Curriculum grain size, retrieval and the fragile and mysterious effects on memory
Curriculum grain size, retrieval and the fragile and mysterious effects on memory

Curriculum grain size, retrieval and the fragile and mysterious effects on memory

Teaching Holes to Year 7 pupils we quiz every lesson. We pre-test chapter target vocabulary via matched diagnostic and target cues (word-definitions). We then post-test (spacing within the lesson). As we progress through the text, we continue with matched quizzes for new vocabulary. As we acquire more vocabulary, we move away from matched routines to cumulative free recall covert quizzing (faster-greater breadth). We sometime pre-test important chapter plotline questions. For the most part we free recall post-test, comprehension style, with hints, to encourage attentive reading. Quizzing is typically focused by Chapter.

If teaching by chapter or by topic, should teachers quiz after each? Or the end of the x chapters or even the book, or z topics? Should it matter? Of course, there is the possibility that sections recall may disrupt the learner from connecting ideas across different sections.What is the optimal “grain size” at which pupils should engage in retrieval practice?

Wissman and Rawson (2015) evaluated the impact of recall practice “grain size” on recall during practice and subsequent memory for lengthy text material. The grain size hypothesis suggested that smaller grain size would increase recall success and improve subsequent memory. However, results from seven experiments with 587 participants showed that although smaller grain size produced better recall during practice, the advantage was not maintained across a delay. The reasons for this “fragile effect” could not be explained and remain elusive.

One possibility is that students may have a false sense of confidence about the information they learned when using a smaller grain size for recall practice, as it leads to more fluent and better recall during practice. This is in line with research that shows students have higher confidence when information is easily accessible and more information is recalled, consistent with research from the metacognitive literature.

Curriculum design must be thoughtfully considered. Weight or “grain size”, segmentation and sequencing (and spacing or successive relearning) is clearly a part of the learning process. In English, Acts, or Chapters are the obvious, if uneven, segments, nominally helping to organise the knowledge too. What about other subjects? How would the weight of content be segmented and sequenced?

Wissman, K. T., & Rawson, K. A. (2015). Grain size of recall practice for lengthy text material: fragile and mysterious effects on memory. Journal of experimental psychology. Learning, memory, and cognition41(2), 439–455.

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