Secondary Science 2- Making it easier to do the interesting stuff…

8 October 2018

Author: Niki Kaiser

When I was 8, I sang in a concert at the Albert Hall. I was in a choir, and I took part in a performance of Carmina Burana alongside hundreds of other school children. Mrs Spreadbury, our conductor, was well-renowned for being “scary”. Carmina Burana is sung in Latin, which was completely unfamiliar to me, but Mrs Spreadbury told us that we had to learn all the words off by heart. So we did.

I can still recite much of Carmina Burana to this day, 35 years later!

Knowing the words by rote didn’t prevent me from being musical. It didn’t prevent me from thinking about dynamics or expression. In fact, it had the opposite effect: I was able to think about the music because the words came to me automatically.

Making it easier to do the hard stuff

This post is about supporting memory when we teach Science, as outlined in recommendation 4 of the EEF Guidance Report: Improving Secondary Science, which we’ll be discussing on our Science Training Course.

“You cannot do science without knowledge. Pupils have to learn new concepts and vocabulary and apply this learning in new contexts. So being able to remember information is important for success in school science.”

In the same way that learning the words to a choral work off by heart didn’t prevent me from being musical, taking memory and cognitive load into account when teaching Science doesn’t mean producing robotic students, who can recite lots of “facts” without truly understanding them. I’d argue that it helps them to do the more interesting stuff: the higher level thinking that enables them to be creative scientific thinkers, making links between ideas and applying what they’ve learned to new contexts.

4a: Pay attention to cognitive load

A simple model of memory can be used to help us to understand how we process information, then remember and retrieve it. Of course, the model doesn’t tell the whole story, but as with the atomic model we use at GCSE, it is “good enough” for us to understand how we can help our students to learn.

We encounter a huge amount of information each day via our senses. If we paid attention to all of it, we would very soon be overloaded and unable to deal with it all. For this reason, much of what we encounter is very quickly forgotten, unless we pay particular attention to it. For learning to occur, information must be processed, and transferred from the working memory to the long-term memory (LTM).

But working memory can only process a limited number of items at a time, so Cognitive Load Theory suggests that we should reduce cognitive load on working memory, to optimise transfer to the long-term memory (Sweller, 1998). Cognitive load theory takes 3 types of load into account:

  • Intrinsic cognitive load is the inherent challenge of any material to be learned. It depends on both the material’s complexity and the learner’s background knowledge, so although we can’t reduce it, we can manage it by ensuring that students know enough beforehand to help them understand new material.
  • Extraneous cognitive load is anything that occupies the working memory, but doesn’t contribute to long-term retention, and it depends on the way things are presented.
  • Germane cognitive load describes how some kinds of mental effort actually lead to improved long term retention of material.

Extraneous load and the split attention effect

Extraneous load is increased when we try to multi-task, when we’re distracted, or when we’re presented with redundant information. For example, split attention occurs when pupils have to move between a diagram and a written explanation. But if labels are integrated into the diagram, it is easier for people to process all the information needed.

David Paterson and Adam Boxer have used this idea to produce practical sheets with integrated instructions, and David is researching the effectiveness of this approach with support from the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Chemical Education Research Group. David’s sheets are here, and he has included worksheets for each of the GCSE required practicals. Adam’s are here.

But people have been trying these in all sorts of contexts eg this spring extension practical sheet from Bob Pritchard:

And they don’t have to be overly arduous to produce, either. It’s the principle that’s important. See this example from Pritesh Raichura:

Worked examples

Using worked examples or partially solved examples that take pupils through each step of a process reduces the cognitive load at first, but it’s important to remove this help with time. Michael Seery illustrates this really clearly here with “faded worked examples”.

Give an example in full, show an entire worked example, then gradually fade the support given in these worked examples, until students answer a problem completely alone.

In this short clip, Lauren Stephenson explains how she uses a split screen approach to worked examples, as below:

And Pritesh Raichura has written a really detailed example outlining how he uses worked examples here.

