When I became a teacher, English was my subject specialism and whilst a bit of maths and ICT were thrown into my timetable, science couldn’t have been further from my mind as an educator.
Fast-forward ten years and the current education climate poses such challenges of workload, recruitment and retention that it seems teachers and leaders alike should be more concerned than ever with questioning ‘what works’ in their context and relying not solely on intuition and experience, but also upon both science and evidence to support decision-making.
The Third Space: Science of Learning event, aptly held at the National STEM Learning Centre in York, generated real insight into the possibilities for researchers and educators to work in tandem to improve learning. What follows are a few key learning points that provide an insight into the nature of the day.
The fallacy of flashcards
On a number of occasions, speakers referenced a common scenario that had conference participants laughing in recognition: ‘students think they’re studying by making flashcards’. Students spend endless hours going through their notes and writing their flashcards in different coloured pens, often with little regard for what the most important concepts to focus on might be. Then they open up a folder, pop them in and believe that the subject has now been ‘revised’.
The evidence that exists around retrieval practice indicates that it’s the act of bringing the knowledge to mind that is of paramount importance (Sumeracki A and Weinstein, Y, 2018). We should therefore be investing time in helping students to spend their time on activities that will actually help them to learn. These effective revision behaviours will need to be built gradually whilst existing habits are simultaneously broken. For every re-reading of a textbook, re-writing of notes, and filing of flashcards, we need to model and advocate an alternative, more effective, approach.
With flashcards, we need to break the habit of students flipping the card before the recall has taken place. This action merely leads to a recognition effect that fools them into believing that learning has occurred rather than genuine recall having taken place. It requires real discipline to recall the information and so we need to model, in class, what this might look like so that students have a better chance of success when studying alone and faced with a flashcard tempting them to take a peek.
Other retrieval practices can be shared with students as more effective alternatives to existing habits that need to be broken:
- Replace writing notes from a textbook with creating a knowledge organiser from memory and returning to the textbook to fill in the blanks
- Replace re-reading notes with engaging in quizzes to test recall
- Replace condensing notes into a one page poster with completing a practice question and using the mark scheme to assess the response
Listening to Dr Caroline Creaby, I was struck by her rigorous approach to implementing a new initiative across the school. Not for the first time, I considered the difference that might be made to both staff and students if more time and attention were paid to not just the ‘what’ of the new initiative but the ‘how’ of implementing a new approach effectively with staff, students, parents and wider stakeholders.
- Identify the challenge to be focused on and work right across the staff body to gain a precise consensus on this
- Engage thoroughly with what research and evidence says with regards to this challenge
- Work collaboratively to create a possible solution
- Plan the rollout so that all parties are included and inducted to generate buy-in
- Ensure that a general teaching and learning initiative is always translated to become subject-specific
- Measure the impact of this initiative and continue to reflect on its effectiveness
The memory clock was created following this evidence-based model and it seeks to solve the challenge of students not revising.
A model might be exactly what is required when a student has every intention to revise but has little idea what to do past staring at notes and covering them with highlighter ink. It may also serve as a practical way of keeping them on track with revision strategies that are high impact but also require a high level of self-regulation.
The clock was created in response to students at Sandringham School who were not necessarily making the most of their one hour study periods at school. After discussion during Caroline’s workshop, it became apparent that the model could translate across to a structure for a ‘taught’ revision session, a longer or shorter period of time, or a paired rather than individual study approach. The model helps students to structure their time; spending more of it on practice than they may have previously done.
Planning for memory with spacing and interleaving
As Dr Yana Weinstein suggested earlier in the day, taking students through the process of planning for and then reflecting on revision is helpful to build positive study habits. Whilst many a teacher will already support a student to plot their revision prior to an exam taking place, it might be that an understanding of the principles of spacing and interleaving may hold the key to making this more effective (Firth, J, 2018).
Set aside time not just to talk about what will be revised but also when and how. Work alongside students to structure the order in which topics will be revised and revisited (interleaving) as well as what kind of gap they’ll leave between each topic (spacing).
When creating a revision timetable, work with students to identify achievable targets. If they’re doing no revision at present, move away from one hour an evening and towards 15 minutes three times a week. Far better for them to feel a sense of accomplishment early on than for them to have their dreams of a perfect schedule dashed as they inevitably fail to meet the zero to hero expectations they’ve set for themselves.
After setting a realistic goal and tasting success, it will be important to continue revisiting the schedule and ensuring the habit is being built. Whilst celebrating successes, it will also be important to share struggles publicly so that students soon learn it’s natural to lack motivation, or procrastinate.
The day closed with talks from Annie Brookman-Byrne and Rob Webster that each highlighted the need for a more inclusive approach to education. Annie came from the perspective of describing the diverse make-up of the discipline of educational neuroscience, which draws together the interconnecting fields of psychology, cognitive neuroscience, neuroscience, behavioural genetics, computer science, education and technology. She highlighted that educators can be supported through the rather tricky process of translating research into the classroom by practising researchers; thereby reducing the risk of premature application and easing the number of steps from lab to classroom through collaboration.
Rob and other colleagues throughout the day each represented the importance of not neglecting SEND students in the race to implement research in the classroom. Realising how little distance we’ve travelled since the Warnock Report 40 years ago, it is things like the #ResearchSEND collective, co-founded by Michelle Haywood, which can help every teacher to make progress with ensuring education for all.
As the day drew to a close, we were encouraged to consider what had resonated the most with us from the day. With this one thing, what would be the first small step we could take towards making it a reality for our students, colleagues, schools, and colleges? It was at this point that I reflected on the roundtable discussions I’d been listening to over lunch and it occurred to me that there were certainly teachers who might be better placed to take a risk with something new than others: those with access to the kind of culture where spaces are carved out for teachers to breathe, think, and converse; those where the engagement with research is one of robust and collective contemplation rather than thoughtless flying at full speed towards the latest shiny thing; and those where science is not a door to be closed but a window to be opened into what might be possible if we engage with evidence, experiment a little, and identify the impact.
If you’re interested in the science of learning and you’ve already read the second issue of Impact, why not continue your learning in the following ways:
- Ask a question of a scientist – every fortnight, there’ll be a different topic shared for curious educators to gather together, discuss, and ask questions about. You can also use this space to ask other questions about the science of learning outside of the scheduled topics
- Engage in an online course – the National STEM Learning Centre have created an online course related to ‘The Science of Learning’. On the course, you can explore how you can use the science of learning to inform your teaching and support your students’ learning. Drawing upon educational neuroscience and psychology (and combating neuroscience myths), you will learn how to interpret research to be better informed about how your students learn. Throughout the course, you will reflect on your own practice as a teacher, learning how to justify and improve your approach. Next start date: 14 May 2018
- The Learning Scientists – explore the blog and resources on the website from the Learning Scientists
Creaby, C et. al. (2018) Learning to learn: using evidence to enhance knowledge retention and improve outcomes, Impact, Issue 2
Firth, J (2018) The application of spacing and interleaving approaches in the classroom, Impact, Issue 2
Sumeracki, M and Weinstein, Y (2018) Optimising learning using retrieval practice, Impact, Issue 2