Development in the understanding of how the mind works and how to improve retention in learning has come a long way over the years. I remember when completing my Initial Teacher Training that one of the objectives was about knowing how children learnt and applying teaching strategies to improve learning in this way. I always remember achieving very well in this area because I simply did good teaching and learning habits but if anyone were to actually quiz me on how children learnt I wouldn’t have the foggiest – and I don’t think that those quizzing me would either. Today, I think I know a little more but as with many things the more I have learnt the more I realise that I don’t actually know.
Cognitive development and processes are a very complex beast and I am no expert in this area but in my delve into educational research it is very hard not to run across terms such as working memory and cognitive overload. I have done a little digging into these areas but I am no where near the level of some educators whom I marvel at for their knowledge and explanations of these areas. This is partly why I began my podcast, Primary Education Voices, so I (and the hundreds of other teachers who listen) could learn from highly-recommended practitioners and be given some practical ways to implement tried-and-tested approaches into my practice.
One of these discussions was with Ceridwen Eccles (Teacherglitter) and we have a brilliant, sparkling conversation about a number of topics including her route into primary education, using picture books for the development of PSHE and integrating the arts into the wider curriculum. The full episode can be listened to for free here: https://anchor.fm/dashboard/episode/e10v5j7
During our conversation, Ceridwen spoke wonderfully on the importance of retrieval practice and how to embed it across the curriculum. Retrieval practice is a technique which taps into children making more consistent use of their long-term memory to help them solve more complex questioning and bring vital number facts to the forefront much quicker in order to do this. Many people who champion this technique cite research which shows how humans forget things as time progresses. One of the more often quoted individuals who have shown this is Ebbinghaus. His research was focused on memory over time. The theory was that humans start losing the memory of learned knowledge over time, in a matter of days or weeks, unless the learned knowledge is consciously reviewed time and again. For many, this may seem like common-sense but he attempted to quantitively demonstrate this. Many of you may have heard about his ‘forgetting curve’ which looks something like this:
There is a problem or two with this research. Firstly, the sample size that Ebbinghaus used in 1885 was a grand total of one, himself. Also, it was based on him memorising a series of three letter nonsense syllables (e.g. JOP), hardly a practical example of things we have to remember in everyday life. This makes it problematic to categorically state that, for example, in 31 days people only remember 21% of something that they learnt 31 days previously. Memory and learning are far more complex than that and are influenced by a number of factors, including the person’s interest in the subject, the way in which the content was delivered and the natural ability of the individual learner.
However, whilst we may look at this curve with a hint of caution, I think it visually represents an important phenomenon that we as teachers have to contend with – the longer it is since a pupil has engaged with learning content, if it is not consolidated or practised then more will be forgotten. Just think about your class that learn a topic in Maths – say, measurement – for two weeks and then at the end of the term can’t remember how many centimetres are in a metre, despite you modelling it well and providing purposeful practice over those two weeks.
As well, there has been a recent study which attempted to replicate the research of Ebbinghaus and found success in producing similar results to his curve – you can read more about that here: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0120644
So, what is the solution? As suggested, learning has to be revisited and consolidated to improve the long-term memory retaining it. Doing so not only helps the learner remember it for longer but also reduces the decline of the forgetting curve as demonstrated below:
Retrieval practice is a wonderful way of doing this. It encourages children to recall information, knowledge and skills they learnt previously for questions posed to them. This can be done in a variety of ways and across the curriculum. Ceridwen provides a number of great examples on how you can do this right across the curriculum: Reading, Vocab, Science and even the arts.
In my role as a Maths Lead of course I wanted to find a way to apply this in my class for Maths and find ways to integrate it in my school. Currently, we are relaunching a concept of ‘Early Bird Maths’ in our school which is simply every classroom for the first 15mins of the day as the children enter. It is outside the allotted Maths lesson for the day and it provides a practice of key skills for this subject. I became keen to develop a way that teachers could apply this in a purposeful manner to support the retrieval of previously learnt content. Ceridwen spoke about using questions that are based on ‘Last Lesson, Last Week, Last Year’ and so on. So, I created a very simple outline/structure that teachers could use. The one I share below is a Y6 example:
One thing that this approach ensures is that content across the curriculum is reviewed and revisited because if this is done consistently then all content is addressed as you go through the year. There is also a larger focus on Arithmetic questions on the right hand side as from our Question Level Analysis (QLA) from Spring Assessments after Lockdown 3.0 we found that Arithmetic was a real area of need in our school. You may decide to do a times tables challenge or other number facts in that area.
I have shared my example as well as the blank version on TES here: https://www.tes.com/teaching-resource/-12537225
Let me know if you find it of any use!