When you start delving into the research on how pupils learn, you would be forgiven for thinking that they do very little of it at all. Indeed, there is as much written about what doesn’t support learning as what does. What is immediately clear however, is just how counter-intuitive the process of learning can be. As we plan for the remaining two years of curriculum changes, perhaps it is time to think about the extent to which we take this research into account when designing schemes of learning, resources and classroom practices.
The Problem of Learning
We’ve all collected in a set of exercise books before and had to resist the urge to write something like ‘Were you even in this lesson?’ or ‘I’ve taught you this!’ in the margin. It can be demotivating, particularly when you feel like you’ve taught a blinder of a lesson. This ‘input/output myth’ is at the core of what we need to challenge. Of course, the more we teach and the harder we graft at the front of the room, the more pupils will learn. What is also true, however, is that this is an incredibly inefficient process. The reassurance provided by a more research-based approach to teaching is that we can make this process more efficient, so that less is lost and more is retained.
This is more important now than ever before, as current curriculum reforms promise to bring greater rigour and a tougher set of written exams. At this point, it is worth reminding ourselves of the main changes in the new qualifications. The reforms, first outlined by Michael Gove, are influenced by the American educationalist E.D. Hirsch who writes about the idea of ‘cultural literacy’: the need for individuals to retain a body of ‘core knowledge’ in order to participate fully in society. In broad terms, this has been translated into curriculum reform as follows:
- a greater focus on ‘deep knowledge’ i.e. an understanding of the meanings and principles underpinning the facts,
- a requirement for more extended writing and higher-level numeracy skills,
- a further shift from modular components and towards assessment by terminal examination.
If you would like more information about new qualifications, there is a really useful Q+A style guide here produced by Cambridge.
So how do we develop pupils who can retain more and show greater understanding in more challenging (written?) exams?
If we hope to do so, we must first challenge the conventional view of learning. In Brown, Roediger and Daniel’s book, ‘Make it Stick’ they cite the sort of typical advice pupils are given, for example this from the George Mason University’s website: “The key to learning something well is repetition; the more times you go over the material the better chance you have of storing it permanently.” The book argues that this view (which too often leads to rereading and general ‘going over’) is fundamentally wrong. An oft cited study is the ‘Penny Memory Test’ experiment conducted by Nickerson and Adams (1979). They presented participants with several images of an American penny or one cent coin, only one of which was correct. Despite their familiarity with this object, most failed to identify the correct coin:
This test demonstrates that even images we’re presented with time and time again are difficult to recall with confidence. This image is likely to be more familiar, which is accurate?
One reason that repetition has become common practice in learning and education is because, according to Brown et al., we are susceptible to ‘illusions of knowing’. By revisiting something we become more familiar with it – we seem to understand it better, so we must be learning, right? Perhaps a little, but not in a way that is efficient and ensures future recall.
Similarly, by sticking at a topic for an extended time, we feel like we have ‘cracked’ that topic. Our performance when applying this knowledge improves dramatically and we can often talk fluently about our learning. As teachers, we often see this increase in pupils’ performance and we assume that it means learning is taking place. Although it’s a logical assumption to make, it is often unsupported by the evidence we later see in their exercise books. This is because performance and learning are not the same thing.
Of course we need to look at pupils’ performance because learning itself is invisible, but we need to remember that performance is the measure and learning is the goal. Performance is a short term measure, what we are interested in is how this reflects learning in the longer-term. Most worryingly, there is evidence to suggest that performance and learning are inversely related: when our performance improves, we are less likely to learn. The current educational climate, where we feel pressure to demonstrate ‘progress’ within a 20 minute window, does nothing to alleviate the problem here. The reality is that pupils are usually learning more when it appears like they aren’t making rapid progress. This idea is linked to Robert Bjork’s (1994) concept of ‘desirable difficulty’ where we can improve learning by introducing greater complication and challenge.
- Repetition alone is not an effective learning strategy
- Blocked learning provides an illusion of progress by improving performance
- Performance and learning are inversely related: poorer performance can be an indicator of greater learning where challenge is increased
How can we overcome these problems?
Blocking vs Interleaving
To begin with the beginning: the first way in which we can make learning more effective is through curriculum design and the structure of topics therein. There has been much written recently about the idea of interleaved practice and so this seems like a good place to start.
