Threshold Concepts for Teachers

Last week I was leading a training session for trainee science teachers, looking at the EEF ‘Improving Secondary Science’ guidance report – this is a great resource for science teachers and one that I would strongly recommend.  There is a section in the report on the importance of ‘threshold concepts’ in science teaching.  A threshold concept is described below:

“A threshold concept can be considered as akin to a portal, opening up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something. It represents a transformed way of understanding, or interpreting, or viewing something without which the learner cannot progress. As a consequence of comprehending a threshold concept there may thus be a transformed internal view of subject matter, subject landscape, or even world view. This transformation may be sudden or it may be protracted over a considerable period of time, with the transition to understanding proving troublesome. Such a transformed view or landscape may represent how people ‘think’ in a particular discipline, or how they perceive, apprehend, or experience particular phenomena within that discipline (or more generally).” (Meyer and Land, 2003).

In the guidance report, threshold concepts are described as likely to be:

  • Transformative – they result in a change in perception of a subject and may involve a shift in values or attitudes.
  • Irreversible – the resulting change is unlikely to be forgotten.
  • Integrative – they ‘expose a previously hidden interrelatedness’ between other concepts within the discipline.
  • Potentially troublesome – we may have difficulty coping with then new perspective that is offered.

Once we start thinking about the idea of threshold concepts, it seems likely that this also applies to our understanding of teaching.  From a purely personal point of view, I would say that during the years I have been engaging with research evidence, I have come across some ideas that have irreversibly transformed my view of teaching.  Some of these have been troublesome and they definitely all interrelate.  For example:

“Memory is the residue of thought” from Daniel Willingham

New learning should be tethered to existing knowledge

“Feedback should be more work for the recipient than the donor” from Dylan Wiliam

“Learning is a change in long term memory” from Paul Kirschner & John Sweller

Fully guided instruction is more successful than minimal guidance from Clark, Kirschner & Sweller – more here.

These 5 ideas have definitely changed the way I teach and the way I lead teaching and learning.  This made me then ask the good people of twitter about the ‘threshold concepts’ that have transformed how they think about teaching.  This got a great response and I thought I would share some of them here:

Andy Tharby:

  • Understanding is memory in disguise – Daniel Willingham
  • Learning is invisible.
  • Students learn very different things from the same lesson.

David Didau

  • Speech is a powerful lever for cognitive growth.

Ben Newmark:

  • The only curriculum that matters is the curriculum pupils remember – Clare Sealy

Cristina Milos:

  • Performance and learning are not synonymous.

Mark Enser:

  • Learning doesn’t come from activity but from retrieval.

Sarah Donarski:

  • If we want our students to breathe our subjects, we must first do the same.

Tom Boulter:

  • Reasoning, problem solving and creative skills are largely domain specific and enabled by deep knowledge of the field.

Sallie Stanton:

  • Learning is a change in long term memory.
  • Gaps in knowledge make gaining new knowledge really difficult.

Rufus William:

  • Novices and experts think in qualitatively different ways.
  • The curse of knowledge.

Frances Walsh:

  • Learning is not a performance at the end of the lesson.

Dan Hannard:

  • Practice makes permanent.

Julie Stewart:

  • We are prisoners of our working memory.

Amy Pento:

  • Extraneous load – much done to grab students’ attention distracts from what we want them to think about.

Many thanks to everybody who contributed to this twitter discussion (apologies if I missed yours!).  A great example of what a fantastic community edutwitter can be.

Please feel free to continue the discussion by adding yours to a comment below…

Posted by Shaun Allison

Posted in General Teaching | Tagged | 1 Comment

Metacognition in PE

Deputy Leader of PE and Research School Associate James Crane discusses how he has been developing metacognition with his students.

The Problem

Teachers should acquire the professional understanding and skills to develop their pupils’ metacognitive knowledge. Whilst this is of course true, it is more complex than this. Metacognitive strategies will be very domain specific, so subject areas need to consider this within the context of their subject.

What does the research say?

