Embedding retrieval practice in science – a departmental effort!

In our most recent blog post, Lesson in Revision Part 2 by Emma Smith, we explored the idea of effective revision and looked at how we are using the Heathfield Revision Clock to model effective revision to our students. In our most recent collaboration cycles, we have all shared in planning and delivering a revision lesson for a class, whereby we are consciously incorporating the revision clock and actively encouraging our students to engage with it in the hope that they will be able to appreciate what effective and productive revision feels like.

Last year, based on educational research, I explored the use of interleaving in homework and how it could impact students in supporting them with retrieving previous knowledge that was not necessarily linked to the topic they were currently studying. This was shared with staff during our whole college CPL session. Excitingly, alongside the rest of the assessment innovation team, our findings have since been published as part of the ‘Making Waves’ report by Pearson and The Centre of Education (CfEY).

As a department, science have been exploring different ways we can further support students in their revision. We have been focusing on developing a collaborative departmental approach to combining regular retrieval practice with homework. The aim of this is to support students in engaging with regular, routine opportunities to review topics that they are not currently learning in lessons. We have done this in a variety of ways across each of the key stages and have worked together to embed it as part of our practice.

Key Stage Three

During departmental CPL sessions, we worked in small sub groups and discussed the key foundations of science that are taught at key stage three and some of the common misconceptions that are carried forward from key stage two and potentially onto key stage four. One of the challenges of teaching science is the breadth and depth of knowledge within the curriculum and the complexity of teaching three quite different subjects in one. As a result of this, we can often teach in ‘blocks’ whereby students will be learning one topic and it may be a considerable amount of time before they are able to review older topics or make links between key concepts.

In order to support students in revision of key concepts throughout the whole subject, we have introduced weekly homework’s using our online quiz tool ‘Educake’. Through this resource, we are able to set short question quizzes which students complete online each week as homework. The topics of each quiz are set based on topics students have been taught that term but are not studying at the time.

When launching this, we all introduced the homework’s together in a lesson, showing students how to access them and explaining our rationale behind them. The tasks are always set and due on the same dates each week and include the word ‘retrieval’ in the title – we want students to be aware of then then are engaging with retrieval practice.

Educake is being used to support KS3 students’ retrieval practice

Students have responded really positively to these and have adapted to this routine way of homework setting. As staff, we shared the load of setting tasks for year groups and terms and after initially taking the time to set, every staff member had their homework’s set and ready to go each term. In my personal opinion, this massively reduced my workload and I really liked following this simple structure that meant I could be more consistent across my classes. Individual teachers could then check each week, log any incomplete tasks and most importantly, review the class average and results to identify any issues. This instant feedback and reduced mark load, allowed us to be responsive to any misconceptions as the year progressed as well as enabling us to dip in and out of other topics, helping students make links and connections between the three sciences.

Key Stage Four

At key stage four we decided to focus our collaborative approach to revision by setting weekly revision activities in the build-up to the mock exams (and onwards). We appreciated the need for these tasks to be highly specific but also to include a task for each of the three sciences. We do find in our subject that students can be extremely overwhelmed by the sheer volume of content and a common complaint amongst students with revision is “I just didn’t know where to start”. In order to support them with this, we set weekly, manageable revision activities that model to them the use of the Heathfield Revision Clock. We encouraged them to layout their work in a way that showed a review of the topic (mind map) followed by an opportunity to test (exam question) and then check (mark scheme). Each week, the revision activity and topics were the same for the whole year group and each teacher set the same resource on Firefly.

Key Stage Five

At A-Level, for Biology, we have experimented with a similar approach as key stage four. This has included a weekly task focused on a past topic and modelled around the Heathfield Revision Clock. The only difference with this is we ask students to complete the task as part of their additional ‘Independent Study’ and not as homework. We felt this highlighted the importance of their time spent working in their study periods as well as trying to support them in how best to use this time. We allowed teaching staff to continue to use homework’s as they needed to based on the section of the course they were teaching. This gave teachers flexibility given the level of study, but still made retrieval practice and revision a core part of their routine. We have found it particularly useful for Year 13, whereby we can use these weekly tasks to focus on year 12 content.

In the same way as key stage three and four, these tasks were launched by al teachers to all classes and worked on the same time frame of dates set and dates due. Each task included the same slide which outlined the purpose of each task and a reminder of our expectations.

Example of a retrieval practice task set for KS5 students

Feedback from students has been extremely positive – they like the structure and they like that each week a section of the course is covered without them having to map it all out and organise themselves which can be overwhelming. It encourages the ‘little ad often’ approach which is an important aspect of good revision.

In summary, this approach of setting regular revision from the department has been greatly appreciated so far by staff and students. The key principles behind its success so far, has most certainly been a collaborative approach within the department and the shared responsibility of staff to ‘do their bit’ and be consistent in the setting and checking of high-quality work from students. As a department, we have shared brilliant ideas and we have been open-minded to adapting our practice and at each key stage and as a result, we are developing a clear approach to supporting our students with regular revision that we will continue to review and improve together.

Jess Gillespie, Science

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