Explaining through Dual Coding

One of the greatest benefits of the worlds of cognitive science and teaching becoming more closely aligned, has been that a profession that relies so heavily on effective explanations has been given clear guidance on how to do it successfully.

Dual Coding Theory, as first described by Allan Paivio in 1971, is a key example of how classroom practitioners can exploit this cross-over to their advantage when attempting to explain.

Dual C

Oliver Caviglioli gives an excellent summary of the theory in this short clip.  He says: “Humans receive new information from the environment in either visual or verbal formats. There are others but these two are the most fundamental. Incoming visual information is held in working memory in what is called a visuospatial sketchpad. And incoming verbal information is held and processed in an auditory loop. Both are limited in storage capacity, and both are separate. These two channels are independent of each other but do form, at moments, links, or associations. When images are linked in this way to words, they enrich the encoding process — otherwise known as learning.”

To simplify this further, we are able to accept both visual and verbal inputs at the same, thereby increasing our learning bandwidth.  Furthermore, we can accept a greater capacity of visual input at one time compared with verbal input.

This then is how Dual Coding connects to explanation.  As teachers we are constantly attempting to explain ideas that are clear to us, to those that are unfamiliar with them.  This is a difficult process and as a result our explanations do not always work.  Improving explanation is multi-faceted, however, by combing visual and verbal input we can increase the chances of explanations hitting the mark.

To support this, here are five practical tips for how we might use Dual Coding to achieve more successful explanations:

1. Explain over images, but never text:

If you explain while either projecting text or expecting students to read, you will create cognitive overload and reduce the likelihood or your explanation being accurately remembered.  However if you have an image that represents the concept, and your explanation accompanies this, you can exploit the Dual Coding effect.  For example if you wanted to explain the context of Wilfred Owen’s war poetry you could do so while projecting an image of a gas attack on a First World War trench.

2. Plan it:

If you are coming up to teaching a concept that you know students struggle with, plan your explanation incorporating visual images that you intend to draw live while explaining.  This planning could be done individually, or even better, with your department.  This will ensure you avoid the risk of Dual Coding becoming a barrier rather than a help to your explanation, as you attempt to think of, effectively draw, and explain tricky concepts at the same time.  By planning them and practising them you will only need to concentrate on the explanation itself.

3. Cut content:

When planning an upcoming lesson that uses a resource that you made or used previously (an information sheet or a PowerPoint slide for example) go through a process of cutting the content it contains.  Focus on having a fewer long sentences and ensure key concepts are chunked under sub-headings.  If the resource contains largely text, replace as much of this as you can with images.

4. Case Study Diagrams:

This is a strategy taken directly from Durrington’s geography department.  When explaining a geography case study (although this could be used in any subject that uses case studies) the department co-create a diagram to represent the case study.  The diagram includes both words and pictures.  Furthermore, certain generic images are used to communicate common themes within the case studies, for example a gravestone for death toll.  A labelled example is shown below:

Case study

These are then used both in lessons and also for homework and revision.

5. Allow students to use both words and images when making notes:

If you want students to re-format or revise information, set them a task that requires them to use both images and words.  For example when asking students to produce a mind map you could ask them to make every one of the key heading an image, and then the key details from it the text.  Alternatively you could scaffold this by doing the first step yourself.  An example of this when teaching the causes of the boom in the US economy in the 1920s would look like this:


Posted by Chris Runeckles

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Helping parents to help our students

One of the most recent EEF guidance reports ‘Working with parents to support children’s learning‘ explores the ongoing issue of how schools can get better at engaging parents.  It’s a really useful document, that highlights some important points:

  1. The evidence base on parental engagement is limited.
  2. It’s tricky to get right – even more so in secondary than primary.
  3. The home learning environment is associated with children’s school performance at all ages.
  4. What parents do with their children matters more than their income or educational qualifications.
  5. Fostering better relationships with families is important for a wide range of school outcomes.