The Education Endowment Foundation ‘Metacognition and Self-Regulated Learning Guidance Report‘ provides 7 recommendations. The three I will be focusing on are:

Recommendation 1 – Teachers should acquire the professional understanding and skills to develop their pupils’ metacognitive knowledge.

  • Self-regulated leaners are aware of their strengths and weaknesses, and can motivate themselves to engage in, and improve, their learning.
  • Developing pupils’ metacognitive knowledge of how they learn, of strategies and of tasks – is an effective way of improving outcomes.
  • Teachers should support pupils to plan, monitor and evaluate their learning.

Recommendation 2 – Explicitly teach pupils metacognitive strategies including how to plan, monitor and evaluate their learning.

  • Explicit instruction in cognitive and metacognitive strategies can improve pupils’ learning.
  • While concepts like ‘plan, monitor, evaluate’ can be introduced generically the strategies are mostly applied in relation to specific content and tasks, and are therefore best taught that way.
  • A series of steps beginning with activating prior knowledge and leading to independent practice before ending inn structured reflection – can be applied to different subjects, ages and contents.

Recommendation 3 – Model your own thinking to help pupils develop their metacognitive and cognitive skills.

  • Modelling by the teacher is a cornerstone of effective teaching: revealing the thought processes of an expert learner helps to develop pupils’ metacognitive skills.
  • Teachers should verbalise their metacognitive thinking (‘what do I know about problems like this? What ways of solving them have I used before?’) as they approach and work through a task.
  • Scaffolder tasks, like worked examples allow pupils to develop their metacognitive and cognitive skills without placing too many demands on tier mental resources.

Implementing the Research

In PE at Durrington High School to implement these recommendations, with an aim of developing metacognitiion and self-regulation with our students, coupled with improving student outcomes in GCSE PE, we followed the following steps:

  • We ensured staff were aware of the guidance report and the importance of developing metacognitive learners. We also ensured they had read it and understood the 7 steps (below) in developing metacognition in pupils.

  • We developed the following strategy – Box, circle underline – where students box the command words, circle the marks and underline the key words in exam questions and IDEA – a structure for responding to these exam questions (see below). This is an important focus for us in terms of longer answer questions (4, 6 and 9 mark questions) as this was an area we fell down on in the summer GCSE exam as a cohort.

  • We explicitly modelled to staff how to deliver the IDEA strategy for longer answer exam questions in a SPDS (subject planning and development sessions – fortnightly subject CPD sessions).
  • Staff then went through the 7 step model with students in lessons.  Firstly they were shown how to do the BOX/IDEA strategy (explicit strategy instruction) and then had it modelled to them (modelling of learned strategy).
  • PE Staff are now using the 7 step model from the guidance report, in order to develop student’s self-regulation of the metacognitive process for PE longer answer exam questions students are given two of the same questions.  They are supported with the ‘memorisation of strategy’ stage, by being questioned on the strategy in lessons ‘Why did you do it like that?  What’s the next step?  What’s the importance of that stage?’

  • Students write down all of the process elements around the first question ensuring they have referred back to similar questions they have previously experienced – which can then act as a worked example. Students then answer the question under the second exam question (independent practice).
  • A fundamental element is ensuring students understand why they are using the metacognitive process (which for us in PE is to develop the quality of their response to longer answer exam questions) and what they have struggled with (structured reflection).
  • As a department we are currently between guided practice and independent practice with the students as the explicit instruction, modelling and memorisation of the learned strategy are embedded within our students.
  • During SPDS sessions we will review our delivery of the metacognitive skills to students through explicit instruction development of staff ensuring the ‘curse of the expert’ is eradicated i.e. the better you know something the harder it is to explain to a novice.  This has been the biggest barrier in our delivery of this in PE department at Durrington High School – but it’s something we are working on.


Posted in General Teaching | Tagged , | Leave a comment

What’s wrong with ‘pitch, pace and progression’?

