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Strengthening the Brain [episode 3]


Click below to listen to hear how the retrieval practice strengthens the brain:

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Morning Message: 

[1:30] What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever had to say as a teacher?

You’ll definitely want to hear our answers to this one. Just to give you a sneak peek, one of ours is “please stop licking your flip-flop“. Yikes.

Here’s an overview of episode 3:

We’ve all heard the saying your brain is like a muscle. But what does that truly mean? Basically, the more we use it, the stronger it gets.

We can apply this same theory to retrieval practice, which is when we give students an opportunity to access information they previously learned from their long-term memory. Every time students access this information it becomes easier to retrieve in the future.

In some ways, the retrieval practice is like a lost art. Think about it. We live in a world where a simple search into Google or tap on your phone to Siri will give you an answer to any question in seconds. Kind of hard to compete with that, but in this episode we explain why it’s not only important, but crucial for a student’s learning. 

This approach is definitely a different way of thinking because as teachers, we’re so focused on getting our students to learn information, but it’s more effective if we focus on diving deep into their brains and retrieving the information. 

While it’s still appropriate to review notes or re-read a section of a book, now we know that being able to do something with the information learned is more beneficial and effective for our students!

In this episode on retrieval practice, we discuss:

  • The definition of retrieval practice and a variety of activities that are associated with this practice
  • How this teacher tip will make you rethink what you ask your students
  • The difference between vault vs. wallet as it pertains to memory
  • Ways to distinguish the difference between review and retrieve
  • Tips on how to modify your activities to incorporate the retrieval practice

This week’s teacher approved tip:

[9:54] Don’t ask questions that don’t need asking.

So often as teachers, we find ourselves asking questions to our students that we don’t intend for them to answer.

For example, don’t ask your students, “Okay, do you want to get your book out and start reading?” More than likely you’ll get a snarky, sarcastic comment back from a student who will reply with, “No.” Instead, be direct and tell your students what to do next, rather than phrasing as a question.

What we’re giving extra credit to this week:

[11:35] Heidi is giving extra credit to karendcasss on Instagram

[12:55] Emily is giving extra credit to The Popcast with Knox and Jamie

Enter our giveaway!

Guess what? To celebrate the launch of Teacher Approved we’re doing a giveaway!

Three lucky winners will receive a $100 gift card to Teachers Pay Teachers. To enter:

  1. Take a screenshot of your favorite launch episode: episode one, two or three.
  2. Add it to your Instagram stories and tag us @2ndstorywindow. 

BONUS ENTRY: Follow this show and write a review on Apple Podcasts. Before submitting, screenshot your review and send it to us in a DM so that we know who wrote the review. 

This giveaway ends April 4 2022.


Read the Transcript for Episode 3, Strengthening the Brain

Hey, there, thanks for being here. To celebrate the launch of Teacher Approved, we’re doing a giveaway. Three lucky winners will receive a $100 gift card to Teachers Pay Teachers. To enter take a screenshot of your favorite launch episode, episode one, two or three, add it to your Instagram stories and tag us at @2ndstorywindow, that’s with a two. Bonus entry: follow this show and write a review before submitting, screenshot your review and send it to us in a DM so that we know who wrote the review. Giveaway ends April 4, 2022.

In today’s episode, we’ll be doing a deep dive into retrieval practice and sharing a teacher approved tip for classroom management. We’re going to be starting our episodes with a question of the day, just like we used to do in morning meeting at our classrooms. In the classroom, we called the morning messages. So that’s what we’ll be calling them here. This week’s morning message is what’s the craziest thing you’ve ever had to say as a teacher? Emily, and I have heard some good things from other teachers. But I know I remember vividly sitting at the rug for a lesson and looking down and having to say to one of my students stop licking, you’re always licking. So I know you have other licking ones that you have any other any other crazy things? What is it with children? I’m licking things one of the most memorable has to be when I was on the playground duty at recess and had to remind someone that we don’t pee down the slide. No, no, no. Children, aren’t they lovely? Yeah, that’s one of those job hazards.

So today, we’re going to be talking about retrieval practice. But let me start with a question. How many phone numbers did you know memorized in your brain growing up? What do you think? Oh, easily? Half a dozen. But probably more than that. Yeah, every one that you would call regularly? I think so I think probably at least 10 or 12? Do you still have your childhood phone number memorized? I know both. Because we use it as our passcode. Don’t tell people that! It is my Amazon Prime Video Parental Control pin. Okay. But how many phone numbers do you have memorized today? Two: mine and yours?

