Getting SEN learners to reach their potential at GCSE – spaced learning?

This year I’ve struggled with GCSE additional science.  My students have lapped up the content, they’ve answered exam questions at the end of each lesson but they’ve really struggled to remember the sheer range of information they are expected to recall when we reached the end of the course.

I was talking to a senior leader from another academy within our MAT (I’m so grateful we have a sharing and collaborative ethos) and she was talking about spaced learning.  As an experienced special school teacher I know the value of repetition (or repetition, repetition, repetition as we call it) but I have never read any research on the subject.

That’s when I remembered that one of the perks of being a member of the Chartered College of Teaching is access to research journals (and to be honest it is the first time I’ve found my membership of the Chartered College useful!).  A quick search through my email account and I was online searching for research papers, something I haven’t really done since my student days.  Interesting papers were downloaded as PDF files, thrown into Evern0te and annotated – I wish I’d had that facility when I was an undergraduate…

A quick search of research papers, Google and Twitter tells me that I’m a little late to this party.  There is plenty of scientific evidence to suggest that spaced learning works but not a lot to tell me what would work best with my students who all have SEND.

So what did I learn from my reading that would be useful in my setting?

Effects from spaced learning appear to be persistent across all stages of development (Vlach & Sandhofer 2012) and it can be seen in other species too (handy for some of my groups!) – I should have realised this from my dog training.

Those participants who used a toolbox or scaffold to model the key concepts do better than those who have free study time (important if you are setting homework tasks!) – Egan 2012

The spaces between learning activities could be as little as ten minutes (Vaz 2014) and as much as days (Bergey 2014) or weeks (Lockyer 2017)

Three lots of stimulation (learning) is enough to significantly strengthen a synapse and lead to increased recall (Vaz 2014) and this technique could have benefits for learners with ADHD as students are more engaged, although I would love to see more detailed research on this to determine the reason, if one exists (Vaz 2014)

Final thoughts

Nearly every paper confirmed there are benefits in recall from spaced learning  The difficulty for me as a teacher is having enough time to build this approach into my teaching.  I have to teach an entire GCSE (including mandatory practicals) in a year and finish teaching this course sufficiently early to revise with my learners (who won’t or can’t revise at home/independently).

Of course I won’t need as much revision time at the end of the course if spaced learning has the desired effects but it still makes delivery tight.

I have two double lessons of 100 minutes each and once we have enough content to revisit, I intend to dedicate 30 minutes a week to revision (spaced learning – recap) which students will complete in a separate book. I don’t know how successful this will be but I will feed back later in the year.

I would also love to hear from anyone who has built spaced learning into their science curriculum and what the activities, timings etc look like. Please comment below.

References

Bergey, B.W., Cromley J.G., Kirchgessner, M.L. & Newcombe, N.S. (2014) Using diagrams versus text for spaced restudy: Effects on learning in 10th grade biology classes, The British Journal of Educational Psychology, 85, 59-74

Egan, R. (2012) Understanding the effects of different study methods on retention of information and transfer of learning, Electronic Journal of Research in Educational Psychology 10(2) 659-672

Lockyer, S. (2017) Spaced Learning: The final frontier in revision. Impact, Interim Issue

Vaz, A.C. (2014) Spaced Learning: Making space for neuroscience in te classroom, e-TEALS: An e-journal of Teacher Education and Applied Language Studies, 5, 1-17

Vlach, H. & Sandhofer, C.M. (2012). Distributing learning over time: The spacing effect in children’s acquisition and generalization of science concepts Child Development, 83, 1137-1144

The frustration that comes with the wrong assessment method

I’ve mentioned before that I train with a dog group.  The class is divided into classes from one to four, with dogs moving up a class when they are proficient and pass a test.

My dog has special needs and is extremely nervous around strangers, to the point she runs away from people she doesn’t know.  She’s reached the point where she is comfortable training with the people in my class but there are still a lot of strangers at training in the other classes.

Jasmine has demonstrated mastery of all the skills required to move to the next class and this has been observed by several of the trainers. Unfortunately, the club rules state she has to take a practical test which is observed by a trainer from the club.  Jasmine has what can only be described as a phobia of the lead trainer and so has panic attacks and runs away from him.

I’ve complained about the assessment method but the compromise put in place was only a minor change with the instructor stood a few feet further away.  Consequently, Jasmine is destined to fail each and every test that she takes.

So why am I writing about it here?  The feelings of frustration at being forced into an assessment method that doesn’t suit.  The feelings of failure when you can jump through what seem like impossible hoops. The feeling of experiencing an examination system that sets you up to fail. These are the feelings that my students have every day and after my experiences today I have a little more empathy with them.