Simply put, interleaving means spacing topics or skills within teaching i.e. 123-123-123 rather than 111-222-333. Particularly in knowledge based subjects (and remember that there is more knowledge generally in the new qualifications), there is a tendency to teach in blocks – one unit per half term or similar. This kind of approach is likely to improve performance in end of unit tests, but is unlikely to be best suited to assessment at the end of the course. An interleaved curriculum leads to deeper knowledge which is built in layers with multiple opportunities for application. In contrast, a blocked curriculum is likely to contribute to familiarity with the content and ‘an illusion of knowing’ rather than the ability to recall later.
The research into the effectiveness of interleaving is overwhelmingly positive (more info here), but why it works remains an area for debate. Some, David Didau(2015) amongst them, believe that the ‘illusion of knowing’ created by blocked practice leads to a false sense of security, whereas a healthy level of anxiety about knowledge acquisition is likely to lead to better learning. Perhaps this is best seen in the sense of complacency many of us feel holds some of our pupils back. Is this a consequence of a performance-centred approach?
In terms of the precise cognitive mechanisms, different thinkers have suggested that interleaved practice works through either ‘retrieval practice’ or ‘discriminative contrast’. The first of these ideas suggests that each time we return to a topic we need to retrieve previous information and that this strengthens learning. The second of these theories is based on the idea that putting different ideas side by side your brain needs to work harder to differentiate between the different topics and skills required.
Testing and Retrieval
The idea of ‘retrieval practice’ as mentioned above is a fundamental concept in the book ‘Make it Stick’. To this end, the writers advocate the use of frequent testing, not as an assessment tool, but as a learning technique.
According to Roediger et al (2011), there are ten distinct benefits to testing pupils which are supported by a large number of scientific studies. The full article from the journal for Psychology of Learning and Motivation can be found here. For me, with an eye on the new curriculum, the most compelling reasons to test pupils more is that doing so:
- promotes deep learning,
- facilitates later retrieval and transferability,
- encourages metacognition and good study habits,
- improves organisation of knowledge,
- highlights gaps in knowledge.
One of the terms used in ‘Make it Stick’ is ‘effortful retrieval‘: when testing builds in the right level of desirable difficulty then it is effective in consolidating learning. If we want to deepen the learning of our pupils then we can do so by testing at spaced intervals (allowing time for partial forgetting in between). This kind of model combines the powerful ideas of interleaving and retrieval practice.
- Interleaved practice promotes better long-term learning at the expense of short-term performance gains.
- Interleaved practice and testing help to deepen knowledge and make it more transferable to new topics and challenges.
- Effortful retrieval at spaced intervals is an important part of long-term learning.
Putting it into Practice
Some of these ideas appear common sense and I’m sure that we all do some of these things some of the time. What the reformed curriculum brings into greater focus is that we should be doing all of these things all of the time. This applies both at the level of curriculum planning and classroom practice. But, allowing ourselves to be guided by research instead of intuition and common sense is a leap of faith. By committing to this, we may not always see measurable progress within every 20 minute slice of our lessons, and sometimes pupils will leave the classroom without all of the answers. However, in the longer-term, these strategies will deliver greater learning efficiency: less being lost and more being recalled when needed.
Birnbaum, M. S. et al. (2012). Why interleaving enhances inductive learning: The roles of discrimination and retrieval. Memory and Cognition. 41 (3), pp392-402.
Bjork, R. A. and Linn, M. C. (2002). Introducing Desirable Difficulties for Educational Applications in Science. Available: http://iddeas.psych.ucla.edu/IDDEASproposal.pdf. Last accessed 22nd December 2015.
Breslin, T., Moores, M.. (2015). Your guide to the new qualifications landscape. Available: https://www.cambridge.org/ukschools/files/7214/4605/2525/Curriculum_2015_Your_guide_to_the_new_qualifications_landscape.pdf?utm_source=Cambridge%20University%20Press&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=6339. Last accessed 22nd December 2015.
Brown, P. C., Roediger III, H. L., McDaniel, M. A (2014). Make it Stick. London: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. p1-45.
Didau, D (2015). What if everything you knew about Education was wrong?. Carmarthen: Crown House Publishing. 215-241.
Roediger III, H. L. (2011). Ten Benefits of Testing and Their Applications to Educational Practice. Psychology of Learning and Motivation. 55 (1), 1-36.