How to plan retrieval practice and a curriculum that’s a means of assessment

This is a version of an article written for SecEd Magazine and is the sixth instalment in a 9-part series.

In this series, Matt Bromley reminds all teachers of key practical lessons from the ITT programme he delivers. This time he continues his look at how we can plan learning including assessment and feedback, retrieval, learning activities and more

I am lead lecturer on an initial teacher training programme and, as I was writing the programme last summer, it occurred to me that some of the course content would be useful, not just for those new to the profession, but all early career teachers and indeed seasoned professionals in search of a refresher.

And so, over the course of nine articles I am sharing my ITT journey in the hope that it provides some useful opportunities to reflect on your own professional practice and encourages you to try out some new strategies in your classroom.

The first article explored 10 characteristics which I believe all expert teachers exhibit. In my second article, I focused on the application of theories, principles, and models of learning.

In the third article, I explored a teacher’s roles and responsibilities in ensuring that learning happens. We must identify needs (starting points, prior knowledge/skills, misconceptions, and misunderstandings), we must plan learning (an ambitious, broad, and balanced curriculum which is well sequenced), then we must facilitate, assess and finally evaluate learning. We focused on identifying needs through initial and diagnostic assessments.

The fourth and fifth articles focused on planning learning, whether that takes the form of curriculum planning, writing schemes of work, or – if helpful in the early stages of our careers – producing individual lesson plans. I suggested that the features of an effective plan are as follows:

  • It is ambitious
  • It is broad and balanced
  • It is sequenced
  • It promotes equality and equity
  • It is a means of assessment
  • It embeds retrieval practice and modes of feedback
  • It gradually hands ownership to students
  • It accommodates a variety of learning activities
  • It is shared with and understood by students

In parts four and five of this series I covered items one to four in this list, arguing that:

  1. We need to start at the end and identify success criteria. We need to ask: What knowledge, skills and understanding do we want students to acquire by the time they leave us?
  2. We need to cover a sufficient breadth of subject knowledge (curriculum coverage) in order to ensure students are prepared for the next stage of their education.
  3. We need to lay our curriculum out in a logical order for teaching – which is about organising ideas so that what we teach today builds upon what we taught yesterday and builds towards what we teach tomorrow. Sequencing is also about not allowing prior learning to decay over time, but continually activating it and adding to it.
  4. We need to provide equality then equity. Equality by not dumbing down or reducing the curriculum for some students. Equity by doing more for those who start with less.

Let’s move on to number 5…

5, Planning that is a means of assessment

A good curriculum is also a means of assessment. If we have designed an effective progression model, a sequence which identifies what we want students to know and do at each stage, then this can also be used to assess progress.

Using a progression model as our means of assessment helps ensure we assess knowledge, skills and understanding rather than something arbitrary.

A progression model also provides more useful and useable data – both to us as teachers and to our students. Simple “can-do” statements, for example, can help us to know where students are on their curriculum journeys and thus inform our planning and delivery. We can ascertain whether we are where we had intended to be or whether we need to speed up or slow down, offer more or less depth, and/or change the pitch.

When students are at differing stages of development, as will invariably be the case, we can use this data to instigate peer-tutoring strategies whereby those students who are ahead of their peers can teach others, thus ensuring we maintain the integrity of our sequenced curriculum while helping those who are ahead to fully embed and understand ideas through explanation, and those who are behind to explore key concepts again but in a language they understand.

“Can-do” statements can also be used to provide actionable feedback to students by telling them what they do and do not yet know, and what they can and cannot yet do, and thus what their next steps should be.

Another advantage of the progression model of curriculum planning, as I explained earlier, is that it builds retrieval practice into our teaching – to move on to the next concept, students must first master the previous and so on. Talking of which…

6, Planning that embeds retrieval practice and modes of feedback

Retrieval practice needs to be frequent, spaced, and interleaved. It needs to help students activate, use, and add to their prior knowledge, and this should enable them to see connections between different aspects of our subject curriculum.

I am a believer that every lesson should include some form of retrieval practice. But what form it takes, whereabouts it happens in the lesson, and what it leads to will differ depending on context. For example, in one lesson, retrieval practice may be used at the start of the lesson to determine starting points. This may take the form of a multiple-choice quiz, for instance. In another lesson, though, retrieval practice may take the form of hinge questions used at key points of the lesson (the “hinge” point) to determine who has got it and who hasn’t, and thus whether to move on or go back.

Or retrieval practice may take the form of exit tickets, filled in as students leave the classroom at the end of lessons in order to inform planning for the next lesson, or at least to determine the focus of a starter activity. It may take all these forms in one lesson, of course. Or it may take none of these forms but instead be a self-study tool, perhaps with students using flashcards to revise.

