I used study strategies to boost my subject knowledge
When history teacher Kate Jones became nervous about lessons on topics she was less than expert on, her confidence took a nose dive. So, she decided to brush up on her subject knowledge using the same recall techniques she often advocates to her students
We all want to be experts in our subjects, passing on to our students a passion and deep understanding that will stand them in good stead for years to come.
But what if your subject knowledge is rusty or you have to teach something you’ve never studied before?
When history teacher Kate Jones found herself getting nervous about lessons on topics she was less than expert in, she decided to use the same methods she recommends to students to get herself up to speed.
Tes: Why is subject knowledge so important?
Kate Jones: I am a teacher of history but the subject is so vast in terms of content and coverage that many of the topics and periods I teach were ones I’d never studied before. There were gaps in my knowledge, and my explanations and answers in class were not as developed as they could be. This meant that I was lacking confidence, especially when teaching examination classes.
I would be nervous about potential questions the students might ask, feeling only a few steps ahead. I was also worried about lesson observations, fearing that I would be exposed for not being the fountain of knowledge I was expected to be. And, ultimately, I didn’t really enjoy teaching these lessons, unlike the ones where I felt secure and confident in my understanding.
How did you try to change this situation?
I started to make more of a conscious effort to enhance and improve my subject knowledge but I was using the classic strategies that research tells us aren’t effective, such as highlighting, re-reading and underlining.
Just like my students, I was under the false illusion that these techniques were efficient and effective but, quite simply, they aren’t.
When I asked colleagues how they enhanced their subject knowledge, they often responded that they simply revisited and read their notes or textbook ahead of lessons and, when saying this out loud, they realised that they didn’t do what they advised their students to do either.
What did you decide to do?
In recent years, I have made my practice more evidence informed, reading and engaging with research with the aim of becoming a better teacher. I realised that the evidence-informed strategies I was encouraging my students to use in my lessons could also be effective in developing and strengthening my own subject knowledge, particularly retrieval practice.
Professor John Dunlosky and his colleagues reviewed an extensive amount of research, focusing on a range of study strategies, in Strengthening the Student Toolbox (2013). The team rated two strategies – practice testing (retrieval practice) and distributed practice (spaced practice) – as the most effective, “because they can help students regardless of age, they can enhance learning and comprehension of a large range of materials, and, most important, they can boost student achievement”.
I didn’t see why those benefits couldn’t apply to me as well, so I decided to embrace these techniques as a learner as well as a teacher.
How did you go about putting the theory into practice?
I started by carrying out a “brain dump” task, where you write down as much information as you can from memory, with no notes, on a specific topic. Once you’ve done this, you check and compare your version against a textbook in order to correct any mistakes and add further detail.
I’ve also tried several other retrieval practice methods. I have created quizzes to test my own subject knowledge. I have done this by using the textbook and creating my own questions based on the material included. I allow some time to pass and then self-test using the quiz I previously created. Even though I created the quiz, I can’t always recall every answer correctly.
Many of my colleagues, who have tried similar approaches, have also found that there are some topics they can recall well and those that can be more of a struggle.
What have the effects been?
The main effect and impact has been on my own confidence. Research undertaken by Professor Pooja K Agarwal et al (2014) has shown that students who carried out regular retrieval practice in lessons reported a decrease in anxiety and a boost in their confidence. While the research in this area is limited, my experience fully supports this.
I feel much more confident in my subject knowledge now. Retrieval practice shows me what I can recall but also where the gaps in my knowledge are, so I can address those and aim to close the gaps as part of my lesson planning and preparation.
Confidence is such an important element of being a teacher, and our subject knowledge is one of many areas where we need to feel confident and secure. This stronger subject knowledge has not only increased my confidence and enjoyment but has led to detailed explanations, discussions and stories that interest and enthuse my students.
How would you advise others looking to implement a similar approach?
I would encourage teachers to use the techniques and strategies that they ask their students to use. It’s great to then share those examples with learners. When we explicitly show our students that we are using effective study strategies, we are leading by example and it can help them to realise that these techniques really are for lifelong learning.
There’s no shame in telling our students that we are continually revisiting content and learning; we have to because of the complexities of memory.
Sometimes we may only need a refresher and a recap for information to come flooding back to us but, on other occasions, we may need to invest more time and effort. An understanding of memory and how we learn is therefore essential, for students and teachers alike.
Kate Jones is head of history at The British School Al Khubairat in Abu Dhabi, and also the author of Love To Teach and The Retrieval Practice Collection. She tweets @Katejones_teach
This article originally appeared in the 23 July 2021 issue under the headline “How I… Improved my subject knowledge using study strategies”