The 15 minute forum tonight was led by Andy Tharby, inspired by the above book. One of the principles behind this, is that we should be designing a curriculum and teaching sequence around what we know about memory – so that what they are taught, sticks. This links to an interesting point about what’s happening in lessons – learning or performance?
So, often what we describe as learning in a lesson is performance – so whilst they can do X, Y and Z in a lesson can they remember it? Will they remember it 1, 2 or 3 weeks down the line? If they won’t, then we can’t really refer to it as learning. This calls into a question a number of fairly standard teaching strategies, such as the one below:
The scene above is fairly common – and would be referred to as ‘good AfL’. The teacher has asked a question, the students write an answer (that they heard 3 minutes ago), the teacher pats him/herself on the back, congratulations the class on ‘learning it’ and they move on. The question is – would they be able to recall the answer in a week or two or three? Probably not. So have they learnt it? Almost certainly not. So is it safe to move on from that topic and not return to it for a year or so? Definitely not! So how students perform in a lesson does not mean learning – learning is far more complex.
So, consider the two teachers above. Who’s the most effective teacher? As our thinking has moved on, it would be good to think that most people would agree that it’s teacher 2. The teacher who focuses on embedding knowledge – the teacher who knows when and how to move students from surface learning (knowing facts) to deep learning (using this knowledge for analysis and synthesis).
“Factual knowledge precedes skill.”
Daniel Willingham, Why Don’t Students Like School?
“We rely on memory, rather than thinking.”
Hattie and Yates, Visible Learning and the science of how we learn
Spaced retrieval practice – the Ebbinghaus curve
The graph above – The ‘Forgetting Curve’ stems from the work of a 19th Century German psychologist called Herman Ebbinghaus. He did experiments – on himself – on human memory. He taught himself made up, nonsensical words and then tested himself over time to see how long he could remember them for. As can be seen, and not surprisingly, over time the retention of the words went down – until the words were reviewed. Then the retention increased. What’s interesting is that with regular review, the ‘forgetting time’ gets longer – so going back over the words made it easier to remember them. The implications of this? If we want students to be able to remember things, we need to keep returning to them and reviewing them. What we tend to do though is learn a topic, then move on to another, then another etc etc. Thus making being able to recall the knowledge difficult. So what could we do to address this?
Make it Stick: Spaced retrieval practice
- Study information more than once.
- Regular low-stakes quizzing (retrieval practice), leaving greater gaps as you go. The scores for these tests are not important. What’s important is the act or retrieval – that’s what seems to have an impact on retention.
- “Anything you want to remember must be periodically recalled from memory.”
- Continue to return to important content.
- Avoid a ‘practice, practice, practice’ regime
- Retrieval is best when it’s effortful, when some forgetting has set in.
- Be wary of intuition – it may seem that we are getting better yet we fail to see how quickly these gains fade. (Illusions of fluency)
A previous post from a great science teacher Pam McCulloch reinforces this. Pam got consistently fantastic results over a number of years. When questioned about how, she mentioned two things that resonate with the idea of spaced retrieval practice. Every lesson would start with a quick quiz on what they did last lesson, last week and last month. Similarly, homeworks weren’t just based on what they did that lesson, but again on what they did last week, last month or last term. She didn’t refer to it as spaced retrieval though – she called it ‘going back over stuff’!
This has implications for curriculum design too:
The image above (courtesy of David Didau) describes this. The curriculum is usually delivered in blocks – so one topic follows another, then another etc. So there is very little opportunity for returning to content and reviewing it – so making retention difficult as there are few opportunities for students to have to retrieve the information. having shown that they can do it once, they move on to a new topic. Often not returning to that topic for a year or so – not an ideal situation for retention. This could be addressed by interleaving the topics and returning to them at spaced intervals throughout the year. This requires a shift in thinking and will feel odd for a number of subjects e.g. in English, doing a bit of one text, then going onto another, then another, then returning to another etc.
A study on interleaving at an Art school showed it’s positive effects. It showed that people that were better at identifying a painter’s works if the works studied were interleaved rather than massed.
“Interleaving allowed better discrimination…”
So, some thoughts on interleaving….
- “Research shows unequivocally that mastery and long-term retention are much better if you interleave practice than if you mass it.”
- Scatter common problem types throughout your teaching.
- Mix up the topics.
- However, learners and teachers do not feel like it is working. Even after taking part in studies, many say that they prefer massed practice.
Some classroom implications
- WARNING. Handle research findings with a degree of caution!
- Working out what is important (threshold concepts) and working back from there.
- Memory platforms – first few minutes of every lesson focussed on looking back (to last lesson, even further and then even further…)
- Interleaved revision for Y11s – abcdabcdabcd
- Assessing the same key skills/knowledge again and again but in slightly different contexts.
- Next year: interleaving grammar lessons
- Next year: half-termly quizzes