ long-term memory and retrieval. I incorporate a simple teaching stragety called ‘retrieval practice’ into almost every lesson, giving my students the opportunity to regather their prior learning in low-stakes quizzes or tests. These take many forms and sometimes feature tools like Kahoot! and Quizlet. Carousel Learning seems to offer something different: more flexibility, adaptability and challenge, and I’m keen to learn more about how it can help in my students’ retrieval practice.
Before I get on to Carousel Learning, let’s first explore retrieval practice as a teaching technique. Retrieval practice is based on the idea that the more students practice retrieving information from their memory, the better they become at remembering it. It’s not ground-breaking and simply but it can have a significant impact on their ability to learn and retain information. Like any type of practice, repetition is key – one doesn’t get better at passing a rugby ball, playing the piano or kicking a football without practice. Frequent retrieval practice strengthens the neural pathways from long term memory to working memory, meaning students find it easier to remember the information in the future and allows them to build upon stronger foundations of knowledge in class.
Research has shown that retrieval practice is one of the most effective ways to learn and retain information. In one study, students who used retrieval practice to learn vocabulary words performed significantly better on a test than those who used other study techniques (Roediger et all, 2006). Another study found that retrieval practice improved long-term retention of information in medical students (Larsen et all, 2008).
But why is retrieval practice so effective? There are a few cognitive mechanisms at play. One is the idea of “desirable difficulties”. When learning is easy, students may not be engaging with the material as deeply as they could be. But when they have to work to retrieve information from their long term memory, it creates a “desirable difficulty” that can lead to better learning (Bjork & Bjork, 2011)
Another mechanism is the concept of “retrieval-induced forgetting.” When students are asked to recall information, they may also forget other related information. This might sound counterintuitive, but it actually helps strengthen the memory of the information that is successfully retrieved. By forgetting related information, students are reinforcing the specific information they are trying to remember. (Anderson et al, 1994).
Retrieval practice can take many forms in the classroom. One simple technique is to use low-stakes quizzes or practice tests. These can be given frequently throughout the learning process to help students reinforce their understanding of the material. Another technique is to use “spaced repetition,” which involves revisiting information at increasing intervals of time. This technique has been shown to improve the long-term retention of information. If you want to learn more about retireval practice, I’d recommend Kate Jones’ excellent book series.
This is where Carousel Learning comes in. Primarily, it is used to create a bank of multiple choice or short answer quizzes, on any topic you wish. You store your question bank on your teacher dashboard and can create bespoke, quick quizzes to support retrieval practice for your students. There are many question banks already included, based mainly on UK curriculum as you’d expect, but Carousel is also a community of teachers (now over 20,000) who build and share their question banks freely. There are many Irish teachers on there and the number of Junior Cycle and Leaving Certificate subject banks is on the rise.
There is a little bit of initial set up – building question banks and creating classes – but once created it should and could make life much easier. Quizzes can be set to allow pupils work on them independently (perhaps for homework) or in front of the whole class at the beginning of a lesson (Whiteboard Mode). Carousel are rolling out a feature soon which will incorporate spaced repetition, where students will get personalised quizzes based on questions they previously answered. I’m finding it easy to use, personalise and distribute to students. My students find the whole class feedback simple to understand and see the benefit of it for their learning. I should say, I don’t shirk away from explaining the cognitive science behind the practice and why we use it regularly. Carousel has a number of paid subscription options, including a free trial, but it’s well worth the investment.
In truth though, I’m still learning. Daire Lambert, a science teacher in St. Mark’s Tallaght, was an early adopter of the online tool. Daire describes Carousel as “a handy tool for setting simple yet effective homework but the feature I use religiously is the whiteboard feature. I used to use grids and other strategies to promote retrieval practice but this is time-consuming to make and not as future proof as a question set generator as Carousel is”. He stresses the need to see Carousel as one of multiple tools that can help your teaching: “At the end of the day it is just a tool. The routines you use, the quality of the questions you write and the expectations you set on how they are answered is ultimately the biggest driver of its success”.
It’s important to note that retrieval practice should be used in conjunction with other effective learning strategies. For example, students should still be provided with opportunities to learn new information through lectures, readings, and other forms of instruction. However, retrieval practice can be a powerful supplement to these other techniques and tools like Carousel Learning can make this job easier, especially once you’ve set up your question banks and classes.
One of the great things about retrieval practice is that it can be used in any subject area. Whether you’re teaching math, science, social studies, or language arts, you can incorporate retrieval practice into your lessons. By doing so, you’ll be helping your students develop stronger memories and better long-term retention of the material.
In conclusion, retrieval practice is a powerful learning technique that can have significant benefits for students. By asking students to recall information from memory, you’re strengthening their neural pathways and helping them retain information more effectively. As a teacher, you can incorporate retrieval practice into your lessons in a variety of ways but why not give Carousel a try. By doing so, you’ll be setting them up for success in the classroom and beyond.
Anderson, M. C., Bjork, R. A., & Bjork, E. L. (1994). Remembering can cause forgetting: Retrieval dynamics in long-term memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 20(5), 1063-1087.
Bjork, R. A., & Bjork, E. L. (2011). Making things hard on yourself, but in a good way: Creating desirable difficulties to enhance learning.
Larsen, D.P., Butler, A.C., & Roediger, H.L. (2008). Test-enhanced learning in medical education. Medical Education, 42(10), 959-966.
Roediger, H.L., & Karpicke, J.D. (2006). Test-enhanced learning: Taking memory tests improves long-term retention. Psychological Science, 17(3), 249-255.