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Getting Knowledge Out: A Conversation on “Powerful Teaching” with Pooja Agarwal

11 Feb 2020 3:00 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)
By Hallie Jordan, M.A. (Ph.D. Student), The University of Southern Mississippi

At the Society of Teaching Psychology’s (STP’s) 2019 Annual Conference on Teaching (ACT), I had the opportunity to talk with Pooja K. Agarwal, Ph.D. about her book Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning, co-authored with Patrice Bain, Ed.S., a middle school social studies teacher. We discussed the origins of Pooja & Patrice’s research together, explored the ways Pooja currently uses the book’s featured power tools in her college classrooms, and ended with a conversation about how I can implement these power tools as a graduate student instructor of an introductory statistics course. 

Power Tools: Retrieval, Spacing, Interleaving, and Metacognition

Powerful Teaching highlights four power tools: retrieval, spacing, interleaving, and metacognition. Pooja and I focused our conversation on the first two – retrieval and spacing. Retrieval is simply the practice of recalling previously learned information – what we think of when we think of traditional testing. Pooja describes this process as getting information “out” of one’s head, which counters ideas that learning is all about getting information “in.” Spacing includes retrieval; however, this is the process of recalling older information. This delayed recall, which by nature is more challenging, actually can help strengthen learning because of the challenge associated with recalling information from weeks or months ago.

Powerful Teaching’s Origins

As Pooja became more involved in research and teaching as a graduate student while at Washington University in St. Louis (under the mentorship of memory scholar Henry L. Roediger, III), it became apparent that teachers already use many of the strategies demonstrated to be effective for learning (e.g., retrieval). During the 2006-2007 school year, Pooja observed Patrice’s class full-time and saw just that: Patrice was already implementing retrieval practice using clicker quizzes. As their research collaboration began, they decided to begin manipulating the clicker quizzes.

Pooja reflected on how they started by exploring effects of more vs. fewer clicker quizzes and noted “almost everything we did was a within-subjects design. For example, if Patrice was teaching a lesson on ancient Egypt, 10 of the 20 facts would be on the clicker quizzes, while 10 facts wouldn’t. Over time we played around with what if the quizzes are multiple choice or short answer, should they be online or at home, should they receive immediate or delayed feedback…it was uncharted territory!”

This research started in Patrice’s classroom, but quickly grew to include the entire middle school and ultimately the entire school district in Columbia, Illinois (in the St. Louis area). Overall, they conducted research on the science of learning with more than a thousand students for an entire decade!

Powerful Teaching in Pooja’s Classrooms

The years of research Pooja conducted at Washington University in St. Louis occurred in middle school classrooms. As an instructor of college students, I was curious how these strategies transfer to classrooms in higher education. Pooja has incorporated retrieval practice in her college classrooms from the start (she teaches four psychology courses at the Berklee College of Music in Boston each semester), and this was initially through using clickers. As her teaching has evolved, she has shifted to using paper & pencil as well as GoogleForms, while acknowledging many instructors enjoy using mobile phone apps. For example, in a recent course, she incorporated spacing & retrieval practice using GoogleForms. The GoogleForm included a pre-test of neuroscience mythbusters before beginning a new unit (e.g., We only use 10% of our brain – true/false), but at the top of the form, Pooja asked her students to share one thing they learned about mental health from the last week’s lesson. So, even though they were completing a pre-test, they still had to retrieve – and the retrieval was spaced out.

Since writing Powerful Teaching, Pooja has thought more about incorporating retrieval practice spontaneously during class rather than separately at the beginning or end of class. This highlights a significant benefit of powerful teaching strategies – they do not require significant pre-planning or grading, and they can be implemented spontaneously. If things seem to be dragging in class, the instructor can generate a retrieval question related to course content on the spot. For this purpose, Pooja likes to keep index cards on hand (she will pass them out for students to answer a spontaneous retrieval question), but notes instructors can alternatively have students write these responses on their own paper or have a “QR” code in the slides (with a little pre-planning) that students can scan to submit their response.

When reflecting on retrieval practice using index cards, Pooja stated, “I love when students write something on an index card or piece of paper, and come up after class and give it to me – they’re expecting me to grade it. But it’s for them!” This captures the essence of retrieval practice: it is recalling information for learning’s sake, rather than for evaluative purposes.