Fortunately, I’m in a position where I can walk away from the training club (that’s my intention), but my students aren’t so lucky.  Spare a thought to your students with special needs and consider their needs and feelings at this time of year as they enter into a process from which they will come out emotionally battered and bruised, feeling like a failure.

The importance of the curriculum – thank you Amanda Spielman

Last week the new Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman spoke at the ASCL conference.  She was setting out her stall as one of the most influential leaders in the world of education, and she told the conference of school leaders “Vitally important though a school’s examination results are, we must not allow curricula to be driven just by SATs, GCSEs and A levels. It is the substance of education that ultimately creates and changes life chances, not grade stickers from exams.

She also told her audience “I am determined to make sure that the curriculum receives the proper focus it deserves.

It’s hard to point the finger of blame at school leaders who, anxious to avoid being labelled coasting schools, have done everything they can to boost their progress 8 scores and EBacc results.  Fortunately, the governors at my school had the foresight to put the needs of the individual first when we built our curriculum so we aren’t pushing students through inappropriate exams to boost our school results.

Last week  I attended some CPD with the Institute of Physics discussing how to encourage more girls to follow a STEM career.  Whilst the advice they were giving wasn’t anything that you won’t have heard before it does make you appreciate the effect that teachers and the curriculum have on the long-term life chances of our students, regardless of phase or socioeconomic background.   Much of the language we use in class and the way we run our lessons could potentially have long-term implications for our learners (Stonewall give similar messages about gender neutrality which can influence attitudes from a very early age)

A fortnight ago I was part of a discussion with the 11-19 committee at the ASE talking about combined science vs triple science.  The options path decided at the end of KS3 (year 8 now in many schools) can determine, for better or worse, the life chances of students who may either choose or be guided towards an option that isn’t appropriate for them.  This decision could be made on experience in previous lessons (bringing us back to the message from the IoP) or could this choice could be restricted based on a flawed assessment system at KS3.    Those of you interested in the combined vs triple debate will be interested to read this article on education datalab.

My point is that the curriculum you offer, whether it be at departmental level or at a whole school level, will have long-lasting repercussions for your students and it is important you’ve got it right.  For this reason I commend Amanda Spielman for the tone she has set as she takes up the mantle of Chief Inspector and look forward to seeing the discussion about the curriculum develop as she continues in office.

 

The secret of #terrificscientific

We’ve just taken part in our first BBC #TerrificScientific investigation at the academy where I work.  We received a pack of test strips through the post and decided that we had nothing to lose by giving it a go.

My KS4 students were the most enthusiastic and were keen to take part in the experiment.  I’ve got plenty of plastic ‘test tubes’ with lids so students took one home and brought a sample of tap water into school, meaning we could all compare results and rank in order of water hardness.

It wasn’t only the students that were motivated, one member of staff brought in a sample of water from Barnsley, and because we have a huge catchment area we were able to test water samples from a large geographical area.

So what was it that caught the attention of the students and made them want to join in?  Whilst students knew about the interactive map they didn’t seem too bothered about it, but they were keen to find out something about their life and home.

Science is best taught when students can relate to it and see the relevance to their lives, whether it be a fuse in a three-pin plug or how magnetic field lines are useful for navigating with a compass.  Science is a wonderful subject to teach and the BBC have given us another tool to engage our learners – I’d recommend checking out the #TerrificScientific project.

Does holding a degree in your subject really not affect pupil outcomes?

Just before the holidays, the TES reported on research from the DfE that suggested that there is no discernible effect of non-specialist teaching in science.

I’ve been a science teacher for over 20 years now but because of my setting, I find myself teaching AQA Additional Science for the first time ever.  This means I’m having to teach some content that I’ve never taught before in mainstream or special education.  The amount of time I have spent prepping these lessons is considerably more than I usually spend as I have had to do plenty of research as I go. Fortunately, there is a wealth of support available and combined with the fact that my students have target grades well below a C they are unlikely to be affected by my lack of subject knowledge.

I do a lot of background reading so that is likely to influence my teaching, as is my willingness to go the extra mile as well.  There is overlap between the disciplines of science so I suppose that stands me in good stead but I wouldn’t like the thought of facing a group of top set science students without the appropriate science knowledge to draw upon.

One certainty is that we are going to have a lot more data to draw on in the not so distant future as the number of physics and chemistry graduates entering teaching continues to fall.  I also wonder if I should be suspicious these research findings are released at a time of teacher shortages?

For those readers who would like to read the research paper you can find it here.