Most students and many teachers do not realise the huge importance of retrieval for learning. This post aims to explain why retrieval is important and to give some strategies for doing it well.
DO Hebb (1949) was the first person to acknowledge that, when neurones fire together, they wire together but it was not until the 1980s that scientists discovered what was happening on a physiological level when learning takes place. Long term potentiation (LTP) is one of several phenomena underlying synaptic plasticity, the ability of chemical synapses to increase their strength the more often they are activated. LTP is widely considered one of the major cellular mechanisms that underlies learning and memory, and retrieval is the best way to make it happen.
When a child exclaims they don’t understand how they failed a test when they revised for hours, I get them to show me what they have done. Invariably they have completed part of the process but not the most important one, why? Learning involves three distinct processes, encoding, rehearsal and retrieval. Students love the encoding part, making colourful mindmaps and cue cards. They don’t mind the rehearsal part, repeating the information they have just learned. But they hate the retrieval part because it is hard and boring. Therefore, there is hardly ever any evidence of completed practice questions as part of their revision. Retrieval is most effective when it is done long after learning and is done cold, without text books or cues to help. It requires effort and perhaps even some anxiety and that is why it is so often overlooked. Yet it is the part of the process which gives the most robust learning of information and best chance of being able to apply the knowledge later on.
The diagram shows the processes used to lay down a memory. Encoding involves making the information stand out (elaborative encoding), knowing what it means (semantic encoding); rehearsal involves repetition of what has just been learned and retrieval is remembering information learned some time ago.
So let’s go over some 5 minute strategies for retrieval that teachers can use and students can adopt for their own learning.
- The brain dump. Five minutes at the start of a lesson using a topic covered last term or even last year. Give students a piece of paper and a pen (no notes or books) and set the timer. Students write all they know about the topic of social influence for example. At that point they can check with the textbook adding detail that they have missed. A week later, they can do the same exercise again and be amazed as to how much more detail and how much easier it is the second time.
- The starter question. Pick an exam question from a previous topic and get students to answer it from memory. They will protest that they don’t know it but must write something. The teacher can then put up a model answer and get the students to complete the question.
- Write the opening sentence. Students are given an exam question e.g. ‘Discuss two ways in which people might resist social influence.’ By writing just an opening sentence, students are retrieving their conceptual knowledge and their exam skill knowledge. It is a very powerful tool for uncovering and righting misconceptions in two minutes flat!
- Draw me a diagram. I usually get a student to draw on the whiteboard and others call out annotations. Misconceptions can be discussed and sorted there and then. One of my favourites but make sure it is from two topics ago if your aim is to prectise retrieval and not rehearsal.
- Kahoot quizzes are awesome. It takes seconds to make an account and you do not have to write them yourself, simply search for a topic and away you go. You can use them for AFL as the students are playing. I write down the topics that show the highest rate of variation in the answers so that I can make a note to retrieve those next time.
So remember, for learning to take place on a deep level it must be retrieved, cold, from two topics ago and retrieved often. Students have not revised if they have only done the encoding part so make sure all revision includes practice questions. If you’re still in doubt, take a look at the downward arrow on the long term memory box. Until next time, enjoy your retrieval escapades and let me know if you come across any more strategy gems.
In every staffroom up and down the country there is the group of ‘superteachers’ huddled in a corner drinking quadruple espressos and making snide comments about ‘teacher X’ whose ‘kids just work out of the textbook every lesson’. Fast forward to the weekend; Mr X is spending time with his family, flying a microlight, trout fishing or doing whatever else normal people do at the weekend while the ‘superteachers’ are spending hours and hours re-writing huge chunks of textbooks to make booklets, handouts and worksheets, occasionally misinterpreting theories and concepts in the hope of dumbing them down, or because they are just too tired to think about what they are writing.
