Book available for pre-order!

We’re excited to announce that our book Five Teaching and Learning Myths – Debunked by Dr. Adam Brown and Dr. Althea Need Kaminske, is available for pre-order!

From the publisher: Drawing from research in developmental and educational psychology, cognitive science, and the learning sciences, Five Teaching and Learning Myths―Debunked addresses some of the most commonly misunderstood educational and cognitive concerns in teaching and learning. Multitasking, problem-solving, attention, testing, and learning styles are all integral to student achievement but, in practice, are often muddled by pervasive myths. In a straightforward, easily digestible format, this book unpacks the evidence for or against each myth, explains the issues concisely and with credible evidence, and provides busy K-12 teachers with actionable strategies for their classrooms and lesson plans.

“In this book, research on a complicated subject―teaching and learning myths―is summarized and made readable for teachers and other school staff. I recommend this to all people who educate. It will save you time, make your teaching more efficient, and ensure that your students learn more, better.”

―Stuart Lock, Principal, Bedford Free School, Bedford, UK

Five Teaching and Learning Myths―Debunked is perfect for the classroom teacher. It is an easily accessible and understandable text that can immediately be applied and improve the classroom. It is perfect for casual reading or whole-school professional development. As a teacher, I especially appreciate the kindergarten-to-twelfth-grade activities included with each chapter that assist with implementation of strategies in the classroom. I highly recommend this book for teachers of all age groups and abilities.”

―Blake Harvard, James Clemens High School, USA

“Brown and Need Kaminske’s book is something that cognitive psychologists have needed to produce for some time now: a brief, accessible, and well-organized guide to some of the most pervasive myths in how we learn. Most importantly, the authors also offer advice on what to do next, once they’re done debunking. Educators of all levels will learn something new about what the evidence from cognitive psychology has to say about common concerns about the classroom.”

―Joshua VanArsdall, Assistant Professor of Psychology, Elmhurst College, USA

“This joyful, informative book is packed with practical examples that will have you nodding in agreement and recognition the whole way through. Unashamedly aimed at those who love learning and love to learn about learning, it finds the right balance of brevity, allowing you to read and follow its narrative easily, and well-referenced evidence, so you can follow up anything you’re particularly interested in.”

―Niki Kaiser, chemistry teacher and Network Research Lead at Norwich Research School at Notre Dame High School, UK

“Teachers will find this book to be incredibly useful in understanding the myths and the research related to student learning. The book is clear and concise, making it accessible to teachers with a range of familiarity with research on teaching and learning. The connection boxes tie everything together to make a complex topic more understandable.”

―Megan A. Sumeracki, Assistant Professor of Psychology, Rhode Island College, USA

Buy it now from Routledge and from Amazon.com!


Testing, Testing, 1, 2, 3

Written by Abigail Koetting

  Testing, a method to find out what students know or what they don’t know, plays an important role in measuring academic success. Children enter the world of testing as young as pre-k, with assessments on what they have been formally taught, such as their colors or shapes. At more advanced levels, students’ ability to multiply math facts or identify the adverbs in a sentence is tested to see if they have learned the presented information. According to Brown and Kaminske (in press), retrieval is when an individual reconstructs a memory so that they can recall certain information. When something is retrieved more frequently, the information becomes easier to remember because the individual gets better at rebuilding the memory. When we are testing students, we are asking them to retrieve information; this is the most effective way to learn because it requires students to not only retrieve the information from their memory, but to also produce, explain, and apply it when writing it down.

Student studying in class

To test the positive effects of retrieval in elementary-aged children, students who are in the most important years of development, Karpicke, Blunt, and Smith (2016) studied eighty-eight children around ten years old. They were asked to study a list of words and to either re-study the items, or practice retrieving them.

Children were shown two lists of twenty-four target words, ranging from three to eight letters long, and each target word had a unique category label. Each list was divided into two different sets of twelve items according to word length, frequency, and age of acquisition.

The tests were given to children as a group in classrooms, but they worked independently. In this study, three different experiments were run. Due to the fact that they were so similar, and for the purpose of clarity, the three experiments will be explained at once.

In phase one, the twenty-four target words were projected onto the screen in the front of the classroom, and students were told to study them for a memory test later. The experimenter read the words out loud for students, and then the children had an additional minute to study the words; after, the list was taken off the screen.

In phase two, there were two conditions. Children in the repeated study condition were given a sheet that showed the twenty-four target words and category cues paired with each target, and the items were shown intact (for example, fruit: banana). In the retrieval practice condition, children were given a sheet that showed the twenty-four target words and category cues paired with each target, but only the stems of the targets were shown with the rest omitted (for example, fruit: ba_____). These students had to restudy the words that were intact and recall the word that finished the stems. For this phase, they were allowed four minutes.

For phase three, the children from these two conditions had to complete a final free recall test. On a blank sheet of lined paper, they had to write down as many of the words as they could remember in any order. They had to be reminded though that the words they were looking for were the ones they either had restudied or completed from phase two, not the category clue words. For this phase, they were allowed four minutes.

Children also had to complete a final recognition test. The original twenty-four target words and the twelve distractor words were shown together in a random order on a piece of paper, and students had to read the words and decide if they had seen them earlier or not. They did this by circling either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ next to the words on the sheet. For this phase, they were allowed four minutes.

