Reflecting on … Using research to help students remember what I teach them.

By giving a short amount of time at the start of each lesson to low-stakes tests, we are helping our students retain far more information from their lessons.

Each lesson I teach now starts with a simple “Recall to Retain” activity:  4-5 questions to engage students’ memories and help them build the neural pathways they will need to remember material later.  At the start of each of my PowerPoints I’ve added a slide with a very simple format.  Here is the one from my last GCSE history lesson:

recall to retain

Some of the questions come from the last lesson and others are spaced back through previous weeks and topics.

The format of the questions is not fixed, but I like ones that are easy for students to have a go at such as multiple choice or ordering tasks.  My hope is that this will encourage them to think about the answer and attempt to reason a solution.  It doesn’t matter if they’re wrong, but if they have had a go, and been encouraged to commit themselves, they may benefit from the hypercorrection effect.

The tests are low-stakes.  As it is early days, the questions are kept deliberately simple to encourage all students to try their best.  Marks are not shared and I do not enforce “expectations” that they should know or get these right or achieve a certain mark.  The only expectation that I am building is that they should have a go at every question and correct the answer if wrong.

The reason that I have introduced this is because my reading has caused me to challenge some fundamental flaws in my thinking about how students learn.  How much information students forget has been a recurring concern over some years and yet I have done very little to address the problem.  For many years, my fundamental approach was that students needed to know key information to deploy it and I strongly encouraged them to “revise” and to “review” class learning long before the exam.  Time and again those who did this, or those with naturally strong memories would excel, whilst those who relied upon the lessons would underachieve to varying degrees.  I know I am not alone in this: one colleague recently reflected that he realised he was planning his teaching as though students were destined to forget almost everything taught in Key Stage 3, rather begging the question of what those years were for!

I have increasingly realised how little time I have dedicated to working with students on the fundamental skill of memorising information.  Somewhere along the line, I had developed the misconception that remembering broadly related to effort and the value of different approaches was largely subjective – students simply had to pick techniques that worked for them and deploy them regularly.  It is remarkable how self-reinforcing such a cognitive bias can be.  For example, my default “test” of my ideas was to discuss with students how much work they had done and how regularly they reviewed their notes and flashcards.  Inevitably their record would be less than perfect (whose isn’t?) which would reinforce my perception that doubling down would solve the problem, and I’d emphasise once again the need to put effort into learning the facts and key information, without ever modelling this myself.

Thankfully reading around research has helped demonstrate the fallacies in my own thinking and I began to look at what colleagues were doing to develop new ways of approaching this and supporting students to learn the information needed on our courses.  The principles that particularly struck me as ones we could utilise far more effectively in the classroom are:

Spaced Repetition: by returning to information regularly and at increasingly spaced intervals we review the information which promotes long-term recall.  Visit information frequently until it is learned, and then begin spacing out return visits.

Hypercorrection:  when we correct our own work we fix errors.  We are more likely to remember the correction or improvement the more we confident we were of the original error.

Low-stakes testing:  students will get more out of regular knowledge tests if they are low-stakes.  We can promote this by emphasising that they are a learning opportunity, allowing students to correct their own work and not “taking marks” or surveying students’ “success”.

One of my colleagues, Ed Duckham, has been encouraging our faculty to start each lesson with a simple knowledge recall test about the work of the previous lesson and I have been trying this (admittedly somewhat more intermittently than he) in recent months.  He was absolutely right about its benefits: it helped to connect the two lessons and promote recall to students.  His classes showed excellent habits of recording and correcting their answers, and the tests were clearly low-stakes with students ready to participate.

My one question was whether we could make more use of the spaced repetition to consider material not just from the last lesson but from earlier topics, without creating something so convoluted or complex to deploy it became ineffective.  This summer I read “What Does this Look Like in the Classroom:  Bridging the Gap Between Research and Practice” by Carl Hendrick and Robin MacPherson.  This book is a highly accessible read and I recommend it to all teachers trying to turn abstract research or theories into practical examples in their day-to-day practice.  One area it particularly helped me think about was supporting students’ memory.  I began looking around Twitter for ideas and mentally noting those that seemed to have the most potential.  At some point I came across the very simple idea I have ended up stealing and adopting in my classes.  I really regret I did not note at the time who shared it as I would love to thank and credit them.  Whomever it was, you have my gratitude.

It is early days.  I’m not expecting it to revolutionise students’ recall on its own – I realise I need to put a lot more work into supporting them to learn and know the key information they need for my courses.  However initial feedback is hugely positive.  I can confirm that:

  • It makes a positive structured start to the lessons and does not create any excessive workload. The task does not take long to prepare, normally less than 5 minutes. Nor does it take long to deliver.
  • Students understand why they are doing this and how it might help them.
  • Students feel that it is helping. By repeating some questions they struggled with, they were able to have a second, low-stakes attempt.  Several spoke to me during or after the lessons to report that they had got it right the second time because they remembered getting it wrong and correcting it the first time.  One or two reacted like it was a magic trick of some sort.
  • As predicted in Hendrick and MacPherson they are already starting to adapt their behaviour to the new strategy; for example a number came into the lesson discussing what we did “last time” ready to see the “Recall to retain quiz” on the board.

Although I’m aware that this is not evidence of impact on its own, the earlier work of Ed Duckham and the research on which this is based, along with their reactions gives me strong grounds for optimism.  I am certainly going to continue with the method for future lessons and anticipate being able to see the impact in our other kinds of assessment in future lessons.

Questions that helped me to reflect on supporting students’ learning better:

  • Is there a pattern to the facets of learning that my students are struggling with?
  • What do I think I know about this area of learning? What are my beliefs and hunches about how this should or does work?
  • Does reading around support my beliefs or do I need to challenge my own conceptions and update my pedagogical understanding?
  • Where do I find examples of good practice in this area within my school and within the wider educational community? After all, why re-invent the wheel when there is so much good practice already freely shared!

Interested in further reading?

For practical application of ideas in the classroom I strongly recommend:

Hendrick, Carl and MacPherson, Robin, (2017), What Does This Look Like in the Classroom:  Bridging the Gap Between Research and Practice.

And for more on theories and research into memory:

Willingham, Daniel, (2009), Why Don’t Students Like School.

2 thoughts on “Reflecting on … Using research to help students remember what I teach them.”

  1. This is a great blog – thank you! I think it is so important that we recognise the need to be aware of our own starting points / our own biases about student learning so that we can then dismantle them, if needs be, before we can concentrate on practice that really does make a difference.

    I use Socrative for my low stakes (digital) quizzing – easy to use. Worth a try, if your students have / are allowed to use devices.

    Two great books as well! I echo your recommendation.


  2. Thank you; absolutely love socrative for low-stakes quizzes. Also found it really helpful for classes that are reluctant to engage in discussion because of the anonymity of the comments. Haven’t used it here because I want students to physically correct their answers and the tech is not widely enough available for all classes but one day, when all are equipped…

    Thank you for taking the time to read and comment. Much appreciated.


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