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Over the last few weeks, most of us will have spent time revising with classes (and sometimes despairing at how little of our hard work seemed to have impacted on the memories of our students). Over the next few weeks, many of us turn our thoughts to planning new schemes of work and activities for lessons next year. It seems a good time to think about how learning happens and the strategies that support the development of deeper levels of understanding and better retention of skills and concepts.


Coe et al point out that ‘one paradoxical finding is that some approaches that may appear to make learning harder in the short term, and less satisfying for learners, actually result in better long term retention’. They consider the work of Bjork and Bjork (on page 17) and the difference between ‘short-term performance and long-term learning’. Using the concept of ‘desirable difficulty’, Bjork and Bjork offer four specific ways in which the way learning is organised can improve the chance of retention:

  • Varying conditions of practice
  • Spacing study or practice sessions – gaps to allow forgetting improve learning
  • Interleaving – rather than learning a single block of content, moving between different blocks
  • Testing as a learning activity – using low stakes testing with feedback

As teachers we often try to work systematically, ensuring mastery before we move on to the next logical stage. Research suggests that we might be better to move on more readily, switching between activities and revisiting content and skills using different strategies to develop mastery. We may try, when testing, to maximise success for our students but research suggests that testing even before content is covered creates pathways that seem to help later learning. Much of what is being suggested it counterintuitive and needs more thorough testing in classroom situations but if the revision season has shown glaring gaps, the ideas might be worth exploring in more detail before planning for next year.

The idea of testing and the nature of testing is explored in more detail by David Didau in one of his learning spy blogs, and this offers a link to research work by Roediger et al. Like Brown et al, they discuss the link between testing and the recall it involves for the learner, resulting in better memory for material that has been regularly tested. There is no difference in outcomes between self-testing, testing through quizzes, questioning in class, essays and the like. The more complex the demands of the testing process, the greater the impact on learning that is often demonstrated at a later date. As Brown et al suggest, ‘the easier knowledge or skill is for you to retrieve, the less your retrieval practice will benefit retention of it’.

With the move to more linear courses, particularly at A level, recall of large quantities of content is going to become increasingly important. Those of us who remember the days of three hour exams remember the cramming that went on in the last few weeks. But times may have changed with the predictable knowledge focused papers of the olden days giving way to the skills based assessment in many subjects. Where we could once predict likely questions and find enough choice on papers to avoid questions tangential to our structuring of knowledge, in many subjects students are now expected to apply their understanding to novel and unexpected questions. Putting together a file of notes to cram at the end of the course is no longer the game being played.