All things retrieval practice

Researchers have a reputation of spending their time on specific topics far beyond the point at which this focus yields useful information. This was my first reaction when I learned that Pooja Agarwal had developed a website specifically devoted to retrieval practice. Retrieval practice is the concept that making the effort to retrieve something from memory increases the probability that the targeted memory will be recalled in the future. Awarwal is one of the individuals I associate with this finding.

To me, retrieval practice is not a new idea. I have been interested in the benefits of responding to questions since the 1970s. I even have a notion of why this idea has had a resurgence albeit with a different name. I think that improving recall is associated with memorization and educators seem to move through historical phases in which memorization is considered a bad thing. For example, you might note some refer to testing recall as regurgitation. Of course, this perspective kind of misses the point. If learned information is unavailable, application is impossible.

Agarwal and others emphasize retrieval practice as a study skill and explore variations that may appeal teachers and students with different learning needs.

I do have one suggestion to add. I have been writing lately about the benefits of using technology tools that allow the layering of educator or learner prompts on online resources (web pages, video). Retrieval prompts of various types would be a way to encourage retrieval practice. So, if learners were asked to review a video or a web page as instructional content, questions could be added to this material so that when the content was opened in the future learners can practice the retrieval of the targeted information. If the effort to retrieve is unsuccessful, the page or video can be quickly reviewed.

The Agarwal site includes research citations and ideas for application.

Justifying layering

I have this personal expectation that may annoy others. When I propose a learning activity, I feel I should explain why it works and what need it meets. This is kind of the way researchers look at application issues. I understand that technology offers some very interesting possibilities, but there should be a logical justification for why possibilities are implemented.

The following is a video I created to accompany the series of posts and a book on Layering for learning. The previous posts have mainly outlined the learning activities that can be applied with layering techniques and provided tutorials for several layering services. You can locate the previous posts using the layering tag associated with this post. This post is more about justifying these techniques.

Kinkos Coursepacks Revisited

Educators have long had mixed reactions to heavy reliance on textbooks. For those of us who teach at the college level in courses emphasizing research, we wanted students to have an exposure to original sources rather than read a secondary and likely dated textbook. This meant the assigned of journal articles. It was easy enough to create a syllabus listing a dozen or so articles students were supposed to read. Even with smaller courses of 25 or so students, this could lead to problems as many students would wait until it was close to the time for a given article was to be read and then try to find it in the library. This competition often meant that the journal was not available or perhaps left on a desk somewhere in the library not to be reshelved for a day or two. There were some other issues. Some students just did not like to work in the library or wanted to have a permanent copy so they tore the articles out of the journal. Copy machines were originally 5 cents a page, but some students must have thought this was too much. Other students made personal use of the assigned journal articles by highlighting or underlining the articles in the journal as they read. A useful study tactic for some, but a mess for others who got there late.

The course pack was a solution to this desire for the desire for personal copies of required reading. College campuses always had several copy services near campus that met various student needs. One of the most common was Kinkos. Kinkos and other copy services started creating course packs for sale to students. The prof or a grad student would make copies of the entire collection of articles to be read and take the collection to Kinkos. Kinkos would duplicate all of the articles at a price lower than the per page cost when using a library copy machine and sell the collection to students. Typically, purchasing a course pack was not required, but the time and frustration in locating assigned readings and the opportunity to have a personal copy that could be annotated and was personal were such advantages most students when with the course pack. It was a good deal, but it was eventually decided when Kinkos lost a costly court case that this was a violation of the copyright held by the authors and the journals. Kinkos continues to offer course packs and will attempt to obtain permission for the articles, but there is a cost required by most journals and this was pretty much the death of course packs.

Copyright is a complex topic when it comes to educational applications. As an educator or student, you can go to the library and make a copy of a journal article. What you can’t do is make copies for others – I assume especially if you charge. You may know that college libraries pay thousands of dollars for some of the journals they carry and this is likely to be many times more than it would cost individuals (especially if a journal is controlled by a scholarly organization and you pay dues to that organization). The high cost to libraries assumes multiple users but it does not allow for mass reproduction.

