For some time now I’ve been interested in how cognitive science findings can be used to improve teaching and learning in the classroom. Whilst this has shaped what I currently do in the classroom, until now I’ve never shared this information with my pupils. This is mainly because I’ve been unsure how to communicate this simply to pupils.
Then last year I discovered the Learning Scientists. They produce lots of free materials (from videos to bookmarks) that turn the latest cognitive science into simple explanations of how to study effectively. So after asking one of my year 11 classes if anyone had ever taught them how to revise for exams (to which there was a resounding ‘no!’) I decided to use the Learning Scientists resources to do this.
If you look at the Learning Scientists website you’ll see they talk about 6 different study strategies. I didn’t want to overwhelm my pupils by going over all 6 strategies so I decided to go over what I thought were the two most important: retrieval practice (aka quizzing) and spaced practice. I also wanted to give my pupils some activities to put the strategies into practice.
To help my pupils see the effectiveness of retrieval practice I decided to give them a short quiz on a Chemistry topic they all did badly in in the last mock, ethanol production. They did the quiz, followed by some retrieval practice exercises, before trying the quiz again.
All students could answer more questions and in more detail after the retrieval practice exercises. And most importantly, all pupils had enjoyed the activities and felt that the strategy had been effective in helping them to learn.
Now I know there are problems with giving the students the same questions twice and that although they could answer more second time round this doesn’t prove they learned more and won’t forget the information. However I wasn’t doing a research study here, just trying to get my pupils to buy in to the technique so they will hopefully use it outside of lessons.
The retrieval practice exercises were very straight forward. I let the pupils choose whether they wanted to quiz themselves (by using the cover-write-check method or with flashcards they made) or each other (either with flashcards they made or just making questions up using the information sheet).
I’m a big fan of flashcards, and they certainly helped me throughout my degree course. Interestingly at my school there is a big push for pupils to create ‘revision cards’, which are short content summaries. So I asked my pupils if they made or used them. Almost everyone put their hand up. Then when I asked them how they used them, almost every pupil said they read them.
I (briefly!) talked about how to use flashcards, that they are much more effective when you create them with a question on one side, the answer on the other and actually try to answer the question fully before looking at the answer. I also described how they could also put their cards into three piles (cards they could answer fully, cards they could partially answer and cards they couldn’t answer) and that they needed to quiz themselves more on the last two piles than the first (although I stressed that they still needed to quiz themselves with cards they could previously answer so they didn’t forget the information, just not as much as the others).
Going forward I want to try to incorporate retrieval practice into my lessons regularly. Making flashcards and quizzing each other could be a good plenary activity. And if done regularly, when it comes to revision time pupils will already have made their flashcards with which to quiz themselves.
It’s important to note that one or two pupils in the classes I did this with didn’t like it. One girl said to me ‘people learn in different ways and this won’t work for me’. This resistance could be because creating questions from information (either to ask verbally or for flashcards) is harder than just copying information. However it could also be that some pupils believe that they have a certain learning style.
I think the best response to this is that quizzing can be done in different ways; on your own, with others, using the cover-write-check method, using flashcards, answering questions (verbally or written) from the revision guide or past papers, redrawing from memory mindmaps and diagrams, etc. So once pupils have tested out all the different quizzing methods (and have given them a good go) they can use the method which best suits them.
Below are links to the files I used for the lesson. Feel free to download and use.