Four Tools to Supercharge Writing Growth in your Classroom

Every day it seems like there are more and more strategies that teachers are expected to implement in their classroom. Each of these strategies has its own merit and effectiveness in different environments and situations, of course, but how can anyone be expected to keep up? 

The key is to return to the basics. Make it simple. When you really get down to it, learning something new requires just two things: practice and feedback. 

If you’ve read other posts in our blog, you know that we’ve spent a lot of time digging into what it means to give meaningful and effective feedback (check out our ultimate guide to feedback here). But what we have spent less time covering is how to give students more meaningful and effective practice. 

Recently, however, I stumbled upon an event called the "Powerful Teaching Workshop" hosted at Carl Sandburg High School in Orland Park, IL. The workshop provided actionable insights on simple, powerful tools that teachers could use to be more intentional about how their students are practicing and learning throughout the year. Not only that, but these tactics were researched-based and proven to boost learning in the long-term. 

The workshop was facilitated by cognitive psychology leader Pooja Agarwal and K-12 rockstar and Illinois Teacher of the Year Finalist, Patrice Bain. During the workshop, the duo shared the research highlighted in their new book, Powerful Teaching, and equipped an auditorium full of teachers with tools to help them maximize student learning and engagement this school year. 

Dr. Pooja Agarwal and Doug, Graide Network School Partnerships Manager, at the Powerful Teaching Workshop.

Dr. Pooja Agarwal and Doug, Graide Network School Partnerships Manager, at the Powerful Teaching Workshop.

As you learn more about these strategies, you may realize that most teachers are already using them in their classrooms. However, giving these tools a name allows educators to be more intentional about their practical applications and their contribution to big picture outcomes.

The four tools that took the spotlight were: 

  1. Retrieval practice

  2. Interleaving

  3. Spacing

  4. Feedback-driven metacognition 

While these tools can be applied in a variety of ways and in any type of learning environment, I had the chance to speak with Dr. Agarwal about how these techniques could be applied specifically in writing-intensive courses. I hope you find these techniques helpful; this guide is simply a primer to help you take advantage of cognitive psychology in your writing classroom.

Note: To find more information on these strategies beyond the scope of this article, I highly recommend that you check out the official guides for each strategy and sign up for weekly email updates from powerfulteaching.org.

Let’s get started. 

Retrieval

In Dr. Agarwal’s guide How To Use Retrieval Practice To Improve Learning, she defines retrieval as “a strategy in which calling information to mind subsequently enhances and boosts learning.” According to this definition, it sounds like all practice could be defined as “retrieval.” So, why is retrieval so special? 

What I learned from the workshop is that it is how you are implementing retrieval in your classroom, as well as how you think about retrieval, that will help you get the results you are looking for. As educators we need to shift our thinking from retrieval as a form of assessment to retrieval as a long-term learning strategy. 

One way you can get your students retrieving information in writing-specific courses is to have students interact with examples of different levels of writing. You can get creative with these example texts in order to help your students reach the learning goals that you are targeting. For example, if you are focused on thesis statements, you could show students examples of effective arguments and unclear arguments.

At the start of the activity, have your students read the different rubric criteria along the spectrum of effective to ineffective thesis statements. Next, present them with a worksheet or slide show containing your example thesis statements (make sure the rubrics are put away). Finally, have the students score the example statements and provide rationale for their scoring based on what they remember from the rubric. After the activity, provide the students with the correct scores for each example and use the difference between the students’ scores and the key to spark discussion on what makes an effective thesis. 

Example of a worksheet you could use for this retrieval practice activity.

Example of a worksheet you could use for this retrieval practice activity.

Another tip that Dr. Agarwal and Ms. Bain shared in their workshop was the “retrieval guide,” which is a twist on the popular practice of providing guided notes for students (example at the end of this article). However, what makes retrieval guides unique is that they are filled out after information has been presented. For example, if you did the exemplar activity above, you could have students take out a piece of paper at the end and write down the difference between a thesis that exceeds expectations and a thesis statement that does not meet expectations (again, make sure the rubrics are put away during this activity). This recall will help further reinforce student learning, boost student confidence, and also serve as a check for understanding. 

As educators, we need to shift our thinking from retrieval as a form of assessment to retrieval as a long-term learning strategy. 

Pro tip: Make sure the majority of your retrieval practice is low stakes. Not all practice has to be for a grade! Just make sure the students understand why they are learning the particular skill and when they will be more formally assessed on their mastery. 

