Posted on 23 May, 2015 by Bodil Isaksen
How should I revisit past content?
The three part lesson; the 5 minute lesson plan; the 7 Es lesson structure; the countless other lesson planning proformas I’ve encountered. What do they all have in common? Despite being wildly popular, they place no emphasis on recalling and revisiting prior learning. Memory deserves far more love and attention than this.
Recaps should be a nonnegotiable part of practically every lesson.
What should we recap? And how should we recap it?
Based on what’s relevant to the learning today
Probably the most common form of revisiting in the average classroom. Bringing relevant prior learning to the forefront of pupils’ minds before embarking on new content can be the difference between triumph and disaster in a lesson. Before teaching rounding, you’ll want to be sure pupils remember place value column names; before teaching adverbs you’ll want them to be sure of a verb’s definition; before teaching about electron shells you’ll want them to be confident of what an electron is; before teaching what Jesus’ crucifixion means for Christians they need to have the doctrine of the Fall at their fingertips.
How to best do this is up for debate. Hollingsworth and Ybarra recommend you tell pupils the required knowledge explicitly, then get them to practise. Tightly controlled, this means pupils are less likely to go into the new learning with misconceptions lingering.
The alternative would be to give the pupils practice without explicit instruction beforehand. There are a couple of reasons one might choose to do this.
If revisiting is forming part of the Do Now, you’ll be wanting the kids to be getting on with it straight away, with no teacher input.
If you want to make use of the testing effect for memorisation, telling them will ruin that as they won’t have to work to retrieve the material from their long term memories.
It’s a balancing act.
I aim to give them just enough explicit instruction that they get it right. That might be no instruction. It might be a very quick choral response of the relevant formula or fact before they apply it. It might be a longer period of instruction.
Of course, the difficulty is that different pupils will need different amounts of prompting. Given the way prior misunderstandings can cause your lesson to unravel, I err on the side of more instruction for this kind of recap. Circulating like a hawk while they practise can be critical for catching misconceptions to squash at this point.
Based on the forgetting curve
Your lesson objective is about the geography of Japan. An observer comes in and sees you quizzing pupils on the geography of France. They’re nonplussed: how is what you’re doing going to help pupils meet the learning objective? Well, it might in some sort of roundabout way, but really, that’s not why you’re doing it. Because learning isn’t about one off lessons.
We should be completely content with dropping in unrelated content into lessons. The forgetting curve waits for no man. If you only ever recap when it’s relevant to the new learning, the storage strength may be so weak it can’t be well recalled at all. We need to catch it just in time.
My wonderful colleague, Jonny Porter, will chuck a map of the British Isles at kids every now and again out of the blue, and ask them to label 27 important features on it. Nothing to do with the lesson objective, but the boost to that forgetting curve makes the task invaluable.
Recaps based on the forgetting curve are most effective when planned upfront with a holistic view of the curriculum. The spacing of each recap on a given topic can increase over time. This works out nicely as all the new content you’re covering means you’ll inevitably have less opportunity to go over the same thing repeatedly.
Time in lessons is precious. We want recaps to maximise the boost to the forgetting curve with minimum time expended. What precisely is the aim of your recap? What knowledge is it in particular you want to improve the memory of?
Let’s say you know your children have been putting the wrong number of decimal places when squaring numbers. Do they need to actually perform 4.7 squared, or could you just ask a drill question of how many decimal places 4.7 squared will have? Your answer will depend on whether children practising performing 47 x 47 is a priority. Is it worth the additional time it will take?
Do pupils need to answer comprehension questions about plant cells in full sentences in their books, or could they scribble one word answers on their mini-whiteboards?
There’s no right or wrong answer; it’s a professional judgement call.
Based on the 20%/80% principle
We can’t recap everything all the time. Concentrating on the 20% that has 80% of the impact is an excellent curriculum design principle in general, but it’s particularly important to bear in mind when planning what to revisit.
Automating the core 20% is critical. Getting it into long term memory can feel like a long slog, but it’s worth it. Times Table Rock Stars, for example, is a 20 week investment. In my experience, lots of teachers see times tables as “last year’s teacher’s job”. If that’s the way you see it, you might feel a little reluctant to spend a few minutes every single day for over half the year. An old Chinese proverb springs to mind: the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago; the second best time is now. My advice is this. If you notice critical gaps in the kids’ knowledge, just crack on and start filling them. The time will pass anyway.
Here are some different options for how you might want to run a recap:
- Filling in a partially blanked out knowledge organiser or diagram.
- If you’re repeatedly using the same grid or diagram, you can laminate them for pupils to label with a mini-whiteboard pen. This saves a bit of photocopying.
- Oral drill, cold call questioning of facts or descriptions.
- Choral response.
- Speed drills like Times Table Rockstars.
- Longer procedural questions through “nothing new; just review” or “only 100% will do”.
- Mini-whiteboard work.
- Comprehension questions in exercise books.
- Even (whisper it) a card sort.
- A million other ways.
But really, however you do it, just do something. It’s like investing in your pension: it’s not particularly sexy, and you won’t see the benefit right this second, but down the line, you’ll be really glad you did.