Powerful Teaching in My Classroom as a Graduate Student Instructor

Pooja’s passion for helping instructors implement evidence-based practices in the classroom was no more evident than when she shifted the conversation to asking me about my classroom! We discussed strategies I could implement while teaching an “Introduction to Statistics for the Behavioral Sciences” course of 50 students. Again, none of the strategies we discussed required extensive prep time or even significant re-organizing of my class. Instead, it was just re-working a couple ways I approached teaching.

Two Things: Prior to my conversation with Pooja, I was spending 2-3 minutes at the start of each class reviewing the main objectives from the previous class via simply reminding students what we learned. Pooja suggested I instead use spaced retrieval to accomplish this review. So, I started asking students at the start of each class to write down two things they learned last time. After they wrote their two things, they shared their two things with their neighbor, and added one of their neighbor’s two things to their list. This became a daily practice in our classroom and provided students another opportunity to practice getting information out.

Weekly Quizzes: This is a strategy incorporating retrieval and spacing that I tried once and will absolutely implement again! Simply administer a low-stakes (key: low-stakes!) quiz at the start of class on previously learned information. This requires students to get information out at least several days after they initially put the information in. Research tells us this works. I elected to share the answers with the class at the conclusion of the quiz, where students could grade their own work (as it did not count for a course grade) and keep the quiz as a study tool. Although my students seemed initially nervous when I announced this small quiz, they were relieved at the low-stakes nature and noted this provided them an opportunity to practice their learning before a higher-stakes unit exam.

Retrieval During Lessons: Pooja also recommended building retrieval in during the lessons – not just during exams. Throughout my PowerPoints, I added slides with a question relevant to that day’s lecture for students to answer independently. Vast research shows that, again, it is this retrieval of knowledge that is essential for learning to occur and last. When those slides came up, we would pause for students to think about and jot down their answer (in their notes), and then I would ask a student to share their response. I would provide feedback to the provided response and answer any clarifying questions that came up. In future semesters, I plan to incorporate more spacing in this exercise (so, asking a question about content from a previous class period). Additionally, I have considered ways to make this exercise more interactive through having students submit answers through a GoogleForm so we can see in real-time how the class was doing in their understanding.


Pooja & Patrice’s work captures the reciprocal ways in which classroom experience can inform research, and then how research informs classroom experience. Pooja captured the essence of retrieval and spacing when she shared a beautiful metaphor she tells her students (who are all music students at Berklee College of Music): “As music students you have to practice your instrument, so in this class we’re going to be practicing your knowledge. The same reason you can’t cram the night before a gig, we use to approach other learning. You have to space it out, you have to practice in advance, you need feedback to know how well you’re doing; you can’t just watch someone play the piano and then just do it. You have to practice your instrument, just like we have to practice our knowledge.”

Although we may find ourselves searching for fancy teaching strategies, at our core we know what works. When we let science guide our teaching, we can use these powerful strategies to help our students engage in effective, life-long learning.



Check out Pooja & Patrice’s book Powerful Teaching to learn more about the research they conducted on four learning power tools (retrieval, spacing, interleaving, metacognition) as well as specific suggestions for implementing these strategies in a variety of classrooms.

Pooja actively disseminates recommendations for implementing retrieval practice through her Retrieval Practice website and on Twitter @RetrieveLearn. You can even subscribe for a weekly email of retrieval practice suggestions straight to your inbox!

Visit Pooja’s website for more information about her research, keynotes, and workshops.


Pooja K. Agarwal, Ph.D. is a cognitive scientist, conducting research on how students learn since 2005. She is the author of the book Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning and an Assistant Professor at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, teaching psychological science to exceptional undergraduate musicians. She is also the Founder of RetrievalPractice.org, a source of research-based teaching strategies for more than 15,000 teachers around the world. Pooja’s research has been published in leading journals; highlighted by The New York Times, NPR, Scientific American, and Education Week; and recognized by the National Science Foundation.

Hallie Jordan, M.A. is a fourth-year doctoral student in The University of Southern Mississippi’s counseling psychology program with experiences teaching introductory psychology, statistics, and counseling theories courses. She has been a member of the Graduate Student Teaching Association’s (GSTA) Blog Editorial Team since 2018. As a member of the Behavior and Addiction Research Lab, her research focuses on college student substance use. Clinically, Hallie is interested in behavioral health and providing clinical supervision.

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