Spaced and interleaved retrieval practice using flashcards

I’ve never understood the ‘drill-and-kill versus teach-for-conceptual understanding’ argument. In that, I mean it’s not a dichotomy. Both reinforce each other. Students who try to problem solve with fluency but no conceptual understanding can’t apply their knowledge to new contexts. Students who try to problem solve with conceptual understanding but no fluency fall into working-memory overload in doing the basics and lose sight of, or can’t form, the strategy for solving the problem.

Clearly, students need both- conceptual understanding and fluency. How then do we teach to ensure students get an appropriate balance between each?

In this post, I want to focus on the fluency element. Regular retrieval practice following a spaced and interleaved schedule is a highly effective strategy for building retention and fluency. What teaching strategies promote this type of practice? One is flashcards…

I have been working on creating sets of topic-based flashcards for students to facilitate regular retrieval practice. Going forwards, I intend to give each student a set of flashcards at the start of each unit of study. I will advise them to do retrieval practice with these for 10 minutes each day at home whilst we study the unit. As their sets of flashcards build up over time they can regularly revisit previous sets to ensure they retain earlier learning. As time goes on they can shuffle the older sets to ensure they are getting interleaved retrieval practice. I may do occassional low-stakes quizzes in class to gamify the strategy and reward the students who put most into it. Perhaps a parental log could be filled in? Perhaps students will benefit from a schedule explaining which sets to practice each day?

Download this set of flashcards on the topic of negative numbers. Print double-sided.

It’s early-doors with this idea and I’ll keep you updated with how it progresses. I have high-hopes, particularly for students who typically can follow lessons in class but then struggle to retain their learning over time.

If it shows early promise we could certainly do a within-subjects cross-over study to demonstrate its impact.

Watch this space…

first seen


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