This morning Michael Chiles asked a question on twitter on whether it was sensible for an observer to make a judgement about the pace of a lesson:

This reminded me of a consultant that I worked with as a young head of science back in the 90s whose mantra was that teaching was good when the pitch, pace and progression were all evident in a lesson.  This wasn’t just the view of this consultant, but was very much viewed as the accepted wisdom back in the day – but it would seem that this view, like many bad ideas, has lingered and still exists.

Now to clarify, pitch, pace and progression are all things that are worthy of consideration when talking about teaching.  However, the problem was the view of what was good in terms of the 3Ps was not helpful.  It went something like this:

  • Pitch – the lesson should be pitched at the right level for all students in the class.
  • Pace – lessons should be pacey and students should be moved from one activity to another swiftly.
  • Progression – it should be possible to demonstrate the progress that has been made in learning throughout the lesson.

Now, it would seem that (thankfully) most educators have dismissed this view of what makes good teaching.  Or so it would seem.  There are still stories of lessons being observed through this kind of lens and judgements being made about teaching and teachers, based on this view of teaching.  This really is not helpful and here’s why:


How can a teacher possibly plan 25 or so different lessons to cater for the different prior knowledge of every student in the class?  Furthermore, if a low attaining student is simply given ‘easy work’ how are they every going to be challenged to think and improve?  They will simply stay at the level where they started.

A much better approach is to have high expectations of all students, teach to the top and use careful modelling, questioning and feedback to challenge all students to think about the subject content being delivered  This is what we need to be aiming for, because we remember what we have to think about – in the words of Daniel Willingham:

‘Memory is the residue of thought’

   Tom Sherrington has written about the approach of teaching to the top here.


Learning takes time and requires purposeful practice.  Students need to be given time to practise what they have been taught, make mistakes, learn from their mistakes and then embed this new knowledge and skill over time – and then repeat it.  In ‘The Hidden Lives of Learners’ by Graham Nuthall, he suggests that students should be exposed to new content at least three times if they are going to be able to commit it to their long term memory.  How on earth can they do this if they are rushed through tasks and then swiftly moved on to another activity?  They can’t.

By the same token, if I was to spend two weeks teaching my students the word equation for photosynthesis, then I could be rightly criticised for dragging something out for too long!  So yes, pace matters, but what matters is the appropriateness of the pace.  Students need to be given enough time to embed what they have been taught.

If you’re interested in learning more about how research from cognitive science can be implemented in the classroom to support long term memory, take a look at our 3 day training programme.


The idea that learning can be somehow measured/judged in a lesson is just bonkers and deserves to be challenged whenever it comes up. In this post, David Didau explores how he defines learning:

Learning is tripartite: it involves retention, transfer and change. It must be durable (it should last), flexible (it should be applicable in new and different contexts) and liminal (it stands at the threshold of knowing and not knowing).”

So learning results in a change in long term memory and happens over a long time.  With this in mind, we can’t ‘see‘ learning – and certainly not in a lesson.  We can see how students are performing on a particular task, but this isn’t the same as learning.  If we really wanted to test if they have learnt something, we would have to revisit them in a few months or years to see if they can recall it from their long term memory and transfer it to a new context.

A much better conversation in terms of progression is how well sequenced the curriculum is, to allow students to progress in terms of the cumulative development of their knowledge.  More on this here.

So, when talking about teaching let’s reframe our view of the 3Ps:

  • Pitch – is the level of challenge such that all students will be required (and supported) to think during the lesson?
  • Pace – will students be given enough time to practise and embed the new knowledge they are taught?
  • Progression – is the curriculum well planned, sequential and cumulative in terms of knowledge development?

Posted by Shaun Allison






Posted in General Teaching | 1 Comment

Weaving together the threads of the curriculum


By Andy Tharby

In her recent commentary on Ofsted’s research into the primary and secondary curriculum, Ofsted’s Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman, wrote:

“In recent years, we have thought a great deal about the role of leaders and the importance of teaching. We have also given a great deal of our collective time to exam grades and progress measures. These are undoubtedly important. However, at the very heart of education sits the vast accumulated wealth of human knowledge and what we choose to impart to the next generation: the curriculum.”

