Can knowledge organisers boost students’ exam results?

When research lead Louise Lewis found students were overwhelmed with the amount of content squeezed into the curriculum, she wondered if knowledge organisers could be the answer. So, she conducted a ‘disciplined enquiry’ to discover if the approach could open the door to more effective revision
19th April 2019, 12:03am
Is There A New Way To Improve Exam Results?


Can knowledge organisers boost students’ exam results?

When two colleagues and I were given the task of redesigning a whole-school CPD package, we immediately knew the first question we should pose to middle leaders: “What are the biggest problems that we are all facing in light of the new curriculum?”

The new curriculum was a hot topic of departmental discussion, so this question seemed an obvious starting point.

What we didn’t expect was that all departments would unanimously come back to us with one answer: increased content volume. In most curriculum areas, the amount of information to be covered had hugely increased following the introduction of the new exam specifications. Staff were struggling. And students, too, were reporting how overwhelmed they were with this step-up in expectations.

Obviously, we couldn’t reduce the amount of content to be taught, so we had to focus on finding strategies to help staff and students better manage the increased workload.

Luckily, this topic was (and still is) big news in education and so lots of evidence was available to support our best bets. We investigated retrieval practice and memory, developing our understanding around working and long-term memory; and we also looked at schema development and how this impacted on retention and retrieval.

In my own subject area (biology), I tested the generic idea of retrieval practice using drill questions as lesson openers. But, despite what seemed like a successful pilot, students were still telling me how overwhelmed they were. After digging a little deeper, I found the problem was that they were constantly flipping through revision guides and textbooks, wading through superfluous information. While reading around a subject is interesting and provides valuable context to learning, it doesn’t necessarily help students with “snappy” retrieval practice of content knowledge.

Setting out the key facts

So, where did we turn? The evidence seemed convincing that knowledge organisers could help to provide a framework to support our students in their foundation of knowledge.

A knowledge organiser sets out, on a single page, the key facts and information that will give students a basic understanding of a topic. I first heard about knowledge organisers from a colleague, who learned about them when attending a conference at Michaela Community School in London. Intrigued, I read Joe Kirby’s chapter, “Knowledge, memory and testing” in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers: the Michaela way (2016). Kirby suggests they empower students to really take ownership of regular independent revision; this was exactly what I needed.

But could knowledge organisers really work in my subject? At this point, I knew some colleagues were already using them, with varying levels of success. Teachers were taking different approaches, which seemed to be hit and miss. Therefore, while I was enthusiastic, I was also dubious. Sure, there were plenty of stories on Twitter and in blogs of the unwavering success of knowledge organisers with improving recall. But GCSE biology is not just about recall. Would it be possible for a knowledge organiser to help with application questions, too?

We needed a solution that would help us to cope with the content volume of the new curriculum while also improving retrieval and subsequent exam performance. My initial questions were: how different was this approach? Would it ease the burden of exam stress for students or add to it? I needed to put the method to the test.

I chose to adopt the disciplined enquiry model to examine whether knowledge organisers would be good for our subject in our context. This involves making a small-scale change that has some evidence of impact. You trial the intervention and compare the outcome with a control group.

I had a few options here. I chose to use Year 10 as my target year group. But should I compare one class with another (trial versus control); or should I compare this year’s cohort with last year’s? Instead, I decided to trial outcomes in one topic as compared with a previous one (when I hadn’t introduced knowledge organisers). This gave me the chance to assess the impact across a larger sample size and controlled for students sharing their resources from group to group.

Each student was given a knowledge organiser at the start of the topic; this was glued into their exercise book and “tabbed” for future reference. I spent time modelling how to use it, giving instruction on self-quizzing, which I reiterated throughout the topic. This became weekly homework for the groups, and weekly quizzes were given as lesson openers.

Confidence boost

So, how successful was it? Across the cohort, students reported that they liked having a tight focus for retrieval practice each week. And they found that, when it came to whole-topic (and subsequently whole-paper) revision, they felt better-equipped to deal with the volume of information they were expected to cover. They felt more in control, and their scores for end-oftopic tests improved from earlier topics.

You could argue that this was a natural phenomenon - you would expect students to make progress just by being in school. However, this material was brand-new and more complex than what they had studied previously. The students gained a sense of confidence from using the knowledge organisers and the results were positive.

Life lessons and next steps

Now, I give students a knowledge organiser at the start of each topic, which is divided into subsections for each topic component. Current Year 11s have also been given accompanying knowledge recall grids.

They use these to structure their revision according to a strategy of “lives”, inspired by video games. They give themselves a set number of “lives” - represented by a series of hearts or circles drawn at the side of their work. Each time they have to check back to their knowledge organiser, they lose a life. This helps them to track how much information they can genuinely recall.

Accompanying drill questions are continually being honed, and we are now also creating knowledge organisers for key stage 3 and KS5 curricula to ensure that the current Year 11s are not the only ones who will benefit.

We originally set out to improve staff CPD but what we have arrived at is a seven-year revision plan that will increase students’ confidence and lower their exam stress, making that increased subject content all the more manageable.

Louise Lewis is a research lead and deputy head of science in a Yorkshire secondary school. She tweets @MissLLewis

This article originally appeared in the 19 April 2019 issue under the headline “Can you organise your way to better exam results?”

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