Looking at other kids notes

Additionally, children took the Maze reading comprehension test once in the fall semester and once in the spring semester; this test asked them to read passages where words were deleted and replaced with three choices, and students had to pick the word that made the most sense. The purpose of this test was to measure their reading comprehension. Children also completed the cross-out task, which required them to match geometric figures to the target figure- one that was the same. The purpose of this test was to measure their speed of processing.

Results from the three experiments showed that the retrieval practice resulted in high levels of initial retrieval achievement. Retrieval practice was advantageous over repeated study, so the experiments showed more positive effects of retrieval practice. The experiments also showed that recognition was higher for retrieved words rather than restudied words. Furthermore, children showed positive effects of retrieval practice regardless of their performance on the Maze or cross-out task.

Overall, the findings of this study support the theory that retrieving information has positive effects on learning. Therefore, testing is one of the best ways teachers can help students remember important information, as it requires them to both retrieve the knowledge and produce it.


Article sources:

Karpicke JD, Blunt JR, & Smith MA (2016) Retrieval-based learning: Positive effects of retrieval practice in elementary school children. Frontiers in Psychology 7.

Brown, A. & Kaminske A. N. (in press) 5 Teaching and Learning Myths – Debunked. New York, NY: Routledge Press.

Testing… Beneficial or Detrimental?

Written by Katelynn Brown 

“Imagine twenty-two players frantically kicking a ball, running, and then kicking some more, not concerned about what direction the ball is kicked. Some players will enthusiastically run and follow the ball, while others will stand idly by and wait for the ball to come to them. Some players might even just give up in frustration and lie down on the field. If the ball accidentally makes it into the goal, the crowd cheers, but the players don’t have a clue as to why.” –Ben Johnson

Think of this concept in the classroom, does this sound like any classroom you are familiar with? How would this lack of direction help students? It wouldn’t! In education teachers try to provide and guide instruction to provide students with the information that they need. This is done through testing. When discussing education, many question why testing is crucial and necessary to learning. For teachers, testing provides direction for instruction, it provides information on what students are grasping and where they are struggling, and provides further data to guide future instruction. For students, testing allows students to identify their individual learning gaps and acquired knowledge, strengthen their retrieval abilities, and improve their memory. When used correctly and appropriately testing can be a beneficial method to help provide effective and meaningful instruction in the classroom.

Diversify Testing in the Classroom

When used appropriately, testing can be a powerful way to improve learning in the classroom. Testing asks students to retrieve knowledge, to activate their memory, and to demonstrate that knowledge. When the test accurately measures what is supposed to be measured it is valid. Valid tests, depending on the design of the test and what the instructor feels the goal of the learning is, should be able to measure learning. In the classroom, there are different forms of testing that can be used to for different situations and contexts. Teachers can use different forms of testing to help develop a better understanding of where students are successful and where students are struggling.

  • Formative/ Informal Assessment

Formative assessments are used in classrooms to check for understanding in an effective way in order to guide and direct instruction. These assessments are used during instruction rather than at the end of a unit or course of students. When used correctly, results from this form of assessment helps instructors recognize where students are struggling and address problems immediately. It also helps students to identify their strengths and weaknesses and target areas that need work. This assessment allows teachers to ensure that students are understanding what is being taught and ensures that students are not getting lost in the material. These assessments should be used frequently to guide instruction while or after students learn a new idea, concept, or process. Teachers can utilize use different activities and assessment tools to incorporate formative assessments into the classroom.

Classroom hands

  • Exit Ticket

Give students a question to answer that targets the big idea of the lesson and have students write a sentence or two. Teachers can also challenge student’s retrieval and ask about previous content that was covered in the class. As students leave, collect their exit ticket. As teachers go through the information determine what students understood the concept, somewhat understood the concept, or didn’t understand the concept. The size of each stack will provide guidance for future instruction.

  • Student Checklist

Teachers can provide students with a checklist and have them self-assess. Provide students with a checklist for each new concept or with various concepts. Ensure that students write a sentence or two plaining how they know they have got the concept or why they think they are struggling with the concept.

  • The Three Minute Paper

This activity can be use frequently either when presenting a new concept or after a lesson. The teacher provides students with a given amount of time. The teacher would instruct the students to “Take out a piece of paper and tell me what you have learning so far about ________”. The teacher will evaluate students responses to determine into separate piles of students who understand the concept, students who somewhat understand the concept, and students who do not understand.


  • Misconception Check

Teachers will provide student with common or predictable misconceptions about a specific principle, process, or concept. Ask the students whether they agree or disagree and explain why. These assessments can be provided in multiple choice or true/ false form. This assessment can allow teachers to acquire knowledge of where they misconceptions are present in student understanding.

  • Watch, Look, Listen

In the classroom, observing the actions, behaviors, and words of students can provide valuable data and serves as an effective formative assessment. Teachers can take notes as they conference with individual students, during shared conversation, or during collaborative learning groups. Teachers can assess which students have an understanding of the concepts being taught and which students are struggling.

  • Summative/ Formal Assessment

Summative assessments are used in classrooms to evaluate student learning at the end of an instructional unit through the use of standards or benchmarks. Summative assessments are often high stakes. These tests are given using the same process, to all students in a classroom, school or state, so that every students has an equal opportunity to demonstrate what they know and what they can do. Summative assessments cover a full range of concepts for a given grade level. This assessments serves as a final evaluation of what students have learned and if they have understood the concepts that were taught. There are multiple forms of summative assessments that teachers can use within the classroom.

