Retrieval of Knowledge

knowledgeI have always considered myself a vaguely successful maths teacher and yet I realised last year that I have never actually considered how the students in my classroom think or learn. This changed last year when I started reading educational research and I discovered how I’d probably been  going about  things all wrong  in the classroom for the last 13 years. Specifically I had an interest in memory and cognitive load theory since thinking and learning are such important parts of teaching.  One of my main frustrations with the students was their ability to recall information taught in the day, week or month previous. So I began trying to research why and what I could do in the classroom to help. One of the articles I came across said ‘retrieval is a powerful memory modifier’ and this stuck with me and my quest to work on information retrieval techniques began.

One of first things I did was to introduce the idea of exit tickets. Either at the end of one lesson, or the beginning of the next I would set 2/3 questions to see if they had understood and could recall under test conditions the content of a previous lesson. I complete these every 2/3 lessons with all classes years 7-13. The pupils seem to like them as almost instantaneous feedback is given and the pressure of a low stakes quiz is minimal.  It is also important to sometimes mix up topics and questions so they have to recall information learnt last week or last term.

What is amazing for me to see is that now this is not only something which is done in the maths department but across subjects. I have included one of mine and a few examples of other exit tickets used across the school.




Philosophy and Ethics:

philisophy and ethics

Another idea connected to low stakes quizzes was ‘Throwback Thursday’ where each week the students get a questions from ‘last week’, ‘last week’ and ‘last term’.  Again, my example is below followed by more examples from other departments.

maths 4maths 5



languageslanguages 2Once a week every class in all years get a 10 question skills check. Straight forward, basic skills check on anything and everything. The topics remain the same for each half term but questions change so they are recalling the information every week for 6 weeks.   Again, here is an example of what I use, followed by other examples.
maths 6





languages 3
languages 4By Alison Benn (T&L Team)

T&L INSET 2018-19

This year there are two strands to our T&L priorities. The first is focused on ‘Quality Answers’ which includes looking at teacher talk, teaching vocabulary, better sentences/ thoughts and modelling/ scaffolding. The second is focused on short term and long term memory and strategies to enhance memory such as retrieval practice.

Our first whole school INSET introduced both of the strands and started to introduce the key ideas. Below is a summary of what was covered, including the presentations used.

Quality Answers (Lead: Michael Tatham, T&L Team)

Session 1: Quality Answers

Michael introduced the importance of vocabulary and being ‘word rich’. He explored how teachers are fundamental in the teaching of tricky but essential vocabulary. A lot of his work has been influenced by Alex Quigley’s book ‘Closing the Vocabulary Gap’ and other academic research.

In the classroom Michael recommended:

  1. Model the academic code in your talk
  2. Use the S E E C model
  3. Teach key words and concepts memorably.

Model the Academic Code in your Talk

This idea emphasises the need for teachers to infuse academic and subject specific vocabulary during teacher talk.  As Amy Benjamin states “As teachers, we should be using (or infusing) vocabulary we suspect that our students don’t quite know yet…… If speaking this way becomes a habit, then our students are fortunate: they will be learning new words effortlessly.”

Michael suggested strategies we could use to do this:

  1. Using discourse markers
  2. Talking like an expert
  3. Upgrading or restating words
  4. ABC feedback
  5. Phrasing tentatively

Use the S E E C model for Teaching Vocaulary

Select words to teach and spontaneously teach words

Explain the word well

Explore the word


This idea was explained by Amanda Jones (T&L Team) who examined how she would use the model to teach the term ‘osmosis’.

Teach Key Word and Concepts Memorably

Michael modelled how to teach key vocabulary in a memorable way. He demonstrated the concept using two teachers and then modelled what he would do in the classroom.

To conclude a quote from Phil Beadle was used; “In introducing pupils to higher order language, you are enabling them to convey an increasing complexity of thought, and besides this, you’re also teaching them how talk in the language of the orthodoxy – those who hold the reins of power”.

Presentation 1 Improving teacher talk and vocabulary

Long Term Memory (Leads: Alison Benn and Alex Mclean, T&L Team)

The start of the session examined the difference between the working and long term memory. The key learning from the introduction was the Attention, Encoding, Storage and Retrieval model which easily explains how people learn and remember.

Alex and Ali introduced a range of practical strategies they use in order to aid students’ retrieval practice.

Ali explained how she used to teach topics in blocks, set topic specific home learning, use application questions related to the topic and then test at the end of block. This process was repeated for her to cover the content she needed to teach. Now, she is using retrieval practice in order to aid learning and memory of key concepts and knowledge. As a Maths teacher she has introduced ‘Ratio Tuesday’, ‘Throwback Thursday’ and Friday ‘Skills Check’. One of the key ideas which a lot of our teachers liked was ‘Throwback Thursday’ which included a question from last term, last week and last lesson.