Colleagues on the #CogSciSci forum (for Science teachers interested in the Science of Learning) have shared resources that help support students through extended writing tasks. These “structure strips” from Janet Graves and Bernie Delahunty are examples of some that have been shared freely via CogSciSci:

These are stuck into books as shown below:

For similar reasons, Matthew Benyohai uses checklists for repeatable tasks (again shared via CogSciSci, but examples below):

Shed Loads of Practice (SLOP)

Rosalind Walker has produced textbooks with lots of practice questions for each topic she teaches, she explains: “One of the main things that came out of my reading around cognitive science was the benefits of lots and lots of similar questions for students to practise on: Shed Loads Of Practice, or SLOP. I’d seen this kind of questions for maths but for some reason we didn’t seem to have them in science – so I started making my own.”

You can find her Physics “SLOP” booklets here.

Adam Boxer has also written “mastery” booklets, explaining: “I know that there is a whole literature out there about “mastery” but for my purposes it just boils down to “shedloads of questions on a given topic introduced slowly and coherently with worked examples” I use the word “mastery” to sell it to my students in that if they work through the booklet they can achieve mastery over the topic.” 

You can find his Chemistry booklets here. He’s also produced them for all the AQA required practicals.

Pritesh Raichura has written a beautiful post about how and why he designs Biology textbooks, with some examples to download here.

4b: Revisit knowledge after a gap to help pupils retain it in their long-term memory

Spaced review involves revisiting a topic after a ‘forgetting gap’ and strengthens long-term memory.

You don’t need to completely re-plan your entire curriculum for the year to introduce spaced retrieval. Blake Harvard has written two really useful blog posts which outline how spaced practice can be easily applied to the classroom  and Less is More: Simple Formative Assessment Strategies in the Classroom

Similarly, the example below shows how a History teacher from our school planned in homework tasks and quizzes to ensure prior knowledge was sufficient and previous knowledge was re-visited over the course of a unit.

But if you want to take a more systematic approach to it, this blog from Science teacher, Damian Benney is excellent.

Spaced practice, interleaving and revision

You can help students to integrate some of these principles into their revision. For example, if they split revision topics into interleaved “chunks” rather than blocking each topic, it will be more effective (see this blog post for more details).

The Memory Clock, from Sandringham Research School, takes many of these ideas into account and leads students through their revision in a structured, scaffolded way.

This also links with retrieval practice: combining spaced review and retrieval practice can lead to great benefits in retention in the long-term.

4c: Provide opportunities for pupils to retrieve knowledge they previously learnt

Retrieval practice involves retrieving something you have learnt in the past and bringing it back to mind. This figure from a talk by Efrat Furst  illustrates the findings of some research by Karpicke et al demonstrating that students remembered more from repeated self-testing than from the same time spent re-studying.

Last year, Adam Boxer shared his Retrieval Roulette with the aim of helping people build a simple system to embed regular retrieval practice into their lessons. Since then, thanks to the amazing generosity of twitter and the #CogSciSci group, he has been sent many more, including questions for all the different sciences and the various exam boards.

You can find all the question sets here.

If you want to read more about retrieval practice, Vicki Barnett has put together an excellent T&L Bulletin, and the Chartered College have an helpful (free) retrieval practice CPD pack.

Knowledge Organisers

These can be a really helpful tool to support retrieval practice, and also to support students in more complex tasks. Furthermore, the process of building a Knoweldge Organiser can be beneficial for teachers, as Mark Miller explains in this excellent article: “the process of creating knowledge organisers … leads to a consideration of pedagogical content knowledge, the integration of subject expertise and an understanding of how that subject should be taught“.

I’ve written here about the challenge of constructing a Knowledge Organiser for something as apparently simple as elements and compounds.

An example here from Naomi Hennah gives a list of ideas underneath a fundamental concept.

And this is an extract from a KO shared via CogSciSci by Chris McFarlane:

And how about this example from Andrew Carroll about the nature of science itself, for trainee Science teachers? (full example shared via CogSciSci)

Further reading

If I’ve whetted your appetite, you can join us on our Science Training course. Until then, try some of these links for further reading:

Posted on 8 October 2018
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