So whilst parental engagement can be tricky, it’s worth investing time in.  The ‘Millennium Cohort Study’ was a longitudinal study that looked at the development of babies born at the beginning of the 21st Century and has given us a useful insight into this.

The table above used the data from the MCS.  The percentage of children who had reached a ‘good level of development’ by the end of reception was looked at, alongide the poverty score of their families and the quality of parenting (Parenting Index Score) – further details of this study here.  The parenting index score looked at the degree to which children were exposed to:

  • Being read to by parents
  • Songs and nursery rhymes
  • Praise and answering questions

The results show some interesting patterns.  The percentage of children reaching a good level of development appears to decrease as their families get poorer.  However, it is not as simple as this.  More children reached a good level of development (58%) from poor families with a high parenting index score, than those from a rich family with a low and medium parenting index score (42% and 55%).  So, what parents do with their children can overcome any issues with poverty.

This has important implications for schools.  It’s worth us devoting our time and energy to supporting parents with doing the right things with their children.  These ‘right things’ include:

  • Supporting parents to have high academic expectations for their children;
  • Developing and maintaining communication with parents about school activities and schoolwork;
  • Promoting the development of reading habits.

Taking this a stage further, we also need to focus on the skills we want children to develop at different ages:

  • Early years – activities that develop oral language and self-regulation;
  • Early primary – activities that target reading (for example, letter sounds, word reading, and spellings) and numeracy
  • Later primary – activities that support reading comprehension through shared book reading;
  • Secondary – independent reading and strategies that support independent learning.

So, as children get older, parental engagement should focus less on active involvement  and more towards interest, encouragement and supporting them with effective learning/revision strategies.  One way that parents can do this really well, is by supporting their children with ‘self-testing‘.  We can make this easier for parents in the following ways:

  • Showing students how to make flashcards and then providing parents with guidance on how to use them.  More on this here.
  • Using Cornell note-taking in lessons and then explaining to parents how they can support their children with using these.  More on this here.
  • Giving students knowledge organisers and then explictly teaching them (and their parents) how to use them. More here.
  • Through retrieval practice quizzing at the start of lessons (low stakes questions on previously taught content) encourage children to build up a set of ‘cumulative quiz questions‘ that their parents can then ask them.
  • Provide students with completed ‘mind-maps’ but then give their parents guidance on ‘blind mind-mapping‘.  This is where students trace out a blank copy of the mind-map, that they then have to try and complete from memory.

The beauty of this approach is that it does not require parents to be subject experts.  They are not being expected to ‘teach’ the subject, they are just supporting their children with self-testing – a learning strategy with plenty of evidence behind it.  Evening workshops are a great way of sharing these strategies with parents, whilst also serving to foster a culture of school and home working together.  What the teachers are doing in school can be supported and developed by parents at home.   This is a ‘win-win’ situation – parents feel empowered and the learning that is happening in lessons is being embedded.

By Shaun Allison

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Metacognition and Cognitive Load Theory

This blog is not a shameless attempt to boost Class Teaching’s monthly visitor stats by combing two educational zeitgeists.


However, it is fair to say a lot of keyboards have been collectively tapped over the past few months creating blogs and tweets about these two heavyweights from the world of evidence-informed practice.

Indeed, the oft-quoted Dylan Wiliam described cognitive load theory as the “single most important thing for teachers to know,” while the Education Endowment Foundation rates metacognition alongside feedback as the intervention likely to have the greatest positive effect on learning.

The truth is though, that the two are closely connected, and so to apply the theories with fidelity (i.e. in the manner they were intended) both must be understood, as must the relationship between them.

CLT and MC

Put simply the relationship is thus: cognitive overload is the enemy of learning, while metacognition can be learning’s best friend.  Therefore, we can exploit the benefits of metacognition in order to manage cognitive load effectively.

More precisely, the language of cognitive load offers us a more exact understanding of some of the greatest challenges to learning, while the six stages of metacognition offer us a framework to help manage cognitive load and help our pupils cope with these challenges.