Yes, outside of my own number and your number. I don’t really know phone numbers by memory anymore. In this day and age, we don’t have to recall phone numbers anymore. We see a phone number on the screen when we call someone. But we don’t ever have to retrieve that information from our memory. So because we’re doing nothing with it, it doesn’t get stored in there, it gets taken out with the trash. So that leads us to the idea of retrieval practice and what is that Heidi?

So retrieval practice is when we have an opportunity to access information that is previously learned and we draw it out from our long term memory. So every time we access this information, it becomes easier to retrieve in the future. In that way, the brain is like a muscle. I mean, it’s not really like a muscle at all, metaphorically, yes. But the more we strengthen that memory, the stronger it gets. So one way to think of memory is to think of it as a vault versus a wallet. So your long term memory is that vault, it’s very secure, it’s large, technically, your long term memory is probably limitless. But you don’t have easy access to it all the hard to get into, you can’t really pack it around. So we have a wallet, right? This represents your working memory or what we sometimes call short term memory. And it’s easy, we can get stuff in and out. But it does have a limit on how much you can store. So working memory can only hold maybe max four to five things at a time. Whereas your long term memory can just go on forever. So the problem is that we make decisions, we use the information that’s in our working memory, but we need to get stuff out of the vault to be able to use that when we need that information. So that’s what the function of retrieval practice is. We’re practicing getting stuff out of the vault and into our working memory so we can do stuff with that information. And the more often we do that with specific information, the easier it gets. When it comes to teaching. We often really are focused on like getting stuffed into their little heads. But it actually turns out that it’s more effective if we focus on getting stuff out of their little heads. So that getting stuff out of their heads is known as retrieval practice. And it’s one of the most important things we should be doing as teachers.

So what are some examples of retrieval practice in the classroom, let’s talk about that. One of the most obvious ones is flashcards, which is funny because they’ve had a bad rap for so long they do. But they’re actually really useful. And that doesn’t mean it’s the only thing you should be doing. But it’s one of many of the strategies you could be using to practice retrieval. Another thing is no stakes or low stakes quizzes. And the goal here is not assessment, it’s retrieval. So the fact that it’s a quizzes, because obviously, they’re not using notes or books, it’s just whatever’s in their head, but we’re not going to grade them on how well they do.

Another example is worksheets, which again, sometimes get a bad rap, but they are not all created equal. They do have a place. Yes, and and especially ones that require more thought in the questions are going to be more powerful in practicing retrieving that information. Another option is think pair share. So that’s when you have you give them a question to think about, you know, about the first president or something, and you give them a minute to think, right, so they’re accessing that vault. And then you pair them up to talk about what they both thought of, and then you can have a class discussion about it. But that it’s that think time, that’s so key to the success of this activity.

And then there’s exit tickets, which I think most teachers are familiar with, but it’s basically giving the kids an opportunity to answer a question, write out something in a prompt, before they leave at the end of the day. And partially it’s a great assessment tool to just kind of see where they’re at. But more than that, it’s giving them that retrieval practice again, before they head out the door. And then there’s brain dumps or free recall, where you can just be like, Okay, write down everything you know, about the phases of the moon. And then they’re just getting that practice of pulling stuff related to information out of their brains. Because it’s, again, the more often you can access it, the easier you can access it in the future.

And then there’s closed book, closed notes summaries of the day’s learning, which may be in place of an exit ticket, you might want to do this at the end of the day. Yeah. Anything like, what were your takeaways from this or anything to summarize what the lesson was just about?

So how can we move from reviewing information to retrieving information? Heidi?

I think, yes, as teachers, I think we spend a lot of time like, how are we going to review this? When really, we should be asking ourselves, how can we help our students retrieve that? So really any activity that requires students to access information without the support of notes or a book that is going to be beneficial, and helping their long term memory of the information. Even a pretest can be useful, because it’s priming the brain about what they’re going to need to know. So think about it in terms of let’s say, you’ve done a unit on parts of the cell, and kids are gonna have to be able to recall this on a test so you give them a blank cell. Normally, you would have them labeled it with the help of a book, but without the book, they’re really having to think about, like, what they know, what parts are connected, how does this line up with this. So they’re having to really apply that information in ways that they wouldn’t have to if they were just copying. Because I think for a long time, we just assumed that like rereading the information in the textbook, or reviewing our notes was helping us learn them. And seeing the information, again, can be useful, but it isn’t the most beneficial, we have to be able to do something with that information.