Alex shared a range of ideas she uses with her classes. In English, she uses a range of images at the start of a lesson and asks students to explain how they link to a particular act in a text they have studied. She also writes a passage about a text but leaves blanks which she challenges students to fill in without using their text. Alex highlighted how useful some online sites can be in retrieval practice and mentioned Quizlet, Triptico and Factile. It was interesting to hear how Alex has changed elements of her planning in order to include greater opportunities for students to recall their knowledge from past lessons and content.

Presentation Session 1 Long Term Memory

We will be building on these two strands throughout the year and encouraging teachers to include them in their planning and lessons.




Action Research Summaries

During this year one of our CPD options has been to join an action research group. Each one was run by a member of the Teaching and Learning Team and were focused on:

  • Monitoring and Motivating ‘middle’ ability learners at KS4
  • Preparing Learners for Linear Examinations at KS5
  • Getting the Best out of Boys

On Monday, all of our teaching staff came together to share what had been covered in each of the groups and to discuss the action research they had taken part in.

The resources below come from each of the group leaders.

  1. Monitoring and Motivating ‘middle’ ability learners at KS4 – Alex McLean

Teaching the Middle

Motivating students handout

Further reading on motivation

2. Preparing Learners for Linear Examinations at KS5 – Caoimhe Coyle

Preparing Learners for Linear Examinations at KS5 Handout

Preparing Learners for Linear Examinations at KS5 Presentation

3. Getting the Best out of Boys – Michael Tatham

MTa SUMMARY Action Research Getting the best out of boys

MTA Getting the Best out of Boys

At the end of the INSET these sources were highlighted for extra reading and information:





Magpie Number 4 – Dot Marking for KS5

magpie-clipart-cartoon-1This series of blog posts are going to bring you a range of new T&L ideas from a range of different sources.

In the front of our ‘Essentials’ book you will find a range of different strategies you can use to reduce the time of marking but still ensuring effective feedback to students. It can be rare to see some of these strategies being used consistently which is why I was excited to see the example below. It was posted by Heather Mary James (@LDNHumsTeacher) using an ideas from @MrsHumanities. Dot feedback

The success of a strategy like this depends on making the dots subject or/and assessment criteria specific and using it consistently so students come to fully understand feedback and expect feedback to be delivered in this way. The strategy offers the opportunity to save hours writing the same feedback on KS5/ KS4 extended written answers.

dot marking 1


Magpie Number 3 – Retrieval Practice Challenge Grids

magpie-clipart-cartoon-1This series of blog posts are going to bring you a range of new T&L ideas from a range of different sources.

Over recent months we have been highlighting different techniques which encourage students to retrieve knowledge they have learnt in the past.

I saw this idea on Twitter and it has been created by Kate Jones (@87History). The Retrieval Practice Challenge Grids can be used as a starter activity. If students pick a question which is linked to knowledge covered a week ago they get one point, if they pick a question covered two weeks ago they get two points etc. I would give them a set amount of time, maybe 5 minutes, to complete as many as they can and achieve as many points as they can.

This example is based on recapping and revising a History topic (Source: @87History).

Retrieval Practice Challenge Grids

Magpie Number 2 – Home Learning Ideas for KS4

magpie-clipart-cartoon-1This series of blog posts are going to bring you a range of new T&L ideas from a range of different sources.

The demands of the new KS4 specifications and the linear nature of these qualifications made me look for effective home learning tasks for my students. In particular, I was looking for tasks which supported their retention of knowledge and key terms. In my regular scan of Twitter I came across the profile of a Geography HoD called Jenn (@Jennnnnn_x) and these wonderful ideas.

  1. This key term reviewKey Word Focus sheet has a range of ideas for students to remember and use new terminology.








2. “Geog your Memory” The title of this task is very Geography centred and is quite detailed for one home learning task but it is one example of how you can get students to revisit past topics/ units. Geog Your Memory

3. Self – testing is a very effective way for students to revise and remember key content. This example shows a template for a Knowledge Test and the expectation is that the students fold over the answers and they re-test themselves over time. Knowledge Test Example











Magpie Number 1 – Structure Strips

magpie-clipart-cartoon-1This series of blog posts are going to bring you a range of new T&L ideas from a range of different sources.

Number 1 – Structure Strips

These are an excellent way to offer help in structuring longer mark questions or responses. The strip is stuck into the margin of an exercise book page and has the exam question or task at the top.

The rest of the strip is used to guide the writing of the answer. This guidance can be bullet points taking the students through the content expected or a series of questions to help student thinking. The student then writes their response next to the structure strip so they can refer to it.

An example can be seen below and this document is an outline I used and can be edited Editable Structure Strip



‘Spaced-Learning’ and the forgetting curve

spaced-learning-1The idea that we lose knowledge over time is nothing new to the research stream of learners and learning.  In 1885, Hermann Ebbinghaus created a formula for the exponential rate of ‘forgetting’ – as time moves forward we forget what we have learned. However, by repeatedly practising these skills, or refreshing our memory intermittently over time, we can increase the percentage of information remembered. There are of course variables, such as, the relative strength of memory – but as teachers this is something we are only acutely aware of in our everyday practice anyway.