As with all written models of thinking and learning the above diagrams are both deeply flawed.  Thinking is far more messy than they suggest.  However, they do provide a basis for our understanding of the relationship between these two ideas.

Cognitive load theory, developed by John Sweller, offers a model to help understand the load our working memory can hold at any one time, and what specific factors either maximise or inhibit our working memory capacity.  As the diagram suggests intrinsic load (the inherent challenge of the task) must be managed, extraneous load (elements that may occupy working memory beyond the prescribed task) must be reduced and germane load (pre-existing memories that support the new knowledge) must be maximised.

Metacognition can be of particular help in both managing the intrinsic load and maximising the germane load.

The particular way it can support managing the intrinsic load is through the teaching of metacognitive strategies to support the completion of complex tasks.

For example our MFL department at Durrington had been finding that their students struggled with the photo task on their GCSE speaking exams.  The task is highly challenging, multi-faceted and required students to complete substantial planning.

In order to support students the department broke the planning element of the task into 5 separate steps, produced a knowledge organiser which scaffolded these steps and used the 7 step model (shown below) to explicitly teach how to complete them in sequence.


By doing so the department had managed the intrinsic load of the task.  It had not become inherently less challenging but by giving students a metacognitive approach to follow the department had equipped students to chunk the task.  This would mean they would deal with one section of planning at a time, thereby reducing the cognitive load they would be experiencing at any one time during its completion.

Metacognitive strategies such as this may come easily to subject experts but for novices they must be explicitly taught.  If not challenging tasks will always create cognitive overload and therefore be at high risk of being tackled unsuccessfully.

Furthermore, metacognition can support through the maximising of germane load.  Metacognition requires students to reflect on past experience in order to inform future or current learning.  By doing so they can tether the learning they are doing to similar past experiences and as a result support the learning taking place.  This is because students will have to devote less of their working memory capacity to thinking about how to complete the task (the procedure) and therefore have more available to apply the new content (or knowledge) they are dealing with.

A word of warning however.  Teaching metacognitive processes could potentially have the opposite effect on cognitive load.  For example if you wanted students to improve their metacognitive regulation through greater evaluation, and your way of doing so was to add further instructions to an already complex task that were intended to encourage self-reflection, you may be unwittingly adding to the intrinsic cognitive load of the task.  Therefore always consider when you move to the explicit teaching of metacognition, that it should be a separate phase of learning and not a bolt-on.

Certainly combining these two theories is a head-scratcher.  However, to implement the lessons of either one effectively we must consider the other alongside.

Posted by Chris Runeckles

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SPDS: Bright Spots

Yesterday afternoon we had the pleasure of walking around the school and popping in to some subject planning and development sessions (the nature of which you can read about here). As ever, there was some great work going on in curriculum teams both in terms of subject knowledge and subject pedagogic knowledge.

In history, curriculum leader James Frost was leading his team in a session based on self-efficacy. This was a central theme to our INSET day a couple of weeks ago and you can read about the research evidence and how it might be put into practice here. James had spent time before the SPDS reviewing the research evidence and then planned a session in which the team discussed and developed  strategies for self-efficacy that were history specific. This was an excellent example of a curriculum area taking a whole-school teaching and learning focus and making it work for their subject so that it has real impact in the classroom.

In art and textiles, the team led by Gail Christie were reviewing the amazing work produced by year 10 students. The aim was to collectively assess and critique this work so that criteria for all levels is shared and understood; this then supports the teachers in the specific feedback they can give to students to secure their best outcomes. Furthermore, the team were resisting the urge at this point in the academic year to focus entirely on year 11, and instead were purposefully looking at year 10 work so that there are clear plans in place for these students with plenty of time to ensure action.

