Male teacher looking at female student notebook, tutoring, encouragement
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Finding the Retrieval ‘Sweet Spot’ for Students

To help students understand and recall challenging material, spend more time in collaborative practices like drawing and highlighting together, new research says.

October 6, 2023

If you’re a high school physics teacher about to start a lesson on atomic structure, you’re the acknowledged expert in the room. How do you translate your intimate knowledge of the behavior of electrons to kids and then make sure that they’ve truly learned it? 

The traditional sequence of instruction goes from “I do” to “we do” to “you do.” The first and last steps are crucial when students are grappling with complexity: Teachers need time to convey challenging ideas, and kids need to “do it themselves” by applying newly acquired knowledge to different situations—for example, by sketching out the electron configuration for an element your lesson didn’t cover.

It’s the middle step—the “we do” part—that can sometimes get short shrift, according to a growing body of research.

When students first learn new information, their understanding tends to be riddled with misconceptions and murky, half-realized impressions—knowledge gaps that are notoriously difficult to identify and then close. If left to their own devices, students in those circumstances tend to muddle along with imprecise and fragmentary information that undermines comprehension and often stalls their forward progress in the subject entirely. 

There are no easy fixes. But new research suggests that when teacher-experts stay actively involved in the initial stages of the review and application process—for example, through collaborative drawing or highlighting sessions, or scaffolded graphic organizers—students can see significant boosts to comprehension and recall.

Collaborative Drawing

It’s not that independent work is wasted time, of course. There’s plenty of evidence that self-directed review conveys substantial benefits: A 2018 study, for example, found that when students draw newly learned material, it dramatically boosts recall compared with writing about it, viewing pictures of it, or visualizing it in their mind’s eye. Researchers found that students who drew pictures of new concepts like “isotope” and “spore” performed nearly twice as well on recall than students who simply wrote down the lecturer-provided definitions of those terms.

But a 2022 study suggests that there’s a middle step when drawing that’s easy to overlook, particularly when the material is challenging. 

In the research, 94 eighth-grade students participated in their first-ever lesson on plate tectonics. Some of the middle school students read a passage on the topic, while others read the passage and then drew a model revealing their understanding of underlying plate structure and movement. A third group worked directly with teachers, drawing a model of plate tectonics collaboratively: A teacher might, for example, stand at the whiteboard and ask students what happens when two plates collide, then begin drawing based on their responses, with follow-up questions like “What do you mean by ‘goes under the other,’ and how should I draw it?”

After the lesson, all of the eighth graders were asked to take tests that measured their recall and transfer skills on the material. Surprisingly, the students who drew models of plate tectonics on their own performed no better on the tests than those who simply read the material. “The drawing task without instructional support may have utilized cognitive resources that were consequently no longer available for deeply processing the concepts and processes explained in the text,” the researchers explain.

But the students who worked with their teachers to produce tectonic drawings did significantly better than their peers on both transfer and recall. What’s behind the improvement? “The teacher is able to immediately deal with emerging inaccuracies and misconceptions by initiating revision processes,” the researchers write, which “entails a great benefit for learners by enhancing the accuracy of their mental representations on plate tectonics.” While the other students moved straight from new information into “you do,” these students benefited from a big dose of “we do.”

Powering Up Your Graphic Organizers 

Student-teacher drawing sessions are useful, in large part, because visual representations of class material can help students understand how key concepts fit together. For the same reason, graphic organizers—like concept maps, T-charts, and Venn diagrams—are highly valuable learning tools. Many recent studies demonstrate that graphic organizers can boost students’ retrieval abilities.

What kind of graphic organizer is best? According to a 2021 study, the middle ground approach wins out yet again. Twelve-to-14-year-old students were given an informational text on Chinese geography and climate. Some students received only the text; others received an already-filled-in graphic organizer contrasting China’s northern and southern climates as a study aid; the remaining students received a partially completed, interactive version of the same graphic organizer. In a follow-up test, the pre-filled graphic organizer group saw a respectable 64 percent boost to comprehension compared with the text-only group, while the interactive graphic organizer group saw a whopping 155 percent boost.

It’s probably better to err on the side of giving students less information than they need at the very beginning and then collect the materials to determine whether they struggled with a particular area of a new topic. At that point, you can step back in and reengage, using collaborative efforts to close gaps in learning.

Helping Students Take Better Notes

It’s common to think of note-taking as something students do independently—a “you do,” not a “we do.” 

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

Students need help to make their notes useful. Teachers can create a shared document where students can contribute notes, and then lead a discussion, asking targeted questions “to elicit connections and synthesis from the students”—the kind of connections that make for successful notes, writes special education teacher Rachel Jorgensen. Teachers should run through the document and “highlight important pieces of information to ensure understanding,” Jorgensen writes, so that “teacher and students generate cocreated notes as class unfolds.” Furthermore, a 2016 study found that setting aside some class time for students to “pause and partner” to discuss their notes is a winning strategy; having students review and revise their notes with a peer led to better notes and a better understanding of the material.

Finally, teachers can make sure that students are reviewing their own notes (and other class materials) in a more productive way. For instance, many students like to study by going through notes and class handouts and highlighting things they consider important. For neophytes, this isn’t very useful; a 2014 study suggests that the way students typically highlight “primarily amounts to a mechanism for tracking progress and does not involve deeper processing”—and other studies agree.

That doesn’t mean highlighting is a dead-end approach, though. In 2022, researchers found that teachers conducting as little as two hours of training on successful highlighting strategies—like how to use highlighting to differentiate between main and supporting ideas—can improve memory and comprehension significantly. Just as collaborative drawing sessions can work wonders, so can collaborative highlighting sessions.

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