  • Quizlet

This website allows teachers to build flashcards, quizzes, games, and tests in the app. On Quizlet teachers are able to use material and content created by other teachers or they can create their own content. Through the app teachers can keep track of student progress and data to determine what information students have gained and where they are having difficulty. Teachers can add images and voice recording to enhance the experience for students.

  • Portfolios

Portfolios is a compilation of academic work and other forms of educational evidence assembled together. This assessments allows teachers to evaluate coursework quality, learning progress, and academic achievement, determines whether students have met the standards and academic requirements of the course, and helps students reflect on their academic goals and progress as learners. Portfolios are a subject method used to assess student learning over time.

  • Projects

Projects allow students to synthesize many concepts into one product or process. They require students to address real world issues and put their learning to use to solve or demonstrate multiple related skills. Through the use of projects students are given multiple opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge in creative and innovative ways.

  • Tests

The most common form of summative assessment is the paper and pencil test. This test can come at the end of a unit, chapter, semester, or year. The purpose of this assessment method is to provide teachers with information about what the students have learned over the course of the unit, chapter, semester, or year. These assessments can include multiple choice questions, fill in the blank, short answer, and extended constructed response questions.


Alber, R. (2014, January 15). Why formative assessments matter. Retrieved 2017, from             https://www.edutopia.org/blog/formative-assessments-importance-of-rebecca-alber

Eberly Center. (2015). Whys and hows of assessment. Retrieved 2017, from             https://www.cmu.edu/teaching/assessment/basics/formative-summative.html

The Great Schools Partnership. (2016, February 18). Portfolio. Retrieved 2017, from             http://edglossary.org/portfolio/

Johnson, B. (2011, June 20). A different perspective: Teaching to the test. Retrieved 2017, from https://www.edutopia.org/blog/teaching-to-the-test-benefits-ben-johnson

Ronan, A. (2015, April 29). Every teacher’s guide to assessment. Retrieved 2017, from             http://www.edudemic.com/summative-and-formative-assessments/

O’Malley, K. (2015, October 25). 4 common types of tests teachers give. Retrieved 2017, from https://www.noodle.com/articles/4-types-of-tests-teachers-give-and-why

Is Testing Helping Your Memory?

Written by Katelynn Brown

Testing in education, is a concept that has been questioned and debated for centuries. Many question the benefits, drawbacks, and outcomes of testing in the classroom. Especially when considering learning in the classroom, many question how the testing process can impact student learning. When thinking about testing, many question how repeated testing can be beneficial to students and if testing truly impacts the learning experience? The answer… when used appropriately and effectively testing can benefit both the teacher and the students in the classroom. When used appropriately students are given the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge and skills, recognize where they are making mistakes, and provide opportunities to improve retrieval and memory. Teachers able to use results from testing to plan and correct instruction to help support the development of students and to provide additional instruction where needed.

Dont Forget.png

Did I Forget That?

Have you ever found yourself asking, “Where did I leave my phone?” If you have, like many others, you became frustrated trying to remember trying to remember where you placed it. You searched around frantically looking for and trying to remember the last place that you might have seen it. Many times we find ourselves becoming frustrated with our memories and wonder why it doesn’t work like a computer. That’s because your memory is better! In the mind, our memory works by forming complex associations between cues present in our environments and target information stored in our brain. The target of these cues, is to trigger a memory.

When considering our memory, researchers have argued that memory helps us predict the future. Our memories take into account the complex patterns based on environment, context, and frequency that help it generate the best possible target with the information it has. Information that doesn’t get used very often is forgotten, unless it was associated with an emotionally-charged and important event. The more that you use memory the better it becomes. Researchers have studied testing as a way of practicing memory and examining what factors improve our memory by focusing on the process of retrieval. Retrieval is the process of rebuilding in order to call information to mind. Every time something is recalled and an individual is able to go through the process of retrieval, they get better at rebuilding the memory making it easier to remember the information in the future. As teachers, it is crucial to remember that retrieval is an active process that changes the learning experience of students. Through testing, quizzing, and repeated practice, students are able to change their retrieval ability for the future. Thus strengthening connections between cues and memories. In order for students to learn and succeed, it is important to provide opportunities for students to practice and to be tested in real-world scenarios. While in the classroom, teachers can use multiple techniques and strategies to help the students strengthen their retrieval, memory, and learning abilities.

How Can I Improve Memory?

Everyday students are learning and acquiring more knowledge both inside and outside of the classroom. As students continue to learn, it is important that they have effective strategies to help students make connection and utilize their memory to remember information. In the classroom, there are many strategies and activities that teachers can utilize to help students make connections and remember information. Through the use of these strategies students can improve their memory and retrieval abilities.

  1. Teach students to use visual images and other memory strategies

When learning new material, it is often easier to remember information that has been presented in different ways. Especially when teaching new concepts, it is important to use visual aids to help organize information. Images can be used as a retrieval cue to facilitate the recall or access of store information. Visual images or other words that the new information is associated with at the time it is stored in long-term memory. Through the use of visual cues it is easier to remember what has been read and seen. When students are provided with the retrieval cues, it is easier for them to access information that has been stored in long-term memory. The use of multisensory instruction enhances memory and learning or children. By presenting information in multiple formats, students are able to recode information, make meaningful connections, and facilitate long-term memory storage.


  1. Activate prior knowledge

When students are learning new information, teachers should activate their prior knowledge about the subject being taught. Activating prior knowledge about a topic provides students with a “hook” to hang new information on in their mental memory network. Teachers can utilize this strategy by discussing vocabulary, helping students make personal connections to the material, and discussing the topic prior to the lesson. This strategy allows students to focus on the more crucial information and engage in more effective depth of processing.

