Supporting memory for terminal exams

At the end of last term we reviewed our CPD provision at Durrington by asking staff to complete a questionnaire.  When it came to 15 minute forums, the majority of staff said that due to other commitments they struggled to attend as many of these as they would like; however, the vast majority of staff enjoyed reading about them on here, in the comfort of their own armchair.  With this in mind, we are going to approach them slightly differently this year.  When we spot or hear about effective practice, instead of asking that teacher to lead a 15 minute forum on the topic, one of the T&L team will talk to that teacher about what they do and then write it up as a blog on here – the 15 minute forum has evolved into a teaching forum!

The first teaching forum was with our Director of science, Steph Temple.  In recent years, science GCSEs  comprised modular exams and coursework.  Whilst this required students to remember information, this significantly increased with the move to terminal exams.  As science is a content heavy subject, students have a huge amount of knowledge to memorise and recall.  This has required some adjustments to how science teachers teach – which Steph has implemented brilliantly with her team.  They have thought very carefully about how they can  implement the evidence from cognitive science, such as  spaced practice and retrieval practice strategies, to support memory.

Retrieval Practice – a while after initially learning about something, being required to bring it to mind again.  In order for this to be effective, you need to forget about it a little.

Spaced Practice – where learning a topic is broken up into a number of shorter sessions, over a longer period of time.

Here are some of the changes they have made:

  • Y11 mock exams did not just cover Y11 work, with a few ‘token’ questions on Y10.  Students also sat separate, full length exams on Y10 work.
  • Knowledge ticklists for Y10 units were stuck into their Y11 exercise books, alongside ticklists for Y11 units.  This enabled students to see the links between Y11 and Y10 work and kept them referring back to Y10 work.
  • All Y11 homework assignments now contain a significant section of Y10 exam questions that aren’t related to the work they are doing in Y11.
  • The Y11 scheme of work contains links to Y10 topics prompting teachers to recap Y10 content during Y11. For example, when teaching cell division in Y11, teachers use this as an opportunity to revisit cell structure from Y10.
  • At the start of Y11 lessons, students do low stakes quizzes on content they covered last week, last month and last year,
  • Subject Planning & Development Sessions (SPDS) are used as an opportunity for teachers to discuss and share effective practice around these approaches.
  • Y11 students were given specific packs of Y10 and Y11 questions to work through and focus on throughout the year.  The department carefully planned and adhered to a half-termly lesson schedule that ensured that there was sufficient time to make best use of these revision materials.
  • Students have been encouraged to represent the information they are learning in different visual formats (dual coding). For example, in diagrams and mind maps to complement verbal explanations.  They have also used mnemonics to help remember large chunks of information.
  • Teachers explain to the students why they are using strategies such as dual coding and retrieval practice and the benefits they have to learning.

Has this worked?

Early signs suggest that this is having a positive impact on helping students to remember the vast amounts of knowledge required in the science curriculum.  Core GCSE science results (Y10 work) sat by Y11 students improved significantly this summer – they were 25% above national average (despite the cohort being at national average on entry).

Next steps?

  • Making sure these strategies are embedded and consistently implemented across the science team.
  • Sharing these approaches with parents so that they can support at home.
  • Continuing to develop new question banks and resources for the new course during SPDS.
  • Using google forms to audit staff subject knowledge before SPDS and then using this to plan the subject knowledge development focus for staff.

Advice for teachers/ leaders wanting to do something similar?

  • It has to be led and driven by the Curriculum Leader throughout the year. It is not a quick fix.
  • Lessons need to be planned out every half term to ensure enough time for purposeful revision.
  • Department meetings need to be carefully planned to embed and develop these approaches.


If this is an area that interests you and you would like to find out more, the Durrington Research School is leading a training programme – Improving memory for success in GCSE terminal exams.  Further details and booking information are available here.


Further reading

What will improve a student’s memory – Daniel Willingham

Putting students on the path to learning – Richard Clark, Paul Kirschner & John Sweller

The critical role of retrieval practice in long term retention – Henry Roediger and Andrew Butler

Strengthening the student tool box – John Dunlosky

On the potential limitations of spacing and retrieval practice in the classroom – Carolina Kuepper-Tetzel

Posted by Shaun Allison


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