When a teacher asks a student a question in class, they are providing that student with a retrieval cue, which refers to any information from their surrounding environment that triggers the process of memory retrieval.
Let’s have a look at two important types of recall that can be used for learning, namely cued recall and free recall.
Cued recall refers to “any specific visual or verbal cue provided to students with the intention of eliciting a specific memory”. Examples include highlighted words in a handbook, the first letter of a word to be remembered, or a teacher’s question with an accurate answer, such as “What is the capital of the USA?”.
Free recall requires a far less specific cue, like “List as many capital cities as you can”, or asking for the central topics of a book.
These free recall questions are very vague, making them a much more challenging form of recall for students, as it requires more effort to search their memory in pursuit of the answer. It requires organising their thoughts as they retrieve information, while thinking of new retrieval cues themselves.
In other words, once the general free recall cue is given, they must provide the subsequent retrieval cues.
There are many benefits to such a system of recall: as a way of retrieving memories, free recall allows students to make memories that last longer and are easier to retrieve.
First, prior memories are being recalled in more organised ways, thanks to the cognitive effort the students are confronted with.
Second, instead of relying on external cues (i.e. a question form the teacher), it pushes students to create other retrieval cues for that particular memory.
To complete an exercise in free recall, teachers should provide students with an account of how accurate and complete their retrieval of information was. Should students not receive such feedback, they might leave class with incomplete - or worse, inaccurate - memories.
Some things to keep in mind when developing a course or preparing for a class:
First, consider the context in which the information will have to be retrieved and provide retrieval cues that will help them remember the relevant information in the appropriate setting.
Second, help them organise information by linking it to prior memories. These connections will help strengthen their memory of that information.
Third, provide time for them to retrieve the information, because memory retrieval is a struggle, and it requires time to be effective.
Finally, stress the importance and relevance of what they are learning. Making sure students know why they should remember something is the best way to ensure they will.
Content drawn from “_The Science of Learning — What Every Teacher Should Know_”, EdX: https://www.edx.org