Student thinking.png

  1. Help students develop cues

Memory research has found that information is retrieved by using a cue and that cue should be present at the time the information is being retrieved. Teachers can use different cueing forms to help students make connections and remember information presented. Teachers can incorporate this into the classroom by providing students with different cues such as multisensory cues, helping students develop personal cues, and through the use of mnemonics. The use of mnemonic methods can provide the scaffolding for higher order thinking for students. Mnemonic learning can be helpful for retrieval of information in long-term memory. Mnemonics also provide visual imagery or verbal elaborations that serve as cues for recalling information that is meaningful. An example of this would be the acronym HOMES which can be used to represent the names of the great lakes. When using this strategy students can generate their own devices or their teachers can provide them.

  1. Provide retrieval practice

Research has shown that long-term memory is enhanced when students engage in retrieval practice. In the classroom, teachers can provide students with multiple opportunities to recall information from long term memory. Teachers can help students practice retrieval by asking questions and creating activities that incorporate recalling previous information that was presented in class. The process of testing can also help students practice retrieval. Prior to taking a test, when teachers review information they ask students questions or have students make up questions which allows students to recall information. When students are asked to create test questions, teachers are then able to determine what knowledge students remember and where students might need help recalling information. This allows students opportunities to practice recall and memory as well as providing teachers with information of what knowledge students have acquired. Practice tests can help to boost long term retention and can help decrease stress. Teachers can incorporate multiple forms of testing to help students practice their retrieval and recall abilities.

Classroom hands.png

  1. The spacing effect

Many times in the classroom, students are presented with new topics every day. Instead key ideas and concepts should be revisited throughout the school year. Research has shown that students tend to perform better academically when given multiple opportunities to review learned material. Teachers can incorporate this strategy in the classroom by asking students questions related to the previous content, creating activities and lessons that connect the material, or using homework to re-expose students to prior information.


Terada, Y. (2017, September 20). Why students forget and what you can do about it.         Retrieved 2017, from https://www.edutopia.org/article/why-students-forget-and- what-you-can-do-about-it

Thorne, G. (2003, January 1). What strategies can be used to increase memory? Retrieved 2017, from http://www.cdl.org/articles/what-strategies-can-be-used-to-increase-memory/

Thorne, G. (2006). 10 strategies to enhance students’ memory. Retrieved 2017, from http://www.readingrockets.org/article/10-strategies-enhance-students-memory

Testing Roundup

Written by Erin Miller

Here are some articles about the topic of testing, and how it influences a student’s ability to learn.

Test-enhanced Learning: Using Retrieval Practice to Help Students Learn from the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University

Cynthia Brame and Rachel Biel discuss “test-enhanced learning,” and how the process of retrieving facts and concepts from our memory, can increase the long-term retention of those concepts. They also explain how repeated retrieval practice can enhance long-term memory.



Learn how to Study Using…Retrieval Practice from The Learning Scientists

Dr. Megan Smith and Dr. Yana Weinstein explain resources students can use to take charge of how they learn. They explain what retrieval practice is, and important methods for studying any topic that you want to remember.




Researchers Find That Frequent Tests Can Boost Learning from Scientific American

Annie Murphy Paul explains how research in cognitive science and psychology have shown that using testing in classrooms provides a more effective way to learn, and more success in the students recall of facts and understanding of topics.



A Powerful Way to Improve Learning and Memory from the American Psychological Association

In this article, Dr. Jeffrey Karpicke discusses how retrieval creates learning. Karpicke also discusses research conducted with Dr. Bauernschmidt, about retrieval-based learning, and how testing, or practicing retrieval, facilitates learning.




Retrieval Practice: I Quiz Because I Care

Written by Dr. Althea Bauernschmidt

Now that the Spring 2018 semester is in full swing, CALM is back with a new series of blog posts exploring topics in attention, learning, and memory! This month we’ll be focusing on testing. Specifically we’ll be looking at retrieval practice, sometimes called the testing effect, as well as issues surrounding what makes a good test good (or a bad test bad). In this first introductory post I’ll be explaining retrieval practice.

We often get frustrated by everyday lapses in memory. Where did I park my car? What’s the name of the book my friend recommended me? When people find out that I study memory they almost always express that they wish they weren’t so forgetful. We get frustrated when we don’t have perfect recall of every aspect of our lives and assume that our memories are not working properly. As a memory researcher I can assure you that forgetting where you parked your car is not only normal – it’s actually a good thing. While it can be annoying, forgetting is actually a sign that our memories are working properly. Let me explain.

Our memories work by forming complex associations between cues in our environments and the information in our brains (Anderson & Schooler, 1991; Raaijmakers & Shiffrin, 1981). Cues are anything that triggers a memory. For example, seeing the words “peanut butter” might make you think of “jelly”*, or hearing a certain song might make you think of a movie. If we are studying for a test then we hope that the cues on the test (the questions) will make us remember the correct information. So what makes some cues better than others? Why does some information seem to be easier for us to remember than other information?

*For a certain set of older millennials you may have immediately thought of “peanut butter jelly time”. I’m sorry.