The key point, though, is this: retrieval practice really works and so it should not be left to chance but be carefully planned in advance. When we plan, we need to think about what purpose retrieval practice will serve, what form it should take, when it should happen, how often it should happen, and what will be practised and why.

On the latter point, we need to think about our sequencing again. We don’t want students practising something they have practised recently and know inside-out. Rather, we want them practising something that will take real thought – a desirable difficulty.

We also want to make sure students are required to retrieve knowledge, skills, and understanding from different parts of their long-term memories – another desirable difficulty – and to make connections between different aspects of prior learning.

Spaced and interleaved practice can help here – and, again, this must be planned and not left to chance. Spacing ensures we leave increasingly long gaps before retrieving prior knowledge. Interleaving ensures we mix up related topics for retrieval to ensure students begin to see the connections but also to engineer difficulty and improve the chances of information being encoded in long-term memory.

7, Planning that gradually hands ownership to students

The best plans build students’ independence over time. They start with direct instruction – the highest levels of teacher input whereby the teacher is the arbiter of subject knowledge and skills and ensures information is given to students in small chunks and that the information is relevant and accurate.

But then, over time, the teacher hands control over to students. By the end of this teaching sequence, students can complete tasks by themselves and monitor their own progress and outcomes. Building increasing independence involves three things (all of which I will come back to later in this series):

  • Planning a teaching sequence that starts with direct instruction, moves to teacher modelling, and then to guided practice, before concluding with independent practice. There are various iterations such as “I do, we do, you do”. I have developed my own four-step sequence – telling-showing–doing-practising.
  • Explicitly teaching students how to become metacognitive and self-regulated as learners. Being metacognitive is – put simply – being aware of your progress. It involves students being aware of their cognitive abilities, having knowledge of particular tasks, and having knowledge of the different strategies that are available to them and when they are appropriate to the task. Being self-regulated, meanwhile, is doing something with that knowledge – it requires students to monitor and control their cognitive processes.
  • Identifying, planning, and explicitly teaching the domain-specific study skills needed to access the curriculum and achieve. Put simply, if we require students to take notes in class, then we must teach them how. If we require students to speak, read, and write like subject specialists (a scientist, an historian) then we must teach them how. We need to identify the skills we require students to use in our subject, then plan opportunities to teach these skills. Skills development is incremental and thus we need to build skills over time, engage in retrieval practice, and forge ever-more complex connections.

8, Planning that accommodates a variety of learning activities over time

Variety is the spice of life and lessons are no different. If we want to gain our students’ attentions, engage, and intrigue them, and – by so doing – motivate them to learn, then we must provide a variety of learning modes, methods, and activities over time.

Let me be clear: I am not advocating a regimented lesson structure in which we must plan starters, mains, plenaries. Rather, I believe that a whole lesson might usefully be dedicated to reading or writing, or indeed to teacher explanations and modelling.

But – over time – there does, I think, need to be variety, by which I mean a range of activities that hand control to students, that enable students to practise knowledge and skills, and to demonstrate their learning in different ways.

Variety also means utilising as many of our students’ senses as possible in order to forge strong memories of learning. We want them to see, hear and do; to learn through head, hand, and heart.

The Early Career Framework (DfE, 2019) is instructive here. It says that teachers should plan effective lessons by, among other things, using modelling, explanations, and scaffolds, acknowledging that novices need more structure early in a domain, providing sufficient opportunity for students to consolidate and practise applying new knowledge and skills, and breaking tasks down into constituent components when first setting up independent practice.

The ECF says that teachers should also make good use of expositions by starting expositions at the point of current student understanding, combining a verbal explanation with a relevant graphical representation of the same concept or process, and using concrete representation of abstract ideas.

Teachers should model effectively by narrating thought processes when modelling to make explicit how experts think, and by making the steps in a process memorable and ensuring students can recall them. And they should stimulate student thinking and check for understanding by planning activities around what they want pupils to think hard about and develop an understanding of different student needs by identifying students who need new content further broken down, making use of formative assessment, and adapting lessons, while maintaining high expectations for all, so that all students have the opportunity to meet expectations.

9, Planning that is shared with and understood by students

Let us remember the importance of sharing our plans with students. We must share the journey with students so that they know the destination to which they are headed – what success will look like – and, crucially, why this is important.

We must also share the way-points students must pass en route to that destination – what progress looks like – and explain how students will be assessed along the journey. By so doing, we can help students to see the bigger picture, to understand the purpose and application of learning, and how it all fits together.

Follow Matt on Twitter @mj_bromley for more teaching tips like these.

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