Interleaving

Interleaved practice is simply a way of ordering and sequencing practice so that students need to call upon different skills rather than using one skill consistently. 

The easiest way to explain interleaving is with an example. Let’s say that you are teaching your students when to use a semicolon vs. a colon. You may have a worksheet that has several practice sentences in which the student must determine the most appropriate punctuation to add—a semicolon or a colon. This worksheet is what we call “blocked” practice. Because the student is using the same skill for each sentence, this forces the student to only call upon—or retreive—one skill.

While blocked practice can be helpful when first learning a new skill, it is important to mix in other, similar skills in order to make students think about each individual problem they encounter. For example, in order to add interleaving to this worksheet, you could add another section at the end where the student must choose between a colon, semicolon, comma, period, or hyphen. 

How much practice should you interleave? Dr. Agarwal’s research suggests that more is better. Start with blocked practice when students are first learning a new skill and then gradually transition to interleaving practice as soon as students are ready. 

Note: Using interleaving frequently is a great way to prepare students for question presentation and ordering on high-stakes exams. 

Spacing

The next strategy is spacing. Dr. Agarwal defines spacing as “practice that involves taking a given amount of time devoted to learning, and arranging that time into multiple sessions that are spread over time.”

While spacing sounds obvious—as we tell students to space their studying rather than cramming for an exam—this doesn’t always play out in our lesson plans and curriculum maps. Make sure that you preschedule time for students to revisit and practice skills as they learn new material. For optimal long-term learning, skills that are developed during the course of the year should be regularly practiced. 

For example, if a key component of your summative exam involves a text dependent analysis, the students should be completing text dependent analysis year-round. 

Skills that are developed during the course of the year should be regularly practiced. 

As a former teacher, I understand how difficult it can be to cover every standard in a given year. Therefore, if we’re already strapped for time, should we prioritize review over new material? Dr. Agarwal’s research explored this concern and found that students who regularly reviewed material throughout the year, even at the expense of not covering some concepts, performed better on summative exams. This is because students have more deeply learned the material they were exposed to rather than quickly forgetting information after unit exams. 

Pro tip: If you’d like to implement spacing in your classroom but are limited by how much time you can spend giving feedback on review material, you can use The Graide Network to collect performance data on spaced practice while providing students with actionable feedback they can use for their next assignment. 

Feedback-driven metacognition

My personal favorite of the four tools is feedback-driven metacognition. For those who are new to this concept, metacognition occurs when students think about their thinking. When students are actively engaged in their own learning journey and process, they can identify their strengths and weaknesses, set goals, and take ownership of their progress. Further, this ownership leads directly to a boost in long-term retention and learning. 

A key part of metacognition, however, is feedback. Feedback provides critical information on what students did well and where they need to improve which, in turn, facilitates these reflective moments. What could this look like in the classroom?

Try this activity at the start of the revision process after students have completed a writing assignment: Have students use the assignment rubric to score their own writing when they are finished. Next, provide them with their feedback and the rubric score they earned from you (or a Graider). Have the students compare the two scores, reflect on the differences (how similar were the scores?), read their feedback, and then write down their goals for their next assignment. Bonus points for having students use SMART goals and using 1:1 or small group conferencing to hold students accountable to these plans. 

If you're curious to learn more about what highly effective feedback looks like, as well as the impact of feedback on student learning, check out our feedback whitepaper

Of course, providing students with detailed, personalized feedback can be a daunting task—especially if you have 100, 150, or even 200 students throughout the day. If you’d like to learn more about how you can consistently and sustainably provide your students with timely, detailed, and personalized feedback, chat with one of our feedback specialists. We’d love to help you reach your goals this school year!

Retrieval guide: 

Before we conclude, take a minute to write down the four tools you learned about in this article on a scratch sheet of paper near you—try to avoid scrolling back through the article. This is retrieval in action! (you can download retrieval guide templates and view additional examples here)

1) ____________________________ 3) ____________________________

2) ____________________________  4) ____________________________

Summary

These four tools can be applied with effectiveness and fidelity in any learning context—you just have to be a bit creative. Learning how to write is just like learning any other skill. In order to grow, a student needs plenty of opportunities to practice as well as personalized and specific feedback on their performance as it relates to learning objectives.

The research that Dr. Agarwal and Ms. Bain have so thoughtfully conducted provides educators with a framework on exactly how this practice should be implemented in the classroom. Next time you are planning a student practice session, remember that you now have these four strategies in your tool belt that will increase long-term learning outcomes, foster additional engagement, and help students take ownership of their own learning.