These questions can be better understood when we consider how memory actually works and what our memories are really designed to do. It can be tempting to think that memory is for remembering the past. On the surface the certainly seems reasonable. We use memory to remember the names of people we met at a work function, where we put our keys, and passages from our favorite books. But if we think of memory as primarily for remembering the past then we will be a bit let down by how often we forget the past. What’s the point of having this memory system if I have wander aimlessly around the parking lot looking for my car?? Memory researchers actually argue that memory is not for remembering the past; memory is for helping us predict the future (Szpunar & McDermott, 2008). Our memory system does this by taking into account complex patterns based on environment, context, and frequency. This information helps us generate the best possible information in response to a given cue (Karpicke, Lehman, & Aue, 2014). This theory of memory is supported by how we forget information. Information that doesn’t get used very often is forgotten – unless it is associated with an emotionally charged and therefore important event. Information that is used frequently is more easily remembered. Our memory systems have recognized that this comes up a lot in this context and make it easier to remember. The best predictor of the future is the past. Something that we encounter everyday is more likely to happen tomorrow than something that happens every few years.

This may feel a bit disappointing at first. After all, it’s frustrating when we can’t find our keys (or our car). Wouldn’t it be nice if we could always remember everything? Not so much. Consider for a minute what it would be like to remember everything all the time. Every time you saw or heard the word “key” you thought of every key you have ever encountered. You would need to consciously consider each option before deciding which key was most relevant to your situation. Instead of remembering where your current car keys are, you instead reminisce about the keys to your grandfather’s truck that were last seen on the refrigerator of the house you lived in 10 years ago. By conveniently forgetting most of the keys you have encountered, our memory system saves us time and energy. Your memory system helps remember the keys to your car and not your grandfather’s truck.

A simpler way of describing memory is that a memory, or an association between a cue and information, becomes better the more we use it. Practice makes perfect. Learning and memory researchers who study this process of cues activating information call it retrieval. Every time something is recalled and we go through this process of retrieval we get better at rebuilding the memory and make it easier to remember in the future (Roediger, McDermott, & McDaniel, 2011).

There are 3 important aspects of retrieval to keep in mind when trying to improve memory and learning. 1) Retrieval is cue-dependent, 2) Retrieval is a process that works best when spaced, and 3) Retrieval (and therefore testing) is NOT a neutral learning event.

Retrieval is cue-dependent.

Cue-dependent refers to the association between a cue in the environment and the information it is associated with. For example, if you were learning Japanese you would try to associate the cue “Ohayou” with “morning”. So the more times you are greeted with “ohayou!” and you recall that it means “morning!” the easier it will be for you remember that “ohayou” means “morning”. Because memory is cue-dependent that means it can be influenced by the context we are in when we encounter the cue. Often we are good at remembering something in one context, but struggle when we switch to a different context. For example, if art students are going to be tested on their knowledge of color theory and linear perspective by creating a piece of artwork, then they might struggle if they only memorized the definitions of color theory and linear perspective because the terms are being used in a different context. The cue-dependent nature of memory means that the best way for us to study and prepare for tests is to study in the way we expect to be tested. If our knowledge of art is going to be tested based on our ability to create certain types of art, then we should practice creating pieces with strong colors and the feeling of distance created by linear perspective. Not by memorizing the definitions of terms (though knowing the definitions will certainly be helpful).

Retrieval is a process that works best when spaced.



Take a moment to consider the following math problem:


3 x 2 + 7 = ?


If you are a bit rusty on your algebra you might take a second to remember what the order of operations is. You might then feel a small sense of accomplishment when you pull PEMDAS out of some corner of your mind. Then, armed with confidence that you can solve this math problem, you multiply 3 x 2 and get 6. Then you add 6 and 7 to get 13. Now that you have brushed up on your algebra skills, I invite you to attempt a second problem:



3 x 2 + 7 = ?



Was this second problem easier to solve than first? I’m willing to bet you were much faster at solving the second problem than the first problem. But did you apply the same processes that you did while solving the first problem? Probably not. You didn’t have to go through the same steps because you just solved the exact same problem. The same thing happens when we practice retrieval. When we retrieve information from memory we go through a number of steps similar to solving the math problem. If we immediately retrieve the same information from memory we don’t have to go through the same process again. But the more times we retrieve that information, the better we will be at remembering it in the future (Roediger, McDermott, & McDaniel, 2011). So the best thing we can do to improve our memory is to space out our studying, or retrieval practice (Karpicke & Bauernschmidt, 2011; Benjabmin & Tullis, 2010). This is a complicated way of saying what teachers already know: cramming doesn’t work for the long term. Cramming the night before, or minutes before might give you a temporary boost in memory, but spacing out your studying and preparing in advance gives you a much stronger grasp of the material.

Retrieval (and therefore testing) is NOT a neutral learning event.

Whether we’re learning Japanese, practicing for an art test, or solving math problems, we are using the active process of retrieval to make gains in learning. Anytime we retrieve a piece of knowledge we change our ability to recall that piece of knowledge in the future. Tests, quizzes, practicums, etc. can asses learning by asking students to retrieve knowledge to recognize a correct answer, produce a correct answer, or demonstrate a skill. However, this also means that tests, quizzes, practicums, etc. also changes their ability to retrieve that knowledge to recognize a correct answer, produce a correct answer, or demonstrate a skill. Every retrieval attempt (especially when they are spaced out) improves the association between a cue and the information in memory. This has some really straightforward and practical implications. If we want to get better at a certain skill, then we need to practice that skill. If we want students to learn basic skills because we feel they are useful in the real world, then we should have them practice those skills in real-world scenarios. For example, basic math is useful for keeping track of personal finances. One way to have students practice math in finance is to set up a small token economy in the classroom where they may earn tokens for good behavior and grades and then spend them to receive prizes and rewards. Students can keep track of their tokens in a checkbook. Activities like this are beneficial because they are more engaging than completing worksheets, but also because they take away some of the challenges that students have when they need to transfer skills they learned in one context (math problems in class) to another context (balancing a checkbook/tracking finances).