Along the corridor in ICT, computing and business Chloe Wheal’s team were thinking about modelling and explanations, which are two of our six T&L principles. In particular, the team were having an in-depth discussion about how to make use of worked examples to break down the teaching of algorithms into manageable steps so that students’ working memories are not cognitively overloaded. During the discussion, Jack Griffiths provided a superb example of an explanation when he described the way in which a particular algorithm works as being like musical chairs. This use of knowledge that is already secure, or an existing schema, is a very effective way of making new and abstract concepts easier to understand. It was great to see the team sharing ideas that they could immediately take back to the classroom for the benefit of students.

Downstairs in maths, Kate Blight and her team were busy investigating the exam questions that year 11 students have struggled with the most in recent assessments and thereby maximising the time that is left before terminal exams. This was a clear example of how SPDS can be used to tackle the misconceptions and most challenging areas that students are likely to encounter in a subject through the collective expertise and experience of a team.

Finally, in science Jody Chan was modelling to the team how to go about teaching molar equations. Jody was using an approach that has proven very effective in SPDS: In the role of expert teacher for this topic, she was at the front of the classroom and explicitly demonstrating what she would do with a class in terms of talking aloud and writing on the board. At the same time, Jody was able to articulate the likely questions that students would ask at particular points and how these are best answered. This resulted in the team having secure subject and pedagogic knowledge ready to use with consistency across all science lessons.

Two features of yesterday’s SPDS that were particularly noticeable were:

  1. They were completely teaching and learning focused. Curriculum teams have worked hard at finding other, more efficient ways of doing the ‘housekeeping’ that is a staple of busy schools, for example through weekly e-bulletins. Consequently, this fortnightly hour is totally committed to developing and improving the learning in the classroom.
  2. The sessions were  planned carefully in advance. SPDS form an integral part of our monitoring and review process at Durrington, and it was evident that the hour was finely tuned to acting upon what had been seen in lessons and the next steps required to achieve each curriculum area’s goals.

With teachers able to spend time talking, thinking and planning lessons together we have no doubt that students will be in a position to thrive both at school and beyond.




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Thinking About Curriculum

Lots of people are thinking and talking about curriculum at the moment, which is a good thing.  Curriculum, teaching and assessment are inextricably linked.  When all three are aligned and of the highest quality, they should facilitate effective learning for all students, irrespective of their starting points.  In turn, this should translate into all students making good progress and achieving strong academic outcomes.  This matters, because it gives them the best possible life chances.

The curriculum outlines the key knowledge that students need to learn over their time with us in order to be successful; this will then drive what and how we teach.  A challenging curriculum will require students to think deeply about subject and lesson content.  In other words, the level of challenge in the curriculum sets the level of challenge in our classrooms.

At Durrington we have also been thinking a great deal about curriculum.  We want our curriculum to be challenging in its depth and breadth so that:

  • All students acquire transformational knowledge that takes them beyond their experience.
  • All students are encouraged to appreciate the value of each subject and content of lessons.
  • All students are well-prepared for terminal exams at the end of year 11.
  • All students build their academic background knowledge and cultural capital by acquiring tier two and tier three vocabulary.
  • At each key stage, all students acquire and retain the foundational knowledge required for the next key stage at the very least.

In order to achieve this, we have been developing a set of curriculum principles to drive our work with this:

  • The curriculum must provide a map that directs what knowledge should be taught and when it should be taught. However, this should also allow some flexibility for teachers to respond to the differing needs of their classes.
  • The curriculum must be taught in a coherent and step-by-step sequence that allows for the incremental development of knowledge within each subject/topic.
  • When possible, each new unit of learning should build upon the previous unit.
  • Broad and deep factual knowledge is usually the prerequisite for skills such as critical thinking, creative thinking, evaluation and analysis.
  • Learning and performance should not be confused. Curriculum design should support real learning which requires durable changes to long-term memory.
  • New tier two and tier three vocabulary should be incorporated into curriculum planning.

