In a guest post following her presentation at the ResearchEd English + MFL Conference in Oxford, earlier this month, Amy Forrester, Research Officer at NATE (National Association for the Teaching of English), explains how she used used research to create greater retention of knowledge amongst students.
ResearchEd English+MFL, Oxford, April 1st.
One of the main reasons I engage with research is to ensure that there’s evidence behind choices that I make in the classroom, and in my wider practice. For English teachers up and down the land, the new GCSEs have meant we are making more new decisions than even before, often where we don’t have any concrete evidence. Arguably, one of the biggest challenges many teachers have had to rise to is the closed book element of the English Literature GCSEs. Students have to study 3 texts, alongside a hefty anthology of poetry. And, if they want to do well, they need to learn many, many quotations to use in the exam this coming Summer.
As my year 11s progressed through the course, and sat their first formal mock exam in November, it became increasingly clear that a major factor in under performance was the lack of quotations some students had used in their exam answers. I knew I had to do something to fix it. I read around the research on memory and on retention. On David Didau’s blog, I saw he’d referenced a paper by Cepeda et al (2008) which proposed optimal intervals for retaining information. To retain it for 6 months, which is what I needed for my GCSE groups, their work supports that study sessions for the information should take place every 3 weeks. From this, I devised a programme of study for my year 11s, all of which would be undertaken as homework. They would have 5 tasks a week for learning quotations for each of their literature texts, and, after 3 weeks, these would be gradually replaced with recap tasks each week.
In preparation for this, I spent some time explaining this to my groups, and talking through the methods to recap their work. All of this work would be done in “homework books”, which I would check weekly, to ensure students were learning high quality quotes. And so, in January, off they went.
I knew I needed to measure how well this was working. After all, the need for retaining quotations was high, and the impact of it not working was really quite risky. Still, I have faith that evidence based findings should, in theory, be replicable. By March, I had done a range of activities in lessons which showed some indication that it was working. Random recall starters and 5 a day starter activities (a frankly brilliant idea put forward by @TLPMsF https://thelearningprofession.wordpress.com/) suggested that students were retaining new quotations. However, I needed to test it out in more robust detail. 3 months after their mock exam, my groups sat another. Their initial mock was on Romeo and Juliet so I decided to use the same text, and only have 1 exam, rather than one on each text. The reason for this was to be able to measure the improvement in marks, specific to one text. They hadn’t sat a mock on the other texts, and so I didn’t have a reliable benchmark for these, despite their quote learning tasks being on all 4 literature texts.
The findings were surprising. In the initial mock exam, a total of 3 different quotes had been used. In the second, 40 different quotes were used. I was delighted by the increase, especially as it was a no notice mock. Not only had the variety of quotations increased, the amount they were using increased too. In their first mock, an average of 1.2 quotes were used. In the second, that went up to 3.0. Their marks went up, too. 96% increased their mark (on our internal grade boundaries). With this, 22% saw a 1 grade increase, 29% a 2 grade increase, 19% a 3 grade increase, and 6% a 4 grade increase. I was really very happy with their progress, especially in light of the fact that our curriculum plan meant that I hadn’t recapped or revised the text with them at all in the time between their first and second mock.
There were some other, more incidental things that I learnt from marking their second mocks. Earlier on, I mentioned that I’d used Rebecca Foster’s 5 a day starter idea. In students’ work, I saw that some of the quotes that they’d used best were those that had featured in one of these activities. When I do this as a starter, I follow it with modelling what I’d pick out of the quotes, what analyses I’d make, different interpretations, subject terminology and how I’d make contextual links. Students were transferring this very well. When I repeat this quote learning journey next year, one thing I will plan far more closely is that my staters follow up what students have done the previous week, to build their knowledge of the quotations in more depth.
I’ve also thought long and hard about the right time to start something like this with students. I think one of the reasons it worked as well as it did is down to it coming after the students’ first mock exam. Many were disappointed with their result. They needed some firm guidance with how to improve, and this provided just that. Rather than simply providing “Learn quotes” as their area for improvement, they had a simple programme to follow to achieve that. Equally, by using the 5 a day starters to test their recall, students could see that it was working, meaning they were more likely to buy into it as an idea. I think, had they not seen an improvement, their buy in might have weakened and it would have been less effective overall.
And so, my top tips for enabling students to adequately prepare for the English Literature exam would be:
- Design the programme for them.
- Make it compulsory
- Use starters and in class activities regularly to enable students to build their confidence
- Introduce it at the right time – they need a motivation for it
- Don’t leave it too late. Students have a lot to learn for this exam, alongside their other subjects.
I have uploaded all of the resources mentioned in my talk at ResearchEd into a Dropbox. You’ll find the PowerPoint slides from the talk, as well as research papers and the homework resources in here: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/wh7az8vp2kw88j9/AABt1Gw-_VyKXeotz1bLOhLua?dl=0
You can find me on twitter @amforrester1 where I’m more than happy to take questions you may have.