Follow these four simple steps to bring a teaching idea you’ve read about into your daily practice
In the last few years, there has been a lot of buzz in the teaching profession about research-informed strategies such as retrieval, metacognition and interleaving. Even as an experienced teacher, I found it difficult to understand and connect with them. Coming across words like ‘cognition’, ‘working memory’ and ‘cognitive load theory’ was uncomfortable until I started reading some books on these topics.
There are plenty of passionate teachers-turned-authors who have invested their time to bring educational research into classroom teaching. But how do we bring their knowledge off the page (or the screen) and into our own classrooms?
1. Target your topic
Knowing where to start is the biggest hurdle. Having a clear idea about your long-term goals (you can link these with your department or school’s improvement plan) will guide you to narrow down your reading list.
To help decide what you want to try out, reflect on your long-term goals and think about the following questions as a starting point:
- Do you want to gain a deeper understanding of a particular topic?
- Do you want to improve the motivation of students?
- Do you want to be research-informed or develop specific strategies (eg questioning, curriculum, sequencing, assessment, etc)?
2. Learn and make notes
After pinning down your long-term goals and selecting a book, as you read, annotate, highlight and think deeply about how what you’re reading can link with your curriculum. You can use sticky notes and come back to important points. You can also use the #edutwitter community to get more information.
For example, I chose retrieval as a topic to focus on after it was introduced to me on a whole-school INSET day. After reading Powerful teaching by Pooja Agarwal and Patrice Bain I understood that retrieval is about pulling information from memory rather than just recall. I also learned from Kate Jones’ Retrieval practice that varying the tasks in retrieval (eg, including a mix of activities besides quizzes such as keyword spotlight or challenge grids) helps to avoid burnout.
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3. Introduce it to one class
Starting with one class will help you to manage the workload, build any strategies into your practice and evaluate before you roll it out to all classes. This year, I was teaching a middle ability class of 14–16-year olds and, from my previous experience, I know such classes can find chemistry challenging as a lot of prior knowledge is required. Therefore, it seemed sensible to try out some retrieval strategies with them, including low-stakes weekly quizzes with feedback as this can help to reduce anxiety in the long run. age
I also found it helpful to explain the rationale behind the new strategy to my class. For example I told them retrieval is a research-informed strategy that will help them to make new connections to previous material, boost their confidence and improve their grades.
As most of the students are used to taking notes and thinking less, mine did not like thinking hard. Books such as Retrieval practice and Tom Sherrington’s Rosenshine’s principles in action suggest that ensuring a high success rate initially will keep students motivated; giving my students the same quiz after two weeks and checking the improvement in scores was when they started to see the difference retrieval was making to their knowledge.
4. Evaluate and improve
Continue to notice how your students respond and keep reflecting on your approach. I noticed a huge difference in my students’ skills after introducing them to more retrieval strategies: they were able to recall ionic formulas easily and their understanding of some keywords improved. Identifying gaps allowed me to address these and reteach, highlighting to me the importance of possessing knowledge before retrieval can take place.
I found some challenges with the low-stakes nature of retrieval: students might not attempt it and wait for you to give feedback. I had a discussion about this with Kate Jones (of Retrieval practice) through a book club and her suggestion of holding students accountable in these instances was thought-provoking.
Finally, remember that research-informed strategies are not going to create magical results if you have just started using them. It takes time – probably longer than a term or two – to see the benefits. Developing the habit of reading educational books and articles can also take some time, but exploring it further will be easier when you take ownership of your CPD and have specific and clear goals.