If you are the ‘superteacher’ type PLEASE STOP this nonsense NOW! Not only are you affecting your own mental wellbeing but you are also not helping your students to learn. During hours and hours of martyrdom spent making a variety of differentiated tasks and activities for each topic, it is the teacher who is preparing for the exam in 30 different ways rather than the individual preparing themselves. Worse still, it makes very little difference to student performance and can actually make it worse.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with textbooks. They are written by experts in your subject who know the specification and are more often than not approved by the relevant exam board. Decades of recearch into memory shows us that long term memories are laid down when students actively engage with the material to be learned, be it presented in a textbook or any other form, and that effective learning depends on regular recall of that information. This means that it is the students who have to interpret, apply and analyse the information they need, not you.
Instead plan lessons and prepare activities for students based on their textbook. For example, ask students to summarise a theory in 6 key sentences or sketch-note a key study as you read it to them. Ask them to respond to a picture as a lesson starter or write one multichoice question as a plenary.
You can find more details including activity, resources, format, differentiation and teacher/student input using the link below. I hope you can adapt, use and develop them so that the students are the ones doing the work. A good rule of thumb for any planned activity is: If the teacher input is more than or equal to student input; scrap it now!
Oh and, by the way, I have a family, 4 granchildren, horse ride every week and practise cello every day. I do not and will not work evenings and weekends on a regular basis as that is my time. Happy textbooking!
A good friend of mine told me about a 100 year old method that she uses to improve productivity. This method involves completing only six tasks each day and she promised it was amazingly simple yet highly effective. At first, I was very sceptical; what constitutes a task in teaching? There are so many little tasks to do each day. Did teaching a lesson count as a task? In which case, teaching five lessons in a day leaves only one task remaining that I can complete that day. Furthermore, my friend is a highly successful director working in industry; could I really transfer these principles to my job as a teacher?
The method is called the Ivy Lee method after an American PR consultant who, in 1918, was called in to help increase productivity at the Bethlehem Steel Corporation, the largest shipbuilder and the second-largest steel producer in America at the time. The strategy sounded too simple to be true but the president of the company, Charles Schwab, and his executive team at Bethlehem Steel gave it a try. After three months, Schwab was so delighted with the progress his company had made that he called Lee into his office and wrote him a check for $25,000 (around $450,000 today).
The method is summarised here by James Clear http://jamesclear.com/ivy-lee
- At the end of each work day, write down the six most important things you need to accomplish tomorrow. Do not write down more than six tasks.
- Prioritise those six items in order of their true importance.
- When you arrive tomorrow, concentrate only on the first task. Work until the first task is finished (ignoring interruptions) before moving on to the second task.
- Approach the rest of your list in the same fashion. At the end of the day, move any unfinished items to a new list of six tasks for the following day.
- Repeat this process every working day.
What makes it so effective? Colter Reed (Manage your Time, Manage your Life) https://colterreed.com/the-ivy-lee-method-simply-productive/ explains this below:
- It’s just six things (give or take). So many times I have found myself darting from one thing to another and accomplishing nothing. For me this method means that when I teach a five period day; that’s five tasks. I can only do one more task before I go home. This make me prioritise really effectively. Take today for example. I have taught five lessons and had an hour of time before the end of the day. During this time I planned my lessons for tomorrow and prepared equipment that my yr 8 class is going to need for their lesson on hydraulics tomorrow. My planner has six spaces so I have written in my four lessons for tomorrow and two tasks that must be done and no more. Now I can forget about work and go home.
- It encourages work-life balance. Going home and not thinking about work was an explicit part of Lee’s advice. If your subconscious wants to chew on problems, let it. But focus your conscious mind elsewhere. You’ve written tomorrow’s tasks. Turn off work email on your phone. Go for a hack. Write your blog.
- The end-of-day perspective. Planning at the end of the day has several advantages over planning in the morning. You have a more realistic grasp on what you can get done in a day. You tend to focus more on what’s important and less on what’s urgent. You already have a plan in place when the morning’s distractions try to overwhelm you.
- It encourages you to wrap things up early. The last task on your schedule each day is a given entity. How many times have you left school later than you meant to because you got caught up in doing just one more thing or answering one last email? I have learned to wrap up ten minutes before 5pm and leave work on time. (Again: work-life balance.)