It then seems crazy when we compare this stream of research (for which there is much) to how we teach in schools today. The trend of learning seems to be similar across most subjects and schools – teach a module, test a module, (record test result to demonstrate progress), move onto the next module. This process tends to be repeated (minus a few mock exams) until Easter prior to the examination period when we all suddenly start revising with gusto.

When considering writing the new specifications surely we should be reducing our emphasis on modular learning, and beginning to focus more on continuous themes of learning. The exam boards are trying to improve the clarity of command words and become clearer in the expectations of the students. We need to use this to our advantage and train the students – slowly and over time – as to how to answer exam questions and build up their content knowledge. This is the perfect time to introduce ‘spaced-learning’ into the schemes of work.

The concept of ‘spaced-learning’ is to continually refer back to previous material to ‘top-up’ and keep on top of the students learning, thus limiting the amount of forgetting.spaced-learning-2

So how do we implement ‘spaced-learning’ without rocking the boat?

I will be introducing this concept to my year 10 GCSE classes. Every third week (10th lesson) I will leave the SOW and interject with a random exam-focussed lesson. It will be random in the sense that it could be from any ‘module’ we have studied. However, it will also be carefully planned to help develop the general skills required for the exams focussing heavily on the higher valued command words – assess, evaluate, analyse, justify etc.

I have done this previously by presenting the exam question; think-pair-share to decipher the requirements of the question and develop a structure/plan. Students then used any resources they wished to help build up their knowledge; working in groups on poster paper. Students prompted to focus on the command word and develop their higher order thinking as a group. Finally, the students write the answer in full individually to be peer assessed.

Other ideas to develop ‘spaced-learning’:

There will be so many techniques used in the classroom already. The concept it to ensure these techniques are spaced out over-time, or repeated intermittently.

  • Kahoot quiz’s (could be re-used over time)
  • Google classroom tests; so no teacher marking is required. Again these could be repeated intermittently over-time (a great way to demonstrate progress).
  • Home learning past paper questions from previous ‘modules’.
  • Student workbook with questions and tasks with various due dates to forward plan the ‘spaced-learning’.
  • Stick in questions or tasks during the course of teaching to be left and reviewed in a few weeks/months’ time.
  • Peer/self-assess tasks a few weeks/ months after they have been completed by students.
  • Setting a weekly ‘review-style’ home learning task consolidating the content of the week.
  • Delay student response to teacher marking. Students could reply to detailed teacher questions 2-3 weeks after completing the work, therefore allowing them to stretch their memory.

The general idea is to ensure we are continuously reviewing concepts and ideas to slow the rate of forgetting. During a busy teaching schedule and with tight deadlines to complete units of work it can be tough to make time for this type of learning. However, it is important to note that the literature points heavily towards the benefits of ‘spaced-learning’.

This is something I am beginning to implement with my exam classes… I will let you know how it progresses. If you have any other ideas for how to implement this in the classroom please let me know – I’d love to have more ideas.

Megan Anderson


A unique insight: the first few weeks of teacher training with the Alban TSA

I suppose the biggest point that has struck me, having now visited four secondary schools in the Federation, is how widely the schools vary in their philosophy and approaches to education whilst at the same time providing their students with the opportunities essential for success. For example, at Verulam the whole approach (from lesson structure through to behaviour management techniques) is geared towards the school’s understanding of how boys can be engaged in their learning. It was interesting to see the same techniques employed during a boys only PE lesson at Marlborough School. I am looking forward to my visit to STAGS, to see how their understanding of girls’ learning affects their policies and approaches to teaching.  The interesting extrapolation will then be the extent to which gender-led techniques are streamed into mixed gender schools.

The most interesting systemic approach, unique so far in my experience, is St George’s vertical house system. The House is the core organisational and motivational unit through which all facets of non-teaching school life are channelled: behavioural; pastoral; student leadership; and competitive activities. One consequence and major difference from other schools is that there are no Heads of Years – these functions fuse into the Head of House. Fascinating, but at this stage I don’t know enough to weigh the pros and cons of this.

Turning to Beaumont, I want to thank all of the staff, who have been very welcoming and supportive and ready to provide me with opportunities to develop my understanding of the practicalities of day to day teaching. Being able to observe subjects outside of my own speciality has allowed me to see a variety of approaches and methods, and gain insights as to how some can be translated successfully into the music environment. The music lessons I have observed are far and away the most interesting and entertaining I have ever experienced! The sense of enjoyment and humour that pervade classes of any age combined with the practical focus in the lessons themselves create enthusiasm for experimentation, self- expression and recognition of the pleasure available from music even for students who would not otherwise enjoy it.  The challenge for me, which I face with a mixture of relish and apprehension, is finding out if I can deliver anything remotely akin to this when eventually I get in front of a class.

By Jonathan Burrett