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Week 3 introduction

Welcome to Week 3 of the course! Hear from Cat Scutt and Jonathan Firth about the week ahead and engage with this week's research evidence.
Welcome back to the third week of the course. In this module, we’ll be exploring how to develop learning that really sticks, drawing on research, practice and current thinking about learning and memory. There are lots of things that both teachers and students can do to help increase the amount of content they’re able to recall over the long term. Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction and Dunlosky’s Student Toolbox are two particularly popular reviews, which draw together key ideas in this area highlighting the importance of revisiting ideas over time and of practice testing or retrieval practice where students attempt to recall information from memory.
This kind of recall can be encouraged through regular quizzing, which also provides a dual benefit of giving feedback to the teacher on common misconceptions or areas that might need to be retaught, something we’ll discuss in more depth next week. Technology can be incredibly powerful here with online quizzing tools enabling this in a way which is both efficient for teachers and that feels low stakes for students. Recent work from the Education Endowment Foundation indicates that it’s worth taking the time to help students to develop their metacognition and self-regulation. That is, their awareness of their strengths and weaknesses the strategies they use to learn and how they can motivate themselves to engage in learning and develop strategies to keep improving.
Technology tools can play a role in supporting these areas as well. The ability for students to easily self-quiz at home for example is really powerful. We can help students to understand effective learning strategies that they can use themselves and then actually provide them with tools to support these practices. They can monitor their own progress, identify the strategies which are resulting in the most success, and the gamification elements like badges or scoreboards that are often built into tech tools can also play a role in motivation. Now let’s hear from Jonathan Firth who will be sharing insights into research and practice in the use of technology to support teaching approaches that are informed by what we know about the science of learning.
Hi, I’m Jonathan Firth. I’m a Teaching Fellow at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow and a Researcher. I’ll be exploring what research tells us about how learning can be maximised if we understand memory, retrieval, elaboration, spacing and interleaving. Cognitive psychology explains learning in terms of thought process and understanding and how new ideas are formed in a learner’s mind. Memory plays a key role in all forms of learning but this doesn’t mean that learning should be seen as rote memorisation. Instead, psychologists recognise that meaningful understanding plays a huge role in how we learn. Research into memory can be applied to helping teachers and their pupils learn more successfully.
For example, psychologists have explained how and when forgetting happens and what can be done to make a new memory more distinctive and lasting. They found some techniques to be very helpful such as spacing out learning, practicing retrieval of information in multiple contexts, and linking ideas together. Other techniques such as passive repetition, rereading, highlighting and over learning have been shown to be inefficient in the long run. Memory research can therefore help teachers to tweak their classroom practice such that it leads to more lasting learning and more success for the pupils. Retrieval practice is a core concept for teachers to understand both in and out of the classroom.
The essential idea behind retrieval practice is that when learners recall information from their long-term memory, for example when answering quiz questions, this helps to consolidate that information. Doing a quiz is not just a way of testing what learners know but can also help that learning stick. However this benefit is only obvious over time delays of a few days or more. To put it simply, retrieval slows down forgetting. Although it’s associated with quizzing, retrieval practice doesn’t have to involve a quiz. Tasks like paired discussions, self explanation, peer teaching or project work could also prompt pupils to actively retrieve information from memory.
These can be contrasted with more passive activities such as reading the information, being told about it or highlighting in a book. If learners copy from a book or screen or take notes during a lecture video this does not involve retaining anything for more than a few seconds and as such it’s less effective in promoting learning. It would be preferable if they listened first and then tried to summarise the information a few minutes later from memory and they could later check their summary to address missing information or mistakes. Homework could also stimulate retrieval practice, but only if it’s done in a closed book format. The ideal level of difficulty would be for the retrieval to be challenging but not impossible.
For that reason, retrieving new information later the same day could be well timed but further consolidation after delay of a few days or weeks is also important. Elaboration is a further learning concept that can be helpful for us to consider in effectively supporting students’ learning. Elaboration means linking an idea to other relevant information. If a new concept is only connected to one other thing then the overall structure of what has been learned is fragile and prone to forgetting and provides a poor foundation for later learning. For example, imagine trying to teach a science class about chemical bonding if they don’t fully understand how atoms work. It’s not difficult to see why they might misunderstand and rapidly forget such information.
The key feature of something that is well understood is that learning is connected to existing knowledge and can be used by learners in multiple situations. Psychologists call a structure of interconnected knowledge, a schema. Understanding of a concept therefore includes more than just the abstract fact but instead represents how that fact is linked to other things. Research into what is known as deep processing shows that when learners engage in meaningful tasks, the information is better retained than if they focus just on the surface features of the information, such as the words used.
Teachers can encourage elaboration by giving their pupils tasks which encourage them to make links, this could involve working in multiple real-life examples where a concept occurs or analysing scenarios. As well as helping to consolidate prior learning, looking at new ideas in multiple contexts makes it easier for learners to later transfer their learning to situations outside of the classroom. Both retrieval practice and elaboration can be supported by technology. One example of this is the use of online quizzes through sites like Kahoot and Quizlet. Quizzes for most courses are already freely available, saving on planning time. These approaches also reduce workload because pupils get automated feedback so there’s no need for marking.
Quiz questions don’t always prompt elaboration as they tend to be short and decontextualised. I encourage elaboration among my learners by using blogs, for example in my social psychology classes I ask learners to write blog posts explaining a real-life example of a concept that they have studied such as how they’ve encountered the effect of an authority figure on obedience. Using a real context makes the learning more vivid and helps them to connect theoretical ideas to their existing knowledge. Spacing and interleaving are two concepts which can be applied in the classroom to improve the durability of learning.
The spacing effect is the finding that learning is more effective when it takes place at widely spaced intervals rather than being massed into a short space of time. This applies both to a single lesson and to a course. For example, it would usually be better to practice a set of German verbs for 10 minutes per week over three consecutive weeks than to do so for a 30-minute session in a single week. Of course, that intensive half hour session would lead to a short-term gain but this would be followed by rapid forgetting. Spacing can be combined with retrieval practice as practice quizzes can be spaced out across several weeks rather than just being done when concepts and skills are first studied.
Ideas such as retrieval practice might appear to be all about classroom techniques but in fact planning is just as important. As you plan a lesson or course it’s important to think about how learners will get to practice information in multiple contexts, sometimes written, sometimes in discussion and perhaps sometimes in an unusual lesson format such as when outdoors or on a school trip. You should also plan for review at widely spaced intervals such as after a couple of weeks or months.
In Week 3, we will be exploring where technology can help teachers to facilitate learning that sticks through engaging with what research evidence has to tell us and what school case studies might reveal.

We’ll seek to answer the following questions:

  • How can we support pupils’ long-term retention of content learnt using retrieval practice, elaboration and spacing?
  • How might technology effectively support the retention of learning?
  • In what circumstances might we choose to use (or not use) technology as a tool to support learning that sticks?

Cat Scutt, Director of Education and Research at the Chartered College of Teaching and Jonathan Firth, Teaching Fellow at the University of Strathclyde, introduce you to some of the week’s core concepts and research evidence in this week’s video introduction.

Throughout the week’s learning ahead, we encourage you to take a look at what others have posted, replying to your peers as well as posting your own responses so that our community of learning continues to flourish.

When you’ve watched the video and made any notes to record key learning points, click the ‘Mark as complete’ button below and then select ‘Discuss your practice’ to continue your learning.
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Using Technology in Evidence-Based Teaching and Learning

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