This newly-fledged interest into the nature and substance of the curriculum is exciting but potentially daunting for teachers and school leaders whose knowledge and understanding of curriculum principles and theory might be in its infancy. This is where Mary Myatt’s recent book, The Curriculum: Gallimaufry to coherence, is so useful. It provides a brilliantly clear overview of how to put curriculum theory into practice in your school or your department.

I fully recommend that you read Mary’s book for yourself, but here are some choice nuggets of wisdom to get a flavour of her arguments.

Identify key ideas and concepts

“Coherence comes from the Latin to ‘stick together’, and when we think about the curriculum coherently, it becomes much simpler to teach and for pupils to understand … The temptation is to go straight to the detail of what needs to be taught. And this is understandable when we are under time pressure. But in the long term, we waste time because we have not invested in two things: identifying the key ideas and concepts, and not sharing these with our pupils. This means we are denying them the chance to get the material to stick together.” (p. 23)

Draw the threads

“What happens currently, is that the curriculum is often gobbetised into small sections. Pupils are often taught disparate, unconnected material, without any effort being made to ensure that it goes into the long-term memory … Planning  a curriculum which draws the threads between the overarching ideas and the detail is the key to unlocking the present distance between what is taught and how well it is remembered.” (p. 36)

Slow down the pace

“If we are to honour the curriculum and children’s learning, we need to think of pace differently – pace needs to be appropriate to the learning. There will be times when it is appropriate to move on quickly, but only because it is clear that the children have got it and now need something additional. Mostly, however, things need to slow down. It is simply not possible to work through a curriculum at break-neck speed.” (p. 48)

Reasoning and mastery

“The mastery curriculum in maths is also underpinned by reasoning and there are compelling reasons why reasoning should underpin other aspects of the curriculum, as well. Reasoning calls on us to justify, to explain and to make clear our rationale for doing something. It both draws on long-term memory and supports its nurture. When I have to explain and justify my answer to someone else, I am having to dig deeper into the underlying structures to support my argument … The reasoning element is a way of forcing out into the open what we know intuitively, to give it voice, to make it public, so that I and others can discuss it further. Reasoning has the power to transform material into deep learning.” (p. 80-81)

Teach the etymology of words (the story behind each word)

“What happens when they are making connections between the root or roots of a word, is that they are creating a larger picture of meaning. In doing this, they are making links to the long-term memory, because it is another layer of a story which connects back to the word. If very young children are able to do this, and take great pleasure from it, then we should not shy away from unpicking, delving and finding out the etymological roots of words. Every subject has them, and we do not need to be classicists to support our children in this.” (p. 96-97)


These five ideas – identify key concepts, find the connections between them, slow down, get pupils to reason to with their knowledge, and teach the etymology of words – would be a simple place for any classroom teacher or subject leader to start their work on improving the curriculum. I thoroughly recommend Mary’s book and believe it should have pride of place in every CPD library.


Posted in General Teaching | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Knowledge Organisers: Making them worth more than the paper they’re written on

As we have previously blogged about here and here, we at Durrington are currently implementing knowledge organisers across the whole school. At the moment, we have knowledge organisers in place in all subjects for Year 9 and Year 10. The knowledge organisers themselves are disciplinary, by which we mean they are subject specific and so show variation according to the curriculum that they support. However, we have also tried to ensure consistency through adhering to the following principles:

  • The knowledge organisers include judiciously selected tier 2 and tier 3 vocabulary. This vocabulary will be taught explicitly to students.
  • The knowledge organisers incorporate the building blocks for learning in that subject that all students are entitled to know and understand.
  • The knowledge organisers are designed to aid retrieval practice and metacognitive learning.

Here are some examples of the knowledge organisers that we are currently using in different subject areas:


We are very aware that knowledge organisers by themselves are fairly meaningless; it is how they are used for planning, teaching and testing that will have the intended positive impact on our students’ outcomes, experiences and future opportunities. Consequently, we are keen to share the simple yet effective ways in which different subjects are utilising their knowledge organisers in lessons, as described below.

