Retrieval practice: How it helped me improve Sats results

After replacing starter activities with ‘retrieval practice’, this Year 6 teacher says he has seen Sats results soar

Laurence Holmes

How retrieval practice can help boost pupils' Sats scores

It all started with a slide on my colleague’s whiteboard. I was teaching Year 6, for the first time in seven years and I was nervous about the year ahead. With the burden of Sats, Year 6 can, at times, feel like a huge level of accountability. I knew that, more than ever, I now needed to embed approaches to teaching and learning that would yield better results, and as Carl Hendrick and Robin Macpherson state in their book What Does This Look Like in the Classroom: Bridging the gap between research and practice, “while evidence cannot give us all the answers, it can at least provide a roadmap to avoid dead-ends”.

However, I was lost about how research could help me until I observed one of my colleagues. Her lesson started with three simple words, printed on a slide: "Can you still…?" These words were followed by three questions, which referred back to what the class had been taught in previous lessons. This was how this colleague started every lesson she taught.

Could simply revisiting prior learning at the start of a lesson in this way really help pupils to remember and apply knowledge more effectively, I wondered. Instead of using a starter activity as a "way in" to the lesson, would it be better to use it this time to encourage recall?

I was excited by the potential. Our school’s results in the previous year had given us a progress score of +1.5 – an average score for schools in England. However, just 68 per cent of pupils had met the expected standard in maths. This meant that we had fallen short.

I wanted to find out whether regularly revisiting learning could help to improve our results. Could I develop the question "Can you still…?" into a finely-tuned tool to support and develop memory?

What is retrieval practice?

So I began looking into the research around retrieval practice and came across the work of Hermann Ebbinghaus, a German psychologist who studied memory in the 1880s. He is perhaps best known for what is called the "forgetting curve", which illustrates the way in which people forget information they have learned, with the sharpest decline occurring in the first 20 minutes after learning, and retention continuing to decrease significantly throughout the first hour.

This fact is something that I think we often do not pay enough attention to in teaching. But, as researchers Nicholas Soderstorm and Robert Bjork write in "Learning Versus Performance: An Integrative Review" (2015), “the principle of instruction is long-term retention”. In order to achieve this, what the research was suggesting I needed to do was to periodically interrupt my pupils’ forgetting process. If I could do this, the evidence implied, I would be able to strengthen their ability to recall information from their long-term memories.

Of course, in the classroom we should not simply be asking ourselves what the research suggests might work; we should be asking what works for whom and in what context. As Daniel Mujis said in his presentation at the April 2018 ResearchED conference, “Not all evidence is equally translated into practice." Therefore, I had to decide where, when and how I would apply this theory of "interrupting the forgetting".

The best place to start, I decided, was the Sats arithmetic paper. This paper accounts for 36 per cent of a pupils’ raw score for maths, so success on this one paper is essential for success in the key stage 2 maths tests overall. Therefore, if I could interrupt the forgetting of the core skills needed for this paper, I believed I could significantly affect children’s overall scores for maths.

I began by focusing on building basic arithmetic skills to cement fluency – the first step in developing the conceptual understanding needed to tackle the reasoning papers. Just like my colleague, I began starting each lesson with the question "Can you still…?" However, rather than restricting this to what had been learned in the previous lesson, I expanded it to cover what had been learned the previous week and the previous month.

In order to do this, I needed to track precisely what I was teaching. So I used a simple framework to map out what had been taught and to plan where to revisit the learning, allowing for the forgetting to be systematically interrupted. This framework grew into a shared table which could be used to support my colleagues, particularly those who were less experienced.

'Interrupting the forgetting'

Soon, I had a class of more confident Year 6 pupils who had developed a more positive attitude to learning as a result of the new approach. But what about the numbers? Well, I am pleased to say that the test results have been positive, too.

We saw a marked improvement in pupils’ arithmetic scores in the 2018 Sats. Some 90 per cent of pupils met the expected standard – an increase of 22 per cent on the previous year.

It seemed that by systematically interrupting the forgetting, I had cemented pupils' arithmetic skills, which was reflected in their scores.

In fact, the approach has proved so successful that we are going to build on it further this year. In addition to the daily "Can you still…?" activity, we are now giving pupils a weekly quiz, which may cover anything that has been taught up to that period, to give pupils the benefits of regular low-stakes summative testing – another tactic to improve recall.

Some teachers within our school now use this approach widely and have developed it to be used in literacy and other subjects. We are also rolling the method out across our academy trust; two other schools within our community have already taken it on board.

Interrupting the forgetting works. We certainly won’t be looking back from it any time soon and you can bet that this time next year, we’ll still all be asking ourselves the same question: "Can you still...?"

Laurence Holmes is a teacher at The Mill Primary Academy in West Sussex

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Laurence Holmes

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