Before I finish talking about retrieval, I want to stress that testing is just one way that you can use or practice retrieval to help learning. Tests are often thought of as high-stakes, state mandated, and very limited ways of assessing students. By advocating for retrieval practice I am not necessarily advocating the use of more of these types of tests*. I am advocating for more retrieval practice. Retrieval practice could come in the form of an engaging classroom discussion where students have to use their knowledge of a text to argue for or against some stance. Retrieval practice could come in the form of review quiz games where students play on teams and compete for bonus points. Retrieval practice could come in the form of practicing skills, like in the example of creating artwork above. Retrieval practice can take many forms in and out of the classroom. As long we are mindful of what and how often we are practicing retrieval we’ll see substantial gains in learning and memory in and out of the classroom.

*In a second post later this month I will explore some the issues surrounding these types of tests and explain why, somewhat paradoxically, that means we need MORE tests.

Where is Your Focus?

Written by Katelynn Brown

“The real message is because attention is under siege more than it has ever been in human history, we have more distractions than ever before, we have to be more focused on cultivating the skills of attention. It’s about using the devices smartly but having the capacity to concentrate as you need to, when you want to. The more you can concentrate the better you’ll do on anything, because whatever talent you have, you can’t apply it if you are distracted.” –Daniel Goleman


Attention and focus are two aspects of our everyday lives. In any activity, learning experience, or action that is presented throughout the day we demonstrate our ability to utilize focus and attention. Our ability to demonstrate and utilize focus and attention can be impacted by distractions. These distractions can come in multiple forms and can affect our ability to focus and concentrate. Many times we can become distracted and we do not even acknowledge that it has occurred. Especially in the 21st century, technology has become both a benefit and a hindrance to student attention and focus. Many times throughout the day we become distracted by cellphones and computers without even realizing it. In the classroom, it is important that educators guide students in developing and improving their ability to ignore distractions. As students embrace attention and focus, they are better able to learn and retain information in the classroom.

Can I Strengthen My Focus?

In the classroom, there are multiple techniques that educators can use to help students avoid distractions and strengthen their focus. These methods can include a variety of activities and practices that teachers can model, demonstrate, and incorporate into the classroom. Each of these methods can assist the students in strengthening and improving their knowledge of focus and selective attention. The integration of these instructional methods can truly influence the academic performance of students in the classroom by strengthening their ability to focus and diminishing their tendency to become distracted.

1.    Teach students what staying focused looks like

Throughout the day, teachers should model and explain what staying focused looks, sounds, and feels like. In the classroom, teachers can use interactive modeling. Interactive modeling is an effective way to show students how to stay focused. This instructional method not only shows students how to do a multitude of particular skills but also shows them why it is important to do it well. Teachers must explicitly explain to students why staying focused is important and then must work to model those behaviors to students. During this time, teachers model exactly what their eyes, mouths, hands, and feet should be doing when students are focused on a multitude of tasks.

2.   Get students up and moving

As people, but especially as children, we are naturally inclined to move and be active. Many times in the classroom, teachers forget that students are active individuals and thus our expectations are not realistic. Teachers can get students up and moving during instruction by including “Brain Breaks” into instruction. Teachers can increase the effectiveness of student learning by incorporating Brain breaks throughout the day. Brain breaks can include using yoga moves, playing a quick game, allowing students to walk around the classroom or wiggle, or using websites such as GoNoodle. As you take this time to allow students to move around, students will refocus and foster well-being and academic performance.

3.    Teach students how to refocus

One important way to help students build stamina is to give them strategies for getting back on track when they lose focus. One way to help students learn to refocus is for teachers to have students practice doing multiple things at once. As teachers give students multiple things at once, students are training their brains to focus on what they are doing. Through continues practice, students are less likely to lose focus. Another technique would be for teachers to teach students how to take small breaks without disrupting their concentration. When students notice that they have lost focus, teachers can show students how to use different techniques to help regain focus. These breaks can include breathing techniques, walking around, or taking time to move around.

4.   Help students build endurance

Students can improve and strengthen their ability to focus by building endurance. This can be done by having students think about focus related to something they are interested in. Teachers can have students think about areas that interest them and how that knowledge is developed through continuous focus and practice. Students can build endurance in any area through patience, practice, and time. In order for students to strengthen their endurance, teachers must provide students with opportunity and time to practice this skill. Through repeated practice, students will be able to effectively ignore distractions and utilize focus.

5.    Adjust instructional time frames


During instruction, sometimes teachers find that students are not able to maintain focus and stay on task. When these difficulties occur in the classroom, this would be the time to consider breaking content into smaller time intervals. Teachers need to remember that students can only concentrate on material for a limited amount of time. During instruction it might be necessary for teachers to adjust time frames if students are demonstrating difficulty focusing. Teachers should be cautious of lengthy instruction and lectures. While presenting instruction, it is important that teachers work to ensure that students remain involved in the material and active in the lesson. Teachers can do this by involving hands on instruction and questions into the lesson.

