Teacher Inquiry Groups: Memory

Today was an INSET day at Durrington and as a part of this, we had the second of our ‘Teacher Inquiry Group’ (TIG)  meetings.  In September 2018 we began the implementation of ‘Inquiry Questions’ at Durrington. The idea was for teachers to identify an aspect of their classroom practice that they wanted to develop, through the appraisal process, frame this into an inquiry question and then engage in purposeful practice throughout the year to address this question.

These inquiry questions are framed around our teacher threshold concepts:

  • Metacognition
  • Memory
  • Formative Asssessment
  • Vocabulary
  • Cognitive Load Theory

Here are some examples of some inquiry questions:

What impact does interrogative questioning delivered during the course of the year have on deeper understanding of key concepts to improve attainment for my KS4 classes?

What impact does deliberate teaching of and retrieval practice of Tier 2 and 3 vocabulary delivered over a year have on quality of exam responses (4-6 mark questions) for middle ability girls in my KS4 classes?

What impact does breaking down questions using meta-cognitive techniques delivered over 1 year have on GCSE results for my Year 11 M ability students?

Our objectives for this were:

  • for teachers to take ownership of their CPD through identifying an aspect of their practice to develop;
  • for teachers to engage with the research evidence around their chosen theme;
  • to improve the outcomes of our students through embedding a more evidence informed approach to teaching;

At the TIG meetings, teachers who have an inquiry question based on the same teacher threshold concept meet up and discuss how their work is going.  They also discuss some of the research evidence linked to this aspect of learning.  I was leading the group who are thinking about memory.

As a recap, we started with this really useful graphic that summarises a model of learning from Oliver Caviglioli.  This graphic does a brilliant job of capturing some of the key elements of learning – cognitive load theory; the transfer from working memory to long term memory and back again; schema building; the importance of retrievalTom Sherrington has done a superb job of exploring this model here – well worth a read.

We then went on to discuss the next challenge for evidence-informed practice – mobilisation.  We know what the research evidence from very controlled trials says about many aspects of teaching and learning, but how do these apply to busy classrooms and how can teachers mobilise these approaches with the highest impact?  To support this discussion we read Rob Coe’s recent EEF blog ‘Does research on retrieval practice translate into classroom practice?

In this blog, Rob raises three possible reasons why the mobilisation of the research evidence around retrieval practice might go wrong:

  1. Teachers might generate retrieval questions that focus solely on factual recall (these questions are easier to generate) rather than requiring any higher-order thinking.
  2. Questions might be too easy and boost confidence without providing real challenge, which is likely to be a key ingredient for generating the kind of learning hoped for.
  3. Teachers might allocate too much time to the quizzes, effectively losing the time they need to cover new material.

What was really impressive was that many of the teachers in my group, who have been really focusing on retrieval practice within their own teaching, had been coming to similar conclusions and were adjusting their practice accordingly.

  • Chris Davis (geography) – Chris had been using factual recall for his retrieval quizzes e.g. ‘name….‘  Students were doing very well on these quizzes, but Chris has realised that because they were too easy, it wasn’t really supporting memory.  So students were feeling really good about themselves, but the quizzing wasn’t supporting learning in the way that it should, as it required very little thinking.  To change this, Chris now uses more challenging questions for his retrieval quizzes e.g. ‘Compare….’, ‘Explain why….‘  This aligns really well with the first two points that Rob makes.
  • Claire Taylor (computing) – Claire talked about how she has been using the online platform ‘Quizizz‘ for retrieval quizzing.   Claire preferred this to other similar platforms, because it randomised the questions for all students within a topic (so minimising the opportunity for discussing the answers and using someone else’s long term memory instead of your own!)  It also doesn’t use any annoying background music – so reducing cognitive load!
  • Annie Hewett & Kathy Hughes (maths) – Annie & Kathy were addressing a similar problem.  Often when coming up with questions for their retrieval quizzes at the start of lessons, they would either pick topics that they did recently or topics they enjoyed teaching.  This wasn’t really supporting the idea of spaced practice.  To address this, they now use ‘MathsBox‘.  This generates a completely random selection of questions from a variety of topics, that Annie and Kathy use for retrieval at the start of their lessons.  As the questions are random, they can be on anything, so this is really useful for supporting spaced practice.  They then use how the students perform in these questions formatively, to plan future lessons.
  • Tom Pickford (PE) – Tom and the rest of the PE team have been using a variety of strategies at the start of lessons to encourage retrieval e.g. quizzing, blank knowledge organisers, exam questions.  After reviewing this, Tom realised that whilst this may be serving a purpose in terms of retrieval practice, it wasn’t really being used formatively i.e. teachers just continued teaching whatever they had planned to teach.  In response to this, PE teachers have paused teaching any new content and are now using the time to reteach the topics where students had gaps in their knowledge.
  • Sam Atkins (Geography) – Sam has been using Cornell note taking with his Y9 class to support retrieval.   Whilst Sam remains committed to the idea of this approach, he has found that the process can eat into too much time in the lesson for some students, reducing the time available for delivering the content.  For example, students wanting to write too many questions in the margins or too many key words and then spending too much time writing the summary at the end – which is often not always that useful, in terms of retrieval.  As a result, Sam has slimmed this right down.  He doesn’t do the summary box every lesson now, but instead does it every few lessons.  Most importantly though, he now prioritises the questions – making sure that there are fewer questions, but they are based on the key learning points and with more challenging command words e.g. ‘compare…’, ‘explain…’ and ‘evaluate….’ rather than recall questions such as ‘name…’, ‘state…’

This was a great session.  It was fantastic to hear teachers thinking really deeply about the research and their own teaching – and how they can make small but significant adjustments to their teaching, to make it even more effective.

It convinced me even more  that this model of CPD – evidence-informed, targeted, collaborative and sustained – is definitely the right way to go.

Shaun Allison is Head of School Improvement at Durrington Multi-Academy Trust. He is also Director of Research School for Durrington Research School and will be delivering training on ‘Evidence informed approach to curriculum, teaching and assessment’, ‘Making Every Lesson Count’ and ‘An evidence informed approach to improving science teaching’.





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