Many have likely forgotten this situation or maybe never knew it existed. Now, most libraries purchase digital access. They may still carry some paper journals but digital access allows libraries to offer a far larger collection at a lower cost. The downloadable pdf is the modern equivalent of the paper copy generated by a copy machine. I found it to have great advantages and even for those journals I purchased and were sitting on the shelves in my office, I usually would download pdfs of what I wanted to read. These pdfs could be highlighted and annotated and services such as EndNote could be used to create collections of such pdfs online so that they could be searched and reread from any location with an Internet-connected computer. This technology upgrade really made academic work easier and more productive.

Here is where the copyright thing comes in again. College students have access to these online collections as well as faculty members. However, the digital search systems take some learning and experience to use successfully. Some students and some faculty thought that it would just be easier to for the faculty member to assemble a collection of the pdfs to be read and simply make them available to students through the class course management system (CMS) or some other sharing mechanism. This is again a technical copyright violation (in my opinion). Since it does not involve a charge, I really don’t know if legal action has ever been taken. I don’t do this with my students and simply explain that learning to locate the pdfs of primary sources is a skill that is important to learn as a professional competency.

This lengthy introduction was intended to broach the issue of copyright and related skills students should be expected to acquire as related to online content (web pages and video). Students at all levels are being assigned more and more online content. It can be a matter of cost, but certain current topics are going to be available online and not in a textbook. As we prepare the students we work with for their futures, we also realize more and more of their informal learning will rely on online content.

Online content with certain issues. Dealing with these issues and helping learners deal with these issues is part of the preparation of learners for their futures. Online content is less vetted than educational content so we must be concerned with inaccuracies and spin. The issue I am raising here – not appreciating the rights of content creators – is likely less familiar to educators, but I think of great long-term importance.

Anyone familiar with technology can likely offer multiple suggestions for collecting and offloading online content. The can recommend ways to copy and download a YouTube video. I use a popular service called Evernote that allows me to save a clean copy (no adds or surrounding material) of the content from web pages. I assume the same rationale applies to online content as it does to content in the library. A learner is allowed to make a personal copy for personal educational use. Sharing this content might be easy, but it is a violation. So, I can download the content I have captured in Evernote as a pdf I could distribute. I would regard this as inappropriate behavior.

So – what to do when you want to use online content.

1. The most obvious approach is to send all learners to the source. This is the equivalent of asking each student to download their own pdf. I recognize that students need equipment and Internet access to do this. I recognize that some schools block services that might have useful content (YouTube). These are issues that are important, but the solution is not copying.

2. Ask permission. Why not? The author may not regard it as a big deal and happy to say go ahead. I just finished a Kindle book in which I wanted to use screen captures. After writing a book with a commercial publisher I am sensitive to the expectation that such content must be provided with permission. I was 5 for 5 in my requests. You may be ignored or turned down once in a while (most likely ignored) but then just move on to something else. It wouldn’t hurt to let students know that you are asking the author if it is OK to make a copy as this would be a good lesson.

3. Use a service that takes care of the permission issue for you. A K12 service I really like (Newsela) is a good example. This company offers content on a wide variety of current topics and is most unique in offering each “story” at multiple reading levels. There are other tools for the learner and student associated with this content and I think it is an impressive service. It does cost, but so do most quality educational resources.

4. Layering (this may sound like an ad, but you can learn this on your own if it sounds interesting). Layering is the term I am using to describe services that combine original content and educator or learner contributions. By layering I mean that the core content as created and served by the author is combined with secondary content served by the layering service. Layered content might include questions, highlighting and annotations, prompts and suggestions, links to other content, etc. It is a way of giving users the opportunity to personalize without taking away any of the rights assumed by the author. You do see ads as intended by the author and content in the margins as might be a function of the service the author used to offer the content (e.g., a blog service). I understand that ads are an issue (especially for learners under 13), but if so this would be one of the situations in which should look to suggestion 2 or 3. The layering services I am describing are available for both web pages and video and I see this as a little known online service category that will grow in popularity among educators and researchers. I also see this type of service as offering similar opportunities to EndNote for less formal online content.

If you are curious, I suggest you take a look at my book. You can download a sample at no cost if the $3 price tag is a concern. If you want to start on your own, I would recommend taking a look at DocentEDU.