Tinsel wigs, a skeleton, a jar of Marmite & a cuddly toy.

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It is now over a month since Caroline and I appeared from behind a curtain in tinsel wigs on training day, to launch our new SIP teaching and learning theme for this year: Effective Learning Strategies. The Haydon Generation Game proved that memory recall is really difficult. Can you recall the favourite cakes of your colleagues in the faculty training sessions afterwards? Probably not, unless since then you have regularly and actively tried to remember this important information. 

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If you weren’t there on training day, the theme involved study strategies that relate to memory, and the phenomenon known as the Forgetting Curve. This is a theory that describes the rate at which we forget things we have learnt if we don’t re-visit them; i.e. pretty much everything, straight away.  There are a number of Effective Learning Strategies that teachers can use to help students counteract the effects of the Forgetting Curve, remember more from their lessons and attain greater fluency in their knowledge in each subject and this term we are focusing on Spacing, Retrieval Practice and Concrete Examples.

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When researching strategies to help our students remember more, I was struck by the following example of retrieval practice from “Small Teaching”, by  James M. Lang. Maybe it’s because I love a nice coffee shop, but this particular story really resonated with me. Lang describes how he visited the same cafe daily while writing the book.  He met the same person at the counter each day and every single time they would ask what he wanted to drink, even though he drank the same thing every day. When, for the sake of experimentation, he once asked her to try to remember, she looked at him “as if seeing me for the first time” and felt embarrassed that she did not remember his regular order.. He then repeated his usual request. Interestingly, next time he went, before he could order, she pointed at him and said “Medium green tea, hot, no honey or lemon?” He concluded that  “every time I walked into that coffee shop and told the barista my order, she was receiving the information afresh from me; she did not have to draw it from her memory. She was doing the student equivalent of staring at her notes over and over again – a practice that cognitive psychologists will tell you is just about the most ineffective study strategy that students can undertake.”  This demonstration of retrieval, also known as ”the testing effect” is so important for us as teachers: There is huge value in all our recall questions, even if they get it wrong. The pathway in the brain to the memory has already been started by the necessary struggle to access the information.

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As Lang suggests in his book, one of the main issues with learning is that students will persist in bad habits, even when they have been told that these do not work. For example, they will read over  their notes because it is easier than putting them away and brainstorming what they can remember, so we need to consistently prove to them that the way forward is retrieval. In addition to telling  them to read round the subject, to revise regularly, and not to cram, we have to change our own habits in lessons and in planning schemes of work to allow time for recall.

In the art department we looked at the way we deliver schemes of work and realised that we have a tendency to plough through the content in order to achieve a practical outcome, but that some of the theory and context  behind the final artwork could be lost along the way. We have introduced more questioning in class relating back to previous lessons and are trialling a rough brainstorm page in the front of year 7 books where they can recall information without the pressure of it seeming like a test or having to look as well-presented as the rest of their books. 

In drama, media and humanities, teachers have introduced quizzes in lessons to aid recall. One way to do this is by having traffic light starter questions: green ones for things looked at last lesson, amber questions linked to things covered earlier in the topic and red questions from the previous  topic or from last year. A walking quiz, seen in a technology lesson, is also effective, using “Tell me more” flash cards where students have to elaborate on the subject of each card to one another. Another method is to test them in the middle and at the end of each topic, either individually or in teams to make it more fun.  Giving students a ‘pre-test test’ can take the pressure off them; they are less nervous about it and will actually do better in the ‘real’ test. Learning Support have found that getting each student in turn to recall one event from the novel they are discussing really helps the knowledge stick. 

Like the barista in the scenario above, when we actually get students to attempt retrieval, even if they don’t get it the first time, the next time they try, they are much more likely to retain the knowledge. The more regularly we get students to recall, and give them feedback on it,  the more they will remember. It is encouraging to read in James M. Lang’s book that, “There’s a wide consensus among researchers that long-term memory is essentially unlimited”. If we teach Effective Learning Strategies alongside a Growth Mindset we will really be helping our students to get the most out of their time here.

R. Skertchly

The main thing to remember about Effective Learning Strategies is just to do them. What did you say you would have a go at on training day? – Did you stick with it? What are you going to try next half term?

For further ideas, use this link: 

https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/10LF6fhP2fkPQr2CGW4cIe7bN62owWNBMAc1xlEyayhA/edit?usp=sharing

Further reading: 

  1. For the theory behind what we are doing this year: Understanding how we learn Yana Weinstein, Megan Sumeracki and Oliver Caviglioli https://www.learningscientists.org/book
  2. For small shifts in the delivery of your lessons / curriculum: Small teaching, James M. Lang http://www.jamesmlang.com/p/small-teaching.html
  3. On memory and how to be a better learner: Make it Stick, The Science of Successful Learning, Peter C Brown, Henry L Roediger, Mark A.McDaniel.https://www.retrievalpractice.org/make-it-stick