Friday, 19 February 2016

Can I be that little bit better at......using simple strategies to make content stick?

Courtesy of Coffeeforcollege

I've been quiet on Twitter and my personal blog for a few months.  This has mainly come down to taking on a new job mid way through an academic year.  With all of the new systems, syllabus, schemes of work, policies and specifications to get your head round, picking up new classes (who have already had a previous teacher a few weeks earlier) has to be the most difficult bit.

One of these classes is a Year 11 GCSE PE theory class who will be sitting their final exam in a few months time.  Take out mocks, the Easter holidays, INSET days and study leave, there isn't as much time as I would like to implement strategies to move students grades an enormous amount.  With sections of coursework to finish up before moving onto revision, I needed to develop a programme that could pool together strategies that make that time as effective as possible when it begins.

With the group already studying the course since Year 9, and available data not shedding much light on students gaps in knowledge, it becomes difficult to plan interventions until another test, assessment or mock exam takes place.  Only at that stage can I begin to gauge in a more detailed way what my students do or do not know.

Making every second count

If you're not careful, in this situation you can lose (or even waste) time.  You can become so hooked up on trying to ascertain what students have done, what they have learnt, what areas of technique need work, what their use of language is like, that you actually let time slip away.  Ideally you would have taught the group for longer, had all assessments available, had a chance to chat to every student, see their books and scrutinise them all in an effort to help build up a bigger picture.  Unfortunately, mid term with a few months to go, you might need to build this into the process.

Lessons therefore need to maximise all available time.  They need to help me check understanding, identify weakness and allow them to close the gaps in knowledge.  They need to allow me an opportunity to work on technique and develop language use and structure.  They need to provide opportunities to hammer home the key messages about effective revision and the various methods.  In this short time I therefore need to get that little bit better at using simple strategies to make what I cover in the next few months actually stick.

Retrieval practice and 'Do now' tasks

Cumulative bell work and 'Do now tasks'

With time so precious, every lesson immediately begins with a cumulative task in the format of 'Bell work' or if you've read TLaC a 'Do now' task.  Students are expected to silently and individually undertake a low stakes retrieval activity which last a maximum of five minutes.  The answers are then reviewed in two minutes with answers displayed on the board for all to check.  The process may look time heavy, but there is an urgent need to identify misconceptions and weaknesses in students' knowledge.  There is also the importance of using retrieval practice to improve memory and learning.  The task itself becomes both diagnostic and a revision process in itself.

Retrieval practice

Every lesson builds in a form of retrieval practice.  The importance of the testing effect and the subsequent improvement of retrieval and storage strength is without question.  The retrieval practice allows students to forcibly retrieve knowledge and promote thinking.  I've written about the benefits of it here.  Now the key here is to use low stakes tests.  With many schools having numerous mocks, exams, end of unit assessments, it's important to demonstrate that testing can actually be beneficial to the students and extremely effective.  With the pressures of these high stakes tests, there is the worry that more of the same only adds to the stress levels of students.  One of the most effective ways that I have implemented low stakes tests is through the use of multiple choice questions.

Well designed multiple choice questions

Every other lesson, students complete a 10 question cumulative multiple choice paper.  They do this individually so that I can use the results to identify areas of weakness.  There has been a change of opinion recently over the effectiveness of multiple choice questions.  The work of Robert Bjork and colleagues has highlighted that well designed multiple choice questions not only provides a good diagnostic tool, but actually helps improve memory and retrieval.  The key though is to ensure that the potential options for the answers are rigorous, plausible and in close proximity to the correct one.  Making them to easy has low cognitive effect and loses any benefit of the method.  Having too few potential answers can make it a 50/50 guessing game rather than an exploration of what the correct answer might be through the process of elimination (and using what you know to do that).  To take this a step further, including an 'I don't know' option at the end of each one can eliminate those that hazard a guess and get it correct which can lead to misconceptions being un-diagnosed.

Designing high quality multiple choice questions can be extremely difficult but resources such as AQA's Exampro, Pearson's Exam Wizard or other diagnostic questioning tools can help achieve rigor whilst saving teachers time.

Elaboration in multiple choice questions

Elaborative interrogation

Prompting students to ask 'why' questions is beneficial to memory retention.  As this guide from Dunlosky et al (2013) points out, the process of getting students to explain (or ask) why can actually help facilitate learning.  Combined with multiple choice quizzes, in the time allocated, students not only have to select the correct answers, but they are also expected to provide a supporting statement explaining why it is the right answer (or maybe why the others are incorrect).  This subtle change to how students answer these types of quizzes helps students retrieve the correct answer, strengthen its storage in memory, make it more accessible in future and help demonstrate whether they know the topic or not.  It's such a simple tweak that has really benefited the individuals in the class.

Criteria for note taking from J. Fenlon

Closing the gaps through effective notes

Lessons are not just about testing, quizzing or retrieving.  It's important that once a misconception or area of weakness has been identified, we collaboratively work on closing that gap in knowledge.  In lessons we have rolled out a gateway method of how to take notes when making revision resources.  As teachers we demonstrate this to students in the hope that they mirror some of these actions and form them into habits.

In the past I have been very skeptical about how students make notes.  Many simply copy out of books.  Many write texts word for word.  Some bullet point, highlight, short hand, annotate.....the list goes on.  My worry though is that students therefore re-read these notes and mistake this for effective revision.  As we know, whilst re-reading provides familiarity and a false sense that they remember information, it's ability to be retained over time is low and forgetting quickly occurs.  Cramming notes the night before is therefore unhelpful.

We now need to take the view that if students are making notes, they need to be able to do something with them.  Preferably, this something involves using the notes to test or quiz themselves.  We now use the above criteria from John Fenlon to ensure that notes incorporate chunking, thinking and allow them to be easily used for retrieval practice.  Simple ideas such as splitting topics into chunks and then numbering them allows the working memory to not be overloaded.  It also helps us say "What were the 6 points about somatotypes and physique that I need to know".  Numbering allows us to check off points and work out what were, for instance, the three things I didn't remember (before testing myself on them again).  The messages that we try to instill through this method can then be transferred into other revision resources and become effective habits.

Will it work?

The theory behind the execution draws upon sound research.  The signs should be there that this will (in the short term) help until a better grip on what students do or do not know becomes apparent.  As always, the delivery and implementation in lessons can be the stumbling block.  Am I transferring these principles into practice correctly?  Am I using them as intended?  Only a final mock, unit test and final exam can actually say if it did or not.

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