In geography the team are collating the words that students most frequently misunderstand or confuse (these are words from the knowledge organisers). The students then take a two-part quiz: In part 1 they choose the correct explanation of the word from three options, and in part 2 they identify the word in the correct context from two options. This is a great example of how the vocabulary from the knowledge organiser is being taught explicitly to students and misconceptions are being tackled at the same time.

In history, the curriculum leader emails out weekly slides, comprising a section of the knowledge organiser, to be used across the department. These slides ensure that there is consistency to the use of knowledge organisers and retrieval practice in every history lesson. The students complete the slide-task, for example filling in blanks in sentences with appropriate tier 3 vocabulary, and then use the knowledge organiser to self or peer check their response. The tasks in themselves are simple but they effectively focus the students’ efforts on improving specific areas, for example accurate use of tier 3 historical words and phrases.

Maths are using their range of knowledge organisers to support homework tasks. Firstly, the students can access their maths knowledge organisers are any time using our online system Connect. This means that students have scaffolding in place for when they are working outside of the classroom. Furthermore, every fortnight the maths team set a homework that is based on retrieval quizzing. The students are required to use the knowledge organisers to find the answers to upcoming quizzes and then actually sit the quiz in class on the due date for the homework. Students who score less than 12 out of 15 are then supported in making flashcards on the questions, again gaining the information from the knowledge organiser, and use these to retest until they are successful. This strategy demonstrates how knowledge organisers can be used to support learning through the testing effect.

The science team have carefully selected the tier 3 vocabulary that they feel is imperative to scientific success and published these on their knowledge organisers. In class, the teachers explicitly teach this vocabulary using a morphological approach, i.e. by drawing students’ attention to prefixes such as mono, hetero, pent etc.. The beauty of this approach is that once the vocabulary has been decided there is no need for any further resources or planning. It is simply a case of the teacher taking a few moments of the lesson to highlight the prefix in order to activate students’ prior knowledge of this word part (or teach it for the first time) so that students can go on to decipher the likely meaning of the entire word.

Finally, in English the team are making frequent use of their knowledge organisers to retrieve the contextual knowledge, key themes and authorial methods linked to literary texts. In addition, the English team are also making students use identified tier 2 vocabulary by linking it to characters and plot situations from multiple texts, thereby giving the students ample and varied examples of the words in use. Knowledge organisers in English tend to be produced on PowerPoint and use a grid format. This makes it incredibly quick and easy to extract sections, put this on a slide and blank out boxes ready for students to fill as a 5 minute starter every lesson.

Our use of knowledge organisers is a journey and one in which we have only taken the first few steps. To move forward we will:

  1. Share examples of effective practice from the our colleagues in other curriculum areas, especially the practical subjects where the use of knowledge organisers may well yield some very different ideas for practice.
  2. Talk to students and make them a greater part of the knowledge organiser dialogue in our school. In particular, we want our students to have a secure understanding of how knowledge organisers work to support retrieval practice and vocabulary instruction, where they can find them and how they can use them for effective learning outside of the classroom, for example self-quizzing.
  3. Make knowledge organisers accessible for parents and carers via our VLE, online Connect system and through making them a key component of conversations at upcoming parents’ evenings.
  4. Reflect on how to improve and develop the work that we now have in place ready for our new batch of knowledge organisers that are required for later this year. In particular, we will consider the need for accumulation of knowledge across units of work and year groups in order to meet our end goals for every student who is part of our school.

If you are interested in learning more about our approach to teaching and learning please take a look at our upcoming training days here.

Fran Haynes.



















Posted in General Teaching | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Cracking homework

Homework has been on my list of whole-school responsibilities for some time now.  In fact, this will be the sixth year in which I’ve been charged with leading on all things connected to learning outside of the classroom.  Other than revision that is.  Although that is partly me as well.


So surely five years has been enough time to crack homework.  You could reasonably expect to see a school in which all staff set purposeful and meaningful homework that has watertight consistency across subject teams, students are intrinsically motivated to complete it and so do so without prompting, detentions are a thing of the past as every piece is handed in on time, to a high standard, and the learning train travels smoothly on towards its destination of brilliant outcomes for all.