- It’s simple. The more simple your system is, the more likely you are to stick with it. If you don’t make it through your list, don’t worry about it—you wouldn’t have gotten everything done by any other method either. I don’t sweat about what I haven’t done; instead I congratulate myself on what I have achieved (no one else will) and move unfinished tasks to the next day’s list.
The questions is, how do we adapt this method for teachers? Here are my insights:
- Do only one task at a time. As teachers we are so used to multitasking in the classroom that we apply the same chaotic principles to our ‘free’ non-contact time. Sitting down to complete one task without distractions until it is done is incredibly therapeutic and enormously productive.
- One lesson and its associated admin is one task. By all means use lesson time to get students to self assess work, put their own behaviour points onto the class chart and monitor their own progress. I even got a child to rate his own behaviour on his report card today (surprisingly he gave himself 5/10 for effort and behaviour where I would have given him a 6/10!) But remember, one lesson is one task. If you are teaching four lessons you can do two further tasks that day.
- Complete those tasks you keep putting off. For example that set of yr 7 books you keep meaning to mark. This had become a priority for me so, on a day when my ‘free’ was a period one, and having written it on my list the day before, I started immediately I got to work. I focused completely on the task, did not allow myself to become distracted, left my laptop in the cupboard and got two sets of books marked in the time I had allocated. Simple, but effective.
- Group lots of small, similar things into one task. Teachers often have lots of small tasks to complete. For example entering a set of marks or phoning a parent. I waited until I had a few parents to call and grouped it with other admin/data entry tasks. In this way I completed a lot of small things in one hit.
- Don’t think about it; do it. At times we can spend more time thinking about what is to be done rather than actually getting on and doing it. Because I set my tasks the night before I never have to go through the process of wasting thinking time at the start of each day. I know what is to be done and I simply do it.
Do Give this simple yet effective method a go. It has improved my work-life balance no end. I’m rarely working at home in the evenings and I haven’t worked at all at the weekend since the start of this term. Long may it continue!
Dedicated with grateful thanks to my friend, Gill Boot, for teaching me the Ivy Lee method and changing my life for the better.
It is very tempting, especially with a difficult class, to try to control everything that goes on in the classroom so that students stay firmly in their seats and do not wander around. After all, if they do not move, they cannot flick pieces of paper or rubber bands at the heads of other students they pass by on the way to the book cupboard (with the accuracy an Olympic archer would be proud of) or give a student a ‘friendly’ dead leg, steal his rubber, his book, his pen and so on and so on (the list really is endless).
Continue reading “Getting the Buggers to do More”
My blog this week was inspired by an article written by leading educator, Colin Harris, published in the TES, 5th January 2017
In his article, Harris states, ‘All teachers need to aim high but they do need to stop aiming for perfection all the time… The difference in the two is so time consuming and is just not achievable with everything a teacher does.’
Continue reading “Are You Reinventing the Wheel?”
Many teachers believe and, in many cases, their schools allow them to believe that they are responsible rather than accountable for their students’ exam results. To further ensure that this message is hammered home, teachers endure learning walks, observations and Ofsted inspections which would give Harry Enfield’s (1994 Harry Enfield and Chums, BBC) character ‘You didn’t wanna’ a run for his money: ‘You didn’t wanna give feedback like that, ask questions like that, give direct instruction like that, wipe the board like that, control behaviour like that; the list is endless.
Continue reading “Accountable Not Responsible”
I recently joined a social media Psychology teachers’ group in the hope of sharing and gaining ideas for the teaching of my subject. In one such post I was horrified to read that the writer had her blancmange brains all made and ready to be transported into school for her students to label in their A level lesson.
Continue reading “Blancmange Brains Vs Blooms”
Mastering others is strength; Mastering yourself is true power.” -Lao Tzu, Chinese Taoist Philosopher.
My question this week is how do we get students to master themselves and to know their own strengths and weaknesses when it comes to writing essays?
Continue reading “Know Thyself”
Plato called Socrates “the wisest, and justest, and best of all men whom I have ever known” (Phaedo) and yet Socrates did not write down his lessons nor stand at the front of his class imparting the results of his experience, personal study and reflection. Instead he questioned his students and, once they came up with an idea, he questioned them again!
Continue reading “Let Them Go”