When I was in my first year of teaching middle school Spanish I struggled with remediating vocabulary. I had a rule that any student who scored below a 60% on a weekly vocabulary quiz had to come to coach class to review the material and retake the quiz. I would give them as much time as they thought they needed, then allow them to try the quiz again. Yet, the results the second time were often worse than the first.
In December of that first year, one of my students taught me how to fix this problem.
She typically did fine in my class, but had failed a vocabulary quiz on the parts of the body and came to coach class to retake it. She spent 15 minutes reading over our guided notes: a picture of a girl with 12 body parts labeled in Spanish. She had gotten 7 correct on the original quiz, so she only needed to learn 5 more. After about 15 minutes I asked if she felt ready to try the quiz again. With a worried expression on her face she shook her head and said she didn’t know any more words than she did before. In fact, she might know fewer words now because they were all getting mixed up. At that point (I’m embarrassed to say it took until December), I asked her how she was studying. She told me that she was just reading the words and trying to remember them. I hadn’t taken any education classes yet specifically on vocabulary strategies (I have since then and it was very helpful!), so I just used common sense to figure out that the problem was most likely the fact that she wasn’t actively quizzing herself. So, I gave her a blank copy of the quiz and asked her to label all the body parts she definitely knew. Next, I asked her to try one of the body parts she felt less confident about. She wrote her best guess, then I had her check her answer and make a correction. After she had completed the whole paper, we tried again. This time she got more words right away and we repeated the process with her guesses. After helping her ‘quiz’ herself for about 10 minutes, I gave her the real quiz – she got a 100%. In fact, the next week she got 100% again. She finished my class with an A, the best grade she had ever gotten in a language class.
What was the point of this story? I had used every kind of presentation method I could think of to address every possible learning modality (visual aids, graphic organizers, mnemonics, Total Physical Response (TPR), games, realia, stories, you name it I tried it) and yet my students were still struggling with vocabulary. It might just sound like my students needed more reps: trust me when I say they had PLENTY of reps. In fact the second student had probably practiced dozens of reps during those first 15 minutes and yet she knew FEWER words than before she started. Why is that? It has to do with something called the “testing effect,” the theory that people recall things better when they have to try to produce them instead of just ‘studying’ them. It turns out that attempting to retrieve a memory (in this case a Spanish word) has a much stronger effect on long-term retention of the memory than even prolonged periods of study. This holds true even if the retrieved memory is incorrect (i.e. if the student mixes up pie and pierna she is still learning their meanings more effectively than if she had read the words and their meanings several times correctly). Of course, if the retrieved memory is correct, the effect is further enhanced. So, for my students taking the quiz was even more important for long term retention than the time they spent studying!
So, how did I apply this in my classroom? Well, for one, if a student came to retake a quiz during coach class, I insisted that they take practice quizzes before the graded retake. It helped a lot. In class, I spent more time on retrieval practice than I had before. That helped a lot too. I didn’t spend a lot of time doing practice quizzes in class, because it’s boring and not communicative. But, I found other ways to help my students practice active retrieval. For example, after briefly introducing a new vocabulary list and the TPR motions for each word, I would have students close their eyes and try to do the motion for each word as I called it out. After every student attempted a motion, I would correct as needed – but by having them close their eyes and act it out, I was forcing them to attempt to retrieve the information themselves first. We played vocabulary games. I even started adding random slides to my lesson with some pictures of words we were learning or needed reviewing and then called on random students to identify the word in Spanish. It worked great! My students did much better during the spring semester than they had in the fall, and by the end of the year they were all able to ROCK our city-wide final exam.
But, all that retrieval practice took a ton of time out of my lesson – time I would have preferred to spend engaging my students in interpersonal and presentational communication. What if there were a way for students to study using active recall more efficiently? What if, instead of calling on random students, every student had an opportunity to practice at the same time? That’s why we decided to build ClassTracks, an online tool for vocabulary practice that allows teachers to upload their vocabulary list and then helps students study using research-based techniques. It’s free to try at classtracks.herokuapp.com. We’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback! email us at firstname.lastname@example.org