Reflecting on Retrieval

Known knowns

This quote got me thinking about the ways I can build my students’ awareness of their unknown unknowns in each topic.  A couple of weeks ago I taught one of my classes about the value of retrieval practice, and as part of the lesson I asked them to spend ten minutes or so recalling everything they knew about a topic (their known knowns) before comparing what they had written with their notes in order to identify gaps in their knowledge (the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns).

The majority hated the activity and I was left wondering if they hated it because it was hard or if they hated it because it was an ineffective way to recall the topic when compared with the quizzes and tests they are used to. I’ll have to repeat it in order to figure it out.

One thing I think might improve this activity for next time is to build in some reflection. Peter C Brown, in the excellent book, Make It Stick, states that “reflection can involve several cognitive activities…. that lead to stronger learning” (Brown, P89). Asking students to compare what they have remembered with their notes to identify gaps in their knowledge is a natural opportunity for further reflection. Originally, my students didn’t identify any next steps after comparing what they had remembered with their notes, so with that in mind I have created a topic reflection template which I will use with my students at the end of every topic – before an end of topic test or assignment. The file can be downloaded here.  I will ask them to think about, and record in the Next Steps section, actions that will improve their mastery of the topic. These can then inform their independent learning for that week.

Reflecting on a topic

Topic Reflection Side 1

Reflecting on a topic

Topic Reflection Side 2


Brown, P.C., Roediger, H.L. and McDaniel, M.A. (2014) Make it Stick: The science of successful learning. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.