6.   Play memory games

Memory games helps students to strengthen their focus in a fun way. Through the use of these games, students are able to concentrate when challenged. In the school day, teachers can integrate these games into the regular instructional time. Teachers can also encourage this use of memory games during student’s free time as well. Games such as red-light-green-light, I-Spy, and Simon Says challenge students to focus and pay attention. Through these games, students are able to repeatedly practice focus through the use of a fun and interactive game.

7.    Breakdown tasks

This technique requires the teacher to be responsive and aware of the needs of students in the classroom. Teachers need to assess how students are performing in the classroom. Teachers need to remember that learning is not a one size fits all method. If students seem to demonstrate difficulty with the instructional material, teachers should attempt to differentiate instruction. Teachers can do this by breaking material into smaller chunks. Teachers should break up instruction into smaller chunks, as students complete chunks of instruction the students can take a break, and then return to the next chunk of information and instruction. With the implementation of this strategy, students may complete tasks faster.


In the classroom, there are various techniques that can be used to help students strengthen and improve their ability to focus. Teachers can help students to strengthen this skill with repeated practice of these various techniques. As students continue to practice focus and attention, the skill will become more automatic and students will begin to do it naturally. As students improve their ability to focus and pay selective attention, students can improve their learning experience and retain more information.



Cox, J. (n.d.). Teaching strategies to help students stay focused. Retrieved 2017, from http://www.teachhub.com/teaching-strategies-help-students-stay-focused

Reeves, D. (2015, July 10). 7 ways to increase a student’s attention span. Retrieved 2017, from  https://www.edutopia.org/discussion/7-ways-increase-students-attention-span

Schwartz, K. (2013, December 5). Age of distraction: Why it’s crucial for students to learn to focus. Retrieved 2017, from https://ww2.kqed.org/mindshift/2013/12/05/age-of-distraction-why-its-crucial-for-students-to-learn-to-focus/

Umstatter, K. (2014, January 3). Teaching students to stay focused. Retrieved 2017, from https://www.responsiveclassroom.org/teaching-students

How Do I Focus?

Written by Katelynn Brown

Focus, it’s a concept that we all think that we are familiar with. When asked to define what focus is, many people would say that focus is to pay attention to something in particular. Though this is true, focus is much more than that. As individual, when we say we think we are using focus, we are actually demonstrating selective attention. Selective attention is when we consciously focus on something by skillfully ignoring distracting stimuli. Through the use of selective attention, we are able to effectively ignore different types of distraction. Research has determined that attention is the first step in the learning process. The ability of students to focus and orient attention impacts what is information is gained and retained to memory. Research has also found that the ability to students to ignore distractions and focus on learning has strong associations to academic performance. As educators, it is important that we help students to think about focusing to encourage selective attention and limit distractions in the classroom.


Can I Direct My Focus?

Take a second and look at your surroundings, notice all of the possible distractions that are around you. Have they affected your ability to pay attention and stay focused? Everyday students are constantly surrounded by multiple forms of distractions that challenge their ability to focus and to learn. Student’s ability to focus is constantly being challenged and tested. As students find themselves surrounded by conversation, technology, and various other distractions, students are challenged to focus and successfully ignore all other distractions that are present. For many, this concept is easier said than done. For students it can be difficult to simply focus on one activity rather than attempting to multitask. It is important that as educators, we are able to help direct student thinking and help students demonstrate selective attention in order to ignore all of the distractions that are present. By helping students to utilize selective attention, educators can better gear students to learn, gain information, and retain this information to memory. Educators can demonstrate for students different methods to improve focus and attention in the classroom. The next step, is to determine how educators can help students to increase the use of selective attention in the classroom.

Think About How You Focus:

While in the classroom, educators want students to be hard at work, engaged in the lesson, and focused on the material that is being presented. During class instruction, educators might find that students are distracted or focused on something either than the instruction. These distractions can come in multiple forms in the classroom. Educators can try to limit this distraction by explicitly instruction students on how to regulate attention. Educators can provide students with cognitive strategies that can guide students to understand how they can consciously direct and maintain their attention on learning tasks. Through regular practices, these cognitive strategies can improve students’ ability to manage their individual learning. By providing students with this instruction, educators can encourage and self-directed learning in the classroom.


1. Shine the Spotlight On Attention

In this activity, educators introduce the subject of attention by asking students to share examples of being extremely focused on an activity that the student was able to block out distractions around them. These examples can include reading a book, watching a movie, practicing an instrument, or practicing a sport. In the way that students provide this attention in the examples that they have given, students can purposefully focus their attention to learning in the classroom. Based on this information, work with students to brainstorm ways that regulating attention can improve learning. For example brainstormed ideas might include:

  • Paying attention to a lesson instead of being distracted by distractions in the hallway or playground.
  • Switching from learning one subject to another or one class to another.
  • Leaving personal disagreements or problems outside of the classroom to limit distractions during instruction.
  • Completing a homework assignment before turning on TV, using cellphone, or playing a video game.
  • Limiting or “turning off” worries about not doing well on an assignment or test in order to stay focused and remember material.
  • Identifying what is most important and focusing solely on what is most important.


2. Focusing attention is a skill that can be improved

At any stage, students can develop their attention for learning through regular practice and training. Educators should provide students with good reasons for training their attention. Educators should remind students that people who can take charge of their attention are better at remembering things and figuring out what new information means and how they can use it. Students who are able to develop this knowledge, are better at metacognition and higher-order thinking processes. In the classroom, educators must guide and encourage students as they work to improve and strengthen their ability to focus attention.

