Knowledge retention in GCSE Science

A CPD research project by Amelia Ross – Science

Having taught the new GCSE science curriculum through a full cycle, I am now reflecting on how I have taught it and how I can help students improve their retention of knowledge in this new  curriculum with its greater content. 

I started exploring Knowledge Retention as part of my school Action Research project. Throughout the last school year I read the following books:

Memorable teaching  Mccrea, P., 2017. .1st ed. Poland: Amazon Fulfillment. 

Make it Stick – the science of successful learning Brown, P., Roediger, H., McDaniel, M.,2014. . 1st ed. USA: The Belknap press of Harvard University Press. 

Both books refer to ensuring we do not overload students with non-essential information. In science it is essential to set the scene and put the content we need to teach into context. This has been helped by using the AQA Mastery model of revisiting and building on the key themes at Key Stage 3 so that students are using the GCSE language throughout their secondary education. It is also incredibly useful if students start using the language of science investigation at Key Stage 2, I have done some work on this with feeder primary schools in the past but that is another blog post. It is hard not to include information that will not form part of future assessment in science, especially when it sets the scene.  However faculty schemes of work based on the exam specification help keep a check on this. 

Both books also cover the idea of depth and durability. Revisiting the same content throughout the course is something we always do in science. Key themes are always linked in the bigger picture. As we know from learning the times table, rote learning does work for many. I have recently been getting some of my classes to repeat key science words and equations in this way. Not a method I have ever adopted in science before. Our colleagues in MFL have always used this method, so with more difficult vocabulary being essential to success in the new GCSE science exams I have been giving it ago.  Students have enjoyed this approach and early indications from the mock exams suggest that Year 11 pupils have accurately retained the equations we have been learning in this way.  This approach has also improved the students confidence in their ability to retain learning.

I also read a paper on retrieval practicewritten by Pooja, A. et al, 2017. How to use retrieval practice to improve learning. 1st ed. USA: with support from Washington University,Illinois. (see link below) 

This emphasized the need to reduce anxiety by not using exam questions to check understanding until later or at the end of a topic. This prompted me to start using more mini, low-stakes, plenaries throughout my GCSE lessons in biology, chemistry and physics. The majority of the mini plenaries used are multiple choice. I have embedded them into my lesson slides which are shared with my faculty on our shared drive. 

I really like them. They help me to see how well sections of topics have been understood. They help me to see which topics I need to spend more time on and which topics have been easy to grasp. They also help me to differentiate lessons.

However, although they are low-stakes and used often, students still struggle with the issue of getting things wrong in their books. I have even tried printing out the plenaries on little sheets to stick in their books. They do like these, but are still reluctant to write something that is wrong. I am working on their resilience in this respect. It is definitely a work in progress! Even when using green pens to self-assess their own work, some still struggle to write the wrong answer, as it ‘makes their books look messy’. 

Whilst working at my previous school, one of my colleagues came across Plickers. I liked the idea but hadn’t really used it with classes until last year. It is the perfect format to do mini plenaries which are very low stakes and nothing needs to be ‘wrong’ in their books. It is a great example of how retrieval practice can be used instantly to promote recall and it helps to inform the planning for my lessons. I know immediately who can answer the question. It is low-stakes and fun. 

Last year I trialed using Plickers with several of my classes who really liked it. It provides immediate feedback to me and the students and nothing needs to be wrong in a book!  This activity has helped the students to develop their understanding of key vocabulary and to retain that learning to be employed in the exams.

I introduced it to my Learning Focus group and as part of our school sharing of good practice. 

My next step is to use Plickers with more classes and I have developed a set of low-stakes mini plenaries that can be used across the Science Faculty in GCSE lessons and for revision.  These can be used in Plickers or added to teachers’ lesson presentations.

Featured image:Mathematics by geralt on Pixabay.  Licensed under Creative Commons CC0

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