Frustrated by pausing lessons to recap ideas, Annabel Jenner has come up with strategies to sharpen pupil recall

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It’s the first week of term. Armed with a clean lab coat and plenty of enthusiasm, I look over my class lists and I can’t wait to get going with lessons. That feeling of optimism lasts until I make a fatal mistake: I expect pupils to recall something they learned last year. For me, teaching in September too often involves stopping for longer than anticipated to recap ideas with the class. In these instances, the rate-limiting factor is more to do with pupils’ recall than understanding. So how can we help pupils access their prior knowledge?

The expectation pupils will remember everything they have covered to date inevitably leads to disappointment. Instead, considering which specific concepts pupils need to recall will give a handful of key ideas to focus on ahead of a new topic. For example, before being introduced to the reactions of carboxylic acids, it is helpful for pupils to revisit their understanding of the terms ‘weak acid’ and ‘salt’, and be able to recall the products formed from the reactions of acids with carbonates, other bases and metals. By clearly identifying what we want pupils to remember, you can plan focused revision at the start of a new topic. 

Revisiting important ideas

A pre-lesson homework task, set early in a topic and focusing on a few key ideas, can help sharpen pupils’ recall. Pupils consolidate prior knowledge; they are not assimilating new content. Here are several ways to achieve this:

1. Pre-lesson videos are quick to watch from mobile devices and can talk pupils through key ideas and explanations. Apps such as Adobe Spark allow teachers to produce short, professional-looking videos that are tailored to their own pupils. Videos can be made quickly by uploading text, images or animations to a slideshow and then recording a voiceover. There is a good range of free themes and soundtracks for added interest. This app is great for people who are camera-shy because only the teacher’s voice is recorded. Pupils access videos through a web link, or video files can be downloaded and stored privately.

2. Online quizzes are an efficient way to assess knowledge and inform planning for a new topic. There are many dedicated platforms (such as Moodle), but Google Forms provides a very quick and easy way to produce a self-marking quiz. Images and YouTube videos can be embedded within a quiz, and individual Google Forms can be shared between teachers, which allows multiple classes to use the same resource. 

3. Flashcards, created by pupils from a list of keywords, can be a good memory-jogger. Each card should show a definition and relevant example or explanation where appropriate. The cards can then be used in subsequent lessons. Quizlet is a handy app for those less keen on pens and coloured card.

4. iTunes U [link removed - app now discontinued] is an app that can be used to integrate videos, quizzes and other revision resources into a MOOC-style ‘course’. Once set up, revision resources and homework material can be added throughout the year ready for each new topic. Pupils can be enrolled at the start of the year and their progress monitored.

Pre-topic revision may require some extra planning in the short term, but it could save valuable lesson time in the long run.

Annabel Jenner is a chemistry teacher at Talbot Heath School, Bournemouth, UK