3. Be Responsive and Pace Your Teaching

Within the classroom, the attention span of individual students is going to vary drastically. Educators should vary the instructional times that are provided in the classroom based on the needs of students. Especially when teaching younger students, educators should provide instruction is shorter amounts of time during lessons and learning activities. In the classroom, teachers can utilize the acronym CRAVE as a way to remember five other strategies for keeping students’ attention focused on learning:

  • Build curiosity for learning with “teasers” that get students interested in the lesson. Educators should incorporate anticipatory sets into the classroom that peak student interest and curiosity.
  • Look for ways to make lessons relevant to students’ lives. Educators need to incorporate authentic text, discussion, instruction, and activities into the classroom. By providing meaningful and authentic text and instructions students are better able to become engaged and interested in the material.
  • Ask questions to engage students in learning and inquiry. By asking students questions, educators are ensuring that the students are involved in the lesson and are able to be active learners during instruction.
  • Remember to include variety in the lesson. Educations should use a mix of learning activities. These variety helps to keep students engaged and interested in the material.
  • Evoke emotions. Emotions can be distracting, they can also be used to enhance attention by making a lesson or learning activity more interesting.
  • Educators can incorporate and utilize each of these instructional practiced into the classroom. The integration of these instructional methods can help students to become aware of their own thinking and their ability to focus during instruction. Each of these instructional methods and activities, can help to increase student attention and focus while in the classroom. As students are able to strengthen their attention skills, students will be better able to learn information and to retain the information that they have learned.




Wilson, D. (2015, January 5). Strategies for getting and keeping the brain’s attention.

Retrieved 2017, from https://www.edutopia.org/blog/strategies-getting-keeping-


Focus Tips for Students: How to Effectively Ignore Irrelevant Information

Written by Erin Miller

“I need to stop procrastinating and just focus” a sentence said by almost every student when under a time crunch studying for finals, writing a paper, or just doing math homework. The ability to “just focus,” is actually a lot harder than we think, specifically with your cell phone sitting right next to you, the people at the table two feet away, and the music blaring in your headphones. Focus, also known as selective attention, is “the process of focusing on a particular object in the environment for a certain period of time. Attention is a limited resource, so selective attention allows us to tune out unimportant details and focus on what really matters” (Cherry, 2017). Research has shown that there are ways to work on this ability and improve our focus. Here are some tips to help your brain focus a little harder on the task at hand:

1.     Put the cell phone away.


First things first, humans are innately bad at multitasking. The basis of focus, or attention, is the ability to ignore distracting stimuli. Choosing to leave your cell phone in the other room while you study, is already a huge step towards improving your ability to focus. Moving your attention away from your school work to answer a text does not seem like a big deal, but is actually a huge detriment to the ability to get your attention back to the work you were doing. According to a study conducted in 2013, “students who were not using their cell phones wrote down 62 percent more information in their notes, took more detailed notes, were able to recall more detailed information from the lecture, and scored a full letter grade and a half higher on a multiple choice test than those students who were actively using their mobile phones” (Kuznekoff & Titsworth, 2013). Turn your phone off while you study, it is the most effective first step.

2.     Close out tabs you are not using.


Similar to your cell phone buzzing on the table next to you, keeping tabs open on your computer that you are not using, are unnecessary distracters. Whether the tab is your Facebook profile, email inbox, or a full shopping cart on Amazon, keeping the tab open does not help your brain focus on the paper you are trying to write, or the formulas you are trying to memorize. Closing out tabs that you are not presently using, will allow you to get the work done faster, and then you can go back to shopping.

3.     Take breaks, get fresh air.

If you are one of those people who says, “I am going to sit in this chair until I know everything I need to know for this test,” you might actually be hindering your studying ability! Decide before you start studying, when you will take a break, and when you will return to studying. Of course, the studying portion needs to be longer then the break portion, but the breaks are important. In her book, Find Your Focus Zone: An Effective New Plan to Defeat Distraction and Overload, Lucy Jo Palladino, Ph.D., says a “quick walk outdoors” is an effective short break. Getting outside, taking some deep breaths, and thinking about anything besides the homework you are doing, can be very effective to sustain your focus (Tartakovsky, 2016).

4.     Create a to-do list.


A lot of the stress we get from school, especially during finals week, comes from having several assignments that are all due on the same day. Before you begin to worry about when you will have time to get everything done, make a list of each of your assignments, when they are due, and plan out when you will complete them. Sometimes, even just writing down the assignments you have can help you relax, and realize that what you have to do is not as much as you think. Multitasking, has “a negative effect because of brain plasticity or “the way the brain changes in response to experience.” When you’re multitasking, “Your brain is changing itself to favor divided attention and fragmented thought, rather than concentration that resists distraction and rebounds from interruption” (Tartakovsky, 2016). Once you plan out when you will complete each task, you will not have to worry about all the other responsibilities, and can focus on them, one at a time.


Kendra Cherry | Reviewed by Steven Gans, MD. “What Is Selective Attention?” Verywell, www.verywell.com/what-is-selective-attention-2795022.

Kuznekoff, J., & Titsworth, S. (2013). The Impact of Mobile Phone Usage on Student Learning. Communication Education, 62(3). pp. 233-252.

Tartakovsky, Margarita. “12 Foolproof Tips for Finding Focus.” Psych Central, 17 July 2016, psychcentral.com/lib/12-foolproof-tips-for-finding-focus/.



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