Perhaps not.

However, while the homework utopia described above may be out of my reach no matter how long it remains my responsibility, I certainly feel we are much closer to it that we were when we started.  As one curriculum leader who will remain nameless said to my colleague: “We have gone from a school where students generally don’t do their homework to a school where they generally do.”

There are multiple causes of this positive shift.  The starting point was to improve the quality of the homework that was set.  Research evidence tells us that, for secondary school children, homework has a significant positive effect.  Sources such as the EEF Toolkit, Hattie’s meta analysis and Paul Kirschner all support this idea.  However, while they and others suggest homework is worthwhile, the huge and somewhat obvious caveat to this is that only good homework is worthwhile, rubbish homework is not.  Therefore the starting point for improving homework was to make sure that if students were being asked to spend their time completing it and expected to value it, then it must be high quality.

In order to achieve this lofty objective we asked departments to write homework policies that ensured that all homework set met one or several of the following four principles:

  • Embed – consolidate learning that has taken place in the classroom, e.g. revision for assessment or learning key knowledge.
  • Practice – refine knowledge and procedures learnt in the classroom based on feedback from the teacher, e.g. DIRT activities.
  • Extend – move learning beyond what has been achieved in the classroom, e.g. adding breadth to their existing knowledge.
  • Apply – use learning from the classroom to complete a specific task, e.g. writing a practice exam question based on content covered in a lesson.

These principles allowed leaders to articulate what was and was not purposeful homework in their subjects.  What it is has also led to is most departments developing generic and centrally produced homework that all teachers set at the same time.  Due to our curriculum focus being on the long-term retention of knowledge (both declarative and procedural) the majority of homework set tends to fall into the embed category.

Below is a typical example taken from a recent homework report I ran:

Romeo and Juliet revision Please focus your attention on Romeo and Juliet this Easter holiday. You must use the knowledge organiser (you can download a copy below) to create flash cards. You must use retrieval practice techniques to learn the content. We will do a test on this on the first lesson.

If you would like to watch a version of Romeo and Juliet, I have also included a link below.

Good luck.

In terms of monitoring quality and setting consistency we use an online platform called Connect.  This communicates homework to parents/carers and students and allows leaders to run reports looking at all the homework set across the school, within a department or by an individual teacher.  This allows for regular audits of the homework being set to ensure it meets one of the four principles.

Sitting alongside these principles is the problem of motivation.  One of the lessons of self-regulated learning as explained in the EEF Metacognition and Self-Regulated Learning guidance report is that without motivation self-regulated learning will not take place.  In other words if they can’t be bothered and don’t see the point of homework they are unlikely to do it.  While intrinsic motivation is the gold standard we are unlikely to achieve this with the majority of our students and therefore have to rely on extrinsic motivation to get them on board.

The first step is to make them value homework and the see the purpose and benefit of doing it.  In order for this to happen we must make sure the output is as strong as possible.  In a recent blog Alex Quigley posed some excellent reflective questions for schools to consider when asking themselves whether the homework they were setting was good enough and students understood its purpose.  They were:

  • Are the students in possession of all the resources required to undertake the task independently?
  • What are the existing beliefs about home learning (students & teachers) that we need to recognise/challenge?
  • How can we best leverage parental support for home learning that is effectively communicated?
  • How do you plan to provide specific and timely feedback to students on their home learning?

I recently shared these with SLT for discussion and with line managers to take back to their subject leaders.

The final question is particularly pertinent and underpinning our principles is the non-negotiable that all homework must elicit feedback.  This can be in whatever form is most appropriate, be that peer marking closed questions, adaptation to teaching or detailed formative comments.  However, for students to value homework they need to know that the teachers place equal value on it.  Ensuring feedback is an essential facet of this.

Lastly there is the question of what to do about students who persistently fail to complete homework across several subjects.

