Retrieval Cues: Do Your Questions Help or Hinder?

It’s so easy, when we really want our pupils to answer a question correctly, that we give them cues to help them reach the answer. Sometimes we see our pupils still struggling and we become tempted to offer them a just-a-few more cues to help them get there. Finally, they give the correct answer and you both feel – well, thrilled!

Here’s the catch: is there a danger that your cues are hindering rather than helping the pupils you wish to see successful? Not all cues are born equal: some are more helpful than others.

In my experience, helping pupils encode new information becomes easier as awareness of the benefits of retrieval practice grows. Regular retrieval practice spaced over time will help ensure key ideas are embedded into our pupils’ long-term memory. But it is linking new ideas with each other and to prior knowledge that can be trickier to achieve. I hope the ideas in this post can help begin to make it less tricky.

Haystack vs Network of Knowledge
Reif (1981) suggests that teaching new facts which are unconnected and poorly organised is effectively increasing ‘the difficulty of finding any specific information in a larger haystack’. This becomes evident when, say, you have just taught a lesson on diffusion and later ask pupils to name the process… Pupils are likely to say diffusion, regardless of what you said after the word ‘process’. If you have taught diffusion, osmosis and active transport, but pupils have not mastered content properly, they are likely to select the wrong process in response to your question. More facts = larger haystack.

So how can we help pupils organise the ‘haystack’ into a neatly categorised filing cabinet – an interconnected network of facts, complete with an index? Storing away memories is one thing, but retrieving them at the time we need them is, arguably, the more difficult part. For example, a pupil might be able to recall the details of the process of natural selection. But will they write it down in response to a question that demands such an explanation? The trick to helping pupils recall relevant facts at the relevant times lies partly in understanding retrieval cues better. Moreover, it is important to see the use of retrieval cues as a way of helping pupils not only to encode facts, but to encode the links between the facts. It is in this understanding, that we as teachers can help pupils retrieve the correct ideas at the correct time more easily.

Retrieval Cues
Retrieval occurs in response to cues. If I say the word ‘carbon dioxide’ to a science teacher, the teacher may think of: photosynthesis, respiration, global warming, combustion, breathing, composition of the air, thermal decomposition and covalent bonding, to name a few concepts. This is possible because the teacher has firmly made links between all of these related concepts. If I ask the same teachers to: ‘Name a reaction in which carbon dioxide is a product’ – then the list of retrieved ideas will be much narrower: respiration, combustion and thermal decomposition. By changing the cues provided (‘reaction’ and ‘product’), the memories retrieved have been narrowed. This is useful and adaptive: in a situation that requires a precise piece of information, I don’t want to be flooded with a myriad of ideas; I want one or a few memories in the fore of my mind to choose from. Change the question still to, ‘Name a biological reaction in which carbon dioxide is the product’, it is likely that only respiration will be recalled. The cues ‘reaction’, ‘product’ and ‘biological’ were sufficient to narrow the retrieved memory from dozens of possible answers to just one.

Questioning: cues and links
I view the difficulty in helping pupils to organise information as connected to the types of questions we may ask them when helping them to assimilate new ideas.

I recently observed a colleague teaching pupils about renewable energy resources. Upon describing the idea of energy resources such as biofuels being ‘carbon neutral’, they proceeded to ask pupils questions. When pupils struggled, she started to give pupils cues such as it begins with, ‘C, N’. This got me thinking – could this be doing more harm than good?

If we give pupils too many cues, then they are highly likely to give a correct answer. This becomes dangerous if they begin to rely on cues that are not helpful to understanding. For example, when saying to pupils, ‘Which term am I looking for: C, N?’ many might be able to say ‘carbon neutral’ – but this is recalled in a fashion that does not link to the main ideas where they will *need* to remember ‘carbon neutral’. What we want from our questioning is for pupils to think of ‘carbon neutral’ when exposed to cues such as: ‘biofuels’, ‘advantages’, ‘benefit of biofuels over fossil fuels’, ‘no net addition of carbon to the atmosphere’ etc. These are the meaningful cues we want pupils to link to the phrase ‘carbon neutral’ rather than ‘C, N’ etc.

So, the more of our questions that are linked to these, rather than artificial cues, the more we will help them to successfully retrieve this information in meaningful way. For example, a questioning sequence may proceed as:

  1. What term do we use to describe a fuel that does not add any carbon dioxide to the environment overall? *Blank faces*
  2. Hint: biofuels are an example of a fuel that does not add carbon dioxide to the environment overall. What term do we use to describe this? *Blank faces*
  3. Hint: This is a big benefit of biofuels over fossil fuels, because fossil fuels contribute lots of carbon dioxide to the environment and so we cannot describe fossil fuels as being… what?

These clues are far more helpful to pupils, even if they do not end up getting the correct answer initially, because they have to think about related, meaningful ideas. ‘C, N’ or ‘we learned about this yesterday’ or ‘remember that video I showed you’ – does not make them think about the meaning of the phrase.

It is tempting, when you really want your pupils to give the correct answer, to keep adding in clues – but this must be done in a way which makes them think about the content itself rather than artificial clues. Otherwise they are retrieving without context and are performing, not demonstrating understanding; they are giving the illusion of understanding. It is preventing them from making valuable connections with various pieces of information.

This idea is also central to making links between different topics in your subject – the more explicitly we focus on making links, the more we proliferate the number of retrieval cues that lead to a particular fact, and so the more likely our pupils will be at remembering a particular fact in response to a particular question successfully. The more organised the information is, the more likely the correct idea will be recalled. I love teaching lessons that make links explicit. For example, when teaching the respiratory system, I spend a whole lesson (or more) linking it to digestion, diffusion and circulation:

Concept map respiratory systemSee my blog post on dual-coding for more examples.

So, pedagogy take-away:

  1. Help pupils make connections between different facts by using content-related cues, rather than cues that lack meaning in your questions.
  2. Explicitly teach the links between various facts and ideas, since we want the web of related knowledge to grow to further embed memories and increase the chance of successful retrieval in response to cues that they may meet in an exam. Ask questions about the links.

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