We are then implementing this in the following way:

  • Each subject/team should develop a long-term map that clearly lays out the curriculum across the relevant key stages, so that the knowledge students are expected to acquire each academic year is made explicit. This knowledge should build cumulatively in terms of its breadth and depth.
  • Subject/teaching teams should identify the concepts that are central to the mastery of each subject. They must then maintain an unrelenting focus on helping students to learn this knowledge.
  • Regular retrieval practice and spaced practice should be built into the curriculum to help students form durable long-term memories.
  • CPD, specifically SPDS (fortnightly subject, Planning & Development Sessions), must maintain an unrelenting focus on improving and evolving the curriculum, and ensure that all teachers are developing their subject pedagogical knowledge.
  • Each unit of work must be supported by a knowledge organiser that stipulates with precision the material-to-be-learnt. This must include relevant tier two and tier three vocabulary and should be used consistently across each department.
  • Where appropriate, strategies must be in place (e.g. check lists) that support students in self-regulating their learning of the curriculum.
  • Homework should be planned into the curriculum and consistently applied across teams.  It should provide students with the opportunity to practise, embed, extend upon or apply the knowledge that they have been taught in lessons, or provide the opportunity to improve a piece of work.
  • Key curriculum documents must be centralised and made available for students, parents and carers via the VLE.

We are not the only ones thinking about the curriculum.  There are a huge number of blogs out there, written by colleagues who are thinking very deeply about the importance of curriculum.  These can serve as a really useful stimulus for others who are thinking about their their curriculum.

Here are some examples:

Weaving together the threads of the curriculum Andy Tharby

Standing on the shoulders of giants; Why a knowledge based curriculum could be the futureFran Haynes

Teaching, curriculum & assessment Shaun Allison

From Tom sherrington:

What is a knowledge rich curriculum?

Curriculum notes #1: Start out real, concrete, authentic

Curriculum notes #2: Big picture first then zoom in

10 Steps for reviewing your KS3 curriculum

From Christine Counsell:

Senior Curriculum Leadership 1: The indirect manifestation of knowledge: (A) curriculum as narrative

Senior Curriculum Leadership 1: The indirect manifestation of knowledge: (B) final performance as deceiver and guide

From Mark Enser:

Curriculum: from hodge podge to coherence

From David Didau:

What is a broad and balanced curriculum?

From Clare Sealy:

What’s all the fuss about a knowledge rich curriculum – part 1

From Mary Myatt:

Intellectual Architecture

From Adam Boxer:

Modelling Curricular Thinking

From Ruth Walker:

My plan to reform our curriculum

From Claire Stoneman:

The truth and beauty of curriculum

From James Ramsey:

Curriculum Matters

From Michael Chiles:

7 Year Curriculum Design

From Mr Almond:

Achieving coherence in primary science (why primary science needs to be less like the Simpsons and more like Game of Thrones).

From Paul Moss:

Telling your Curriculum’s Story

From Andrew Percival:

Confessions of a Curriculum Leader:  setting out a primary curriculum in meticulous detail.

From Zoe Enser:

On The Right Track

Thanks to Dawn Cox for the following links.  She has also compiled a list of blogs related to curriculum here.


The Curriculum – Gallimaufry to coherence – Mary Myatt


Other resources


the Durrington Research School are running a 3 session twilight training programme entitled ‘Developing an evidence informed knowledge-rich curriculum’, starting on 29th April 2019.

Further details and booking are available here.

If I’ve missed any other useful blogs (which is highly likely!), please do add them in the comments below.

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In the late 1970s Albert Bandura of Stanford University published his research findings on self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is not so much about generalisation of a person’s confidence but the confidence level about being successful with a specific task you are tackling at that moment. Bandura suggests that self-efficacy is therefore not domain specific like esteem, but task specific and is about the confidence for succeeding on the very task you can see in front of you at that time.  Shaun Alison explores the idea of self-efficacy here.