The problem here falls broadly into those that are not willing and those that are not able to complete it.  For those not able due to a learning barrier or due to a chaotic home not conducive to completing work, we must provide support in completing it.  We run a support session once a week in our LRA (library) where biscuits, hot chocolate and support are offered for those students we identify as needing extra support.

For those that we identify as simply choosing not to do it we use tough sanctioning.  We want to create a culture where homework is valued by all and as such we must ensure that alongside all the work we doing on raising the quality and value of homework we must also send a clear message that not doing your homework is not acceptable.  As a result we conduct fortnightly homework sweeps on any incidences of missed homework logged on Connect.  Appearing on this sweep leads to increasing sanctions following each appearance.  Here we seek to support the classroom teacher as following up 6 or 7 students who have not done their homework is a huge drain on their time, which we want them to spend planning brilliant lessons.

The picture is still far from perfect, but is improving.  As I often tell our staff and students, homework is here to stay so we might as well get it right.

Posted by Chris Runeckles


Posted in General Teaching, Teaching Forums | Tagged | 2 Comments

Supporting Retrieval Practice with Cornell Note Taking

The benefits of retrieval practice i.e. the act of having to retrieve something from your memory (often with the help of a cue), in terms of supporting long term memory, have been well documented. Similarly a number of classroom strategies that support this, such as starting each lesson with questions from last lesson, last week and last month and the use of flashcards, are common practice for many teachers.  One strategy that is less well documented is Cornell note taking.

Devised by Professor Walter Pauk of Cornell University in the 1950s, it is a way of students setting out their notes to support retrieval practice.  Furthermore, it requires very little planning and preparation from the teacher – the best kind of new approach.

My interpretation of this can be seen in the the diagram above. Students should get into the habit of having three sections to their notes.  Whilst the original approach was aimed at helping students to take notes e.g. during a lecture, I have adapted it slightly to fit with what happens in a secondary classroom.  I think it works well.  The right hand side is used for their normal class notes – nothing different here, just whatever you would normally do in your lessons.

On the left though, they should have a thin column (I guess the margin would work fine for this).  This is where the magic happens!  At the time of studying, so either during the lesson or at the end (but not much later than that), they note in here some cues such as key words and/or questions, that would require them to think about and retrieve key knowledge from the lesson. So for example, I was teaching the endocrine system to my Y11 class today, so some questions could be:

  • Why are hormones referred to as chemical messengers?
  • How are they similar and different to nerve impulses?
  • Name 5 endocrine gland in the body.
  • For each gland, name a hormone it produces.

The idea is when they come to revise (a significant time after the notes were produced), rather than just passively re-reading their notes, they go to the left hand column and either try to retrieve the definition of the key words from memory, or answer the retrieval questions.  Thus, supporting retrieval practice.  This is a far more effective use of their time, compared to simply re-reading notes, which is not very challenging, doesn’t require much thinking and is unlikely to support learning.

The final section is for them to summarise the key points of the lesson, in 3 bullet points.  This is pretty self explanatory and whilst simply summarising has limitations in terms of supporting learning (see Dunlosky in the ‘further reading’ section below) , this could also be used for self-testing.  Students could try to retrieve from memory the three key points from the lesson, write them down, and then check with the bullet points they wrote originally in the ‘summary’ section, if they were correct.

In addition to the benefits in terms of retrieval practice this approach supports, it’s also possible that the metacognitive process that takes place during cue and question generation, engages students more in the content being learnt.

It’s certainly something I’ll be giving a go with my Y11 group.  If you are interested in developing teaching approaches that support long term memory, you might be interested in the ‘Improving Memory’ training programme we are hosting at the Durrington Research School, starting on the 1st October.

Further reading

  • How to study in college’ (10th ed.), Pauk, W., & Ross, J. Q.
  • ‘The importance of retrieval failures to long-term retention: A metacognitive explanation of the spacing effect.’ Bahrick, H. P., & Hall, L. K.
  • ‘Improving Students’ Learning.’ Dunlosky et al

Posted by Shaun Allison

Posted in General Teaching | Tagged , | 2 Comments