And I think that’s why things like practice tests are really so effective for learning, because you’re having to retrieve it information. And then afterwards, you can get feedback to on what you did wrong, which is a really powerful tool for helping extend understanding. You know, right where the holes are, right where you were struggling. And you have that increased momentum to be like, Okay, well, what was that? Where did I go wrong? It really boosts the learning in ways that other types of activities can’t. Right.

Hopefully this will help you understand why we talk so much about retrieval practice and why you’re going to hear more about it in the future from us, and how it helps students really internalize what they’re learning.

And we’ll be showing lots of different ways that you can apply this in your own classrooms and for your own students. Right.

Now, let’s talk about this week’s teacher approved tip. Each week, we’re going to leave you with a small actionable tip that you can apply in your classroom today. This week’s teacher approved tip is don’t ask questions that don’t need asking.

I think we’ve all walked into this trap up, especially as new teachers Oh, yeah. Okay, ready, take out your bucks, okay? And then they say no. Mm hmm. Because it should not have been a question. Do you have any examples of this, Emily?

Well, now that we’re talking about it, I’ve actually have seen this in other teaching examples, not just in the classroom I actually observed at church, when this sweet 18 year old girl was leading the singing time with the young children. And she just kept walking into it over and over where it was like, Okay, shall we sing that again? No. And then she would just turn around and do it again, just and she was so unconscious of what she was doing and a little flustered every time they said, No, I think she just assumed they would cheer back, yes. And that’s why we’re asking it because that is the response we’re hoping for. Because that is very reassuring, to say something and have this cheer of approval from your students, but most of the time, that is not what’s going to happen and you’re gonna have at least one smart aleck, that’s gonna yell no. So just don’t set yourself up that way. Don’t make a question out of something. That’s not a question, unless it’s going to be optional. If they say no, you’re going to be like, Okay, well, we won’t do it, then. Then it doesn’t need to be a question. If you’re going to do it either way. Don’t phrase it as a question.

I think I’ve heard that applied to parenting, as well as like, if you’re saying, Hey, should we go to bed? Do you want to brush your teeth? Well, no, do not. Thank you for asking. So yeah, don’t make it a question if it shouldn’t be a question.

Now to wrap up the show, we’re going to share what we’re giving extra credit to you this week. Heidi, what are you giving extra credit to?

I am giving extra credit to Karen Cassidy on Instagram. She is a comedian, but she does teacher sketches I guess that she’s an impression point of view comedian. So she does you know, a teacher in assembly or how teachers act in the hall and it is just, she’s not a teacher herself. So they do have to say that, but she nails it so spot on of like, how a teacher acts in the hallway when you’re like, you know, getting everyone in line. And then you see your teacher friend and like, “Hey, girl!” You’re leaning out of your seat with that teacher look, your face. Looks are some or walking around during testing. That one’s very funny, where you’re watching them do the wrong answer. Yes. And you’re just kind of giving them you know, the hold on your glass, a little bit, or tap on the paper. I would never do that. They’re very fun. You might want to think about that one again. But yeah, it’s spot on. It’s so like, painful was because it’s so like, oh, yeah, that’s me. That’s, that was me today. So if you want to check her out, she’s @karendcasss on Instagram. Let us know what you think. Because she’s hilarious. She’s a fun follow.

Yeah. What about you, Emily? What’s your extra credit?

I’m giving extra credit to The Podcast with Knox and Jamie Heidi’s had told her about the podcast for years and yours because it’s my great love. Yeah, I listened to the podcast episodes every time they come out. I listen to them that day. It’s a pop culture podcast, hosted by these two friends, Knox and Jamie are just part of the family this point, they absolutely are. And they have a long list of running inside jokes that makes it fun to be a BFOTS. If you’re a BFOTS, you know what that means the best friend of the show. If you’re looking for some light hearted entertainment news, this is where to get it because you’ll get it with a side dose of snark and humor and it will just make your day so don’t listen to other podcasts except ours, but you can listen to podcasts if you want.

That’s it for today’s episode. This week our teacher approved tip is don’t ask questions that don’t need answers. We’d love to hear your experience with things you never thought you’d ask as a teacher over on our Instagram at @2ndstorywindow with a two.

More About Teacher Approved:

Do you ever feel like there’s just not enough time in the day to be the kind of teacher you really want to be? The Teacher Approved podcast is here to help you learn how to elevate what matters and simplify the rest. Join co-hosts Emily and Heidi of Second Story Window each week as they share research-based and teacher-approved strategies you can count on to make your teaching more efficient and effective than ever before.