The EEF ‘Metacognition and Self-Regulation’ guidance report offers seven recommendations to encourage metacognitive self-regulating learners. Recommendation four suggests that motivation is an integral part of self-regulation.  When learners are being challenged it is important that they feel emotionally supported and motivated to persevere. If the given task is difficult, then a pupil will need a strong sense of self-efficacy to complete the given task – which will involve the deployment of metacognitive strategies. One aspect of this is rewarding specific aspects of their effort, with regards to the task e.g. ‘I like the way you stuck with balancing that chemical equation, even though you got it wrong to start with’ rather than absolute levels of achievement; to give feedback about personal progress, and to avoid social comparison.

It can be difficult to promote high levels of self-efficacy in all students. Through encouraging students to use strategies to break down barriers to perceived ‘challenging activities’ it can aid motivation and improve their perception of the complexity of that task, which will in turn, improve self-efficacy. The EEF guidance report offers a useful insight into self-efficacy and its relationship with metacognition. It suggests that successful learners will ask themselves the following questions on the knowledge of task, self and strategy, either consciously or unconsciously when tackling a task:

These students typically exhibit an awareness of the degree of challenge in the task they are attempting and are able to draw on their metacognitive resources to overcome any obstacles with the task – through asking themselves these questions.   The level of challenge is fundamental in the process.  If it is too low or too high then the learner will not ‘accept’ the challenge or will suffer cognitive overload.  We can support this by explicitly teaching students to use these questions when tackling a task.

At Durrington High School we have come up with several phrases to use with students in order to support students with a more positive sense of self-efficacy:

1. Stay in the struggle. Do not give up straight away.
2. Use your teachers feedback on previous tasks to help you with this one. How might this be relevant to what you are doing?
3. Use your exercise book to check for models or completed examples you have already been successful with. These can help you get started.
4. Embrace uncertainty and give it your best: ‘it could be, it might be’ or ‘maybe I should try…’ are all useful phrases that will identify possible next steps.

There are three key areas  teachers can focus on, in order to promote high levels of self-efficacy with their students:

1. Improve their pedagogical subject knowledge – this will help teachers understand common misconceptions and how to ‘unstick’ students.
2. Make complicated tasks and ideas accessible through effective modelling, questioning and feedback and plan how to ‘unstick’ students when necessary – worked examples are crucial in allowing students to access the more complex elements of a task, because they free up the working memory.
3. Use scaffolds judiciously and with subtlety – these should cause thinking and be faded away over time to support students with completing tasks independently.

By James Crane

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The highs and lows of spaced practice

By Andy Tharby

Spaced practice (or ‘spacing’ or ‘distributed practice’) involves repeatedly coming back to the information that we are learning in various short sessions, spaced out over time, rather than ‘cramming’ it into a single intense period – known as ‘massed practice’. Unfortunately, massed practice is often our students’ study habit of choice and, just as unfortunately, many students hold the erroneous belief that it is superior to spaced practice.

Spaced practice means that we are given time to forget new information. We then have to work hard to remember this material which, in turn, helps to improve our future learning.

Along with retrieval practice, the effectiveness of spaced practice is supported by decades of strong research evidence from the US.

In his ultra-useful, ultra-accessible article on the effectiveness of popular study strategies, Professor John Dunlosky writes:

“Not using distributed practice for study is unfortunate, because the empirical evidence for the benefits of distributed (over massed) practice is overwhelming, and the strategy itself us relatively easy to understand and use. Even so, I suspect that many students will need to learn how to use it, especially for distributing practice across multiple sessions. The difficulty is simply that most students begin to prepare and study only when they are reminded that the next exam is tomorrow.”

In light of this, it is clear that spaced practice has important implications for how we plan the curriculum, plan lessons and help students to organise their revision for tests. The rest of the post is dedicated to examining two questions. First, how can teachers use spaced practice in their classrooms? Second, what are the potential pitfalls and mistakes to avoid when trying to implement spaced practice?

Putting spaced practice into practice

Careful curriculum design. To some extent, spaced practice is brought about naturally by the way that school timetables are organised. A student might have three history lessons a week: on a Monday morning, a Wednesday afternoon and a Thursday morning – a timetable which in itself creates a lot of useful spacing. However, an artfully designed subject curriculum can build on this effect very fruitfully. Important concepts should be spaced out across the curriculum and built upon over time. At secondary school, these can be introduced in Year 7 and then reinforced and extended upon as the students move through the years. The first question should be: what do we want our students to know and be able to do by the time they leave our school? The second question: how can we design and organise a curriculum that will cause this to happen? One of the answers lies in the subtle, purposeful and cumulative repetition of the underlying ideas, means of enquiry and processes that make our subjects tick. First of all, however, we need to work out what these are – no mean feat in itself!

Cumulative testing. A second answer lies in the implementation of well-organised and thoughtful assessment systems. Sadly, assessment is all too often the enemy of spaced practice. Our assessment systems should be completely tuned into the knowledge we want our students to retain for the future because, whether we like it or not, our students value what we assess. Assessment should emphasise portable, high-utility knowledge – i.e. the knowledge that students will take forward with them to inform their future learning. If we want students to remember something for the long term, it is simply not enough to assess this only once. It needs to be assessed on multiple occasions, which is why end-of-unit assessments should be designed not only around recently learned knowledge, but also concepts from previous units. This way, assessment not only gives us valuable information about student learning, but also provides an invaluable tool for spaced practice.

Retrospective homework. A simple strategy is to use homework as a way of giving students the chance to study previously learnt material. For instance, your weekly homework might involve quizzes or questions on previous units.

Pause lessons. Similarly, it is often a good idea to ‘pause’ the topic you are currently studying to go back to a topic covered before. This works best when it is carefully planned into a termly or yearly curriculum. Even though it might cause your students to grumble, sometimes it is a good idea to withhold assessment feedback for a week or two, rather than returning it immediately. This can activate the spaced practice effect, especially if your class are given a new task that allows them not only to hone and refine their knowledge, but allows them to re-practice this knowledge a few weeks on. Too often, students perform well in an end-of-term assessment, but do not get the opportunity to come back to this material in a meaningful way … and so it is forgotten.

Teach it. Lastly, it is crucial to remember that spaced practice does not sit comfortably with how students think that they learn. Spaced practice, therefore, is best taught in context. Merely telling students that they should space out their practice is unlikely to be effective. Instead they need to be shown what spaced practice looks like in mathematics, in English or in PE. In each subject, it is likely that a different emphasis is taken. Perhaps the most obvious first step is to explain explicitly why and how you are spacing out their practice in your lesson, curriculum and assessment structures. You should then provide structured opportunities for independent spaced practice, perhaps through homework or pre-prepared revision plans. Once spaced practice becomes a habit, then you are likely to be onto a winner.

Getting spaced practice wrong

Master it first. It is most useful to think of spaced practice as a revision tool. New topics often require a significant amount of ‘blocked teaching’ – in other words, a series of lessons on the same topic that build gradually so that students develop their knowledge slowly and meaningfully until they are eventually able to start making connections for themselves. It can be unwise to mix up topics during initial teaching as this can lead to confusion and superficial understanding.

Spacing is not interleaving. Interleaving is about studying more than one topic side-by-side in the same study session. Spacing, however, is about leaving increasingly longer gaps between study sessions. It is important to understand the difference between the two because there is, as yet, little evidence that ‘interleaving the curriculum’ – i.e. mixing up topics for initial teaching – provides an effective approach to curriculum design.

There are more important aspects to a successful curriculum. When applying any education research to the classroom, we must avoid putting the evidence cart before the curriculum horse. Spaced practice does not provide a solution to questions of curriculum content or effective pedagogy. A wonderfully spaced out curriculum is useless if it is also below par and taught ineffectively. However, once a strong curriculum and good teaching are successfully in place, spaced practice can help your students learn in a more effective and efficient manner.

And finally. Spacing is not just for exams. If learning is for life, then spaced practice is also a valuable life skill worth teaching in its own right.

Many thanks for reading.

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