3 Teaching Techniques That Made My 2014

At the start of this academic year I wanted to really put the theory of learning I knew into practice. Here are three teaching techniques I tried that I’ll be taking with me into 2015.

1. Interleave *everything*
We know that interleaving concepts and procedures is a desirable difficulty that improves learning. This year I’ve made it my aim to never teach a lesson that uses only one topic. Extension work doesn’t count: the main bulk of a lesson must include multiple concepts. In practice, this means that every set of questions I write includes applying the new thing being learned to problems involving other concepts from earlier on in the curriculum. I found this daunting at first – “what if it’s just too confusing for them?” – but I’ve found there’s tremendous power in my expectation that they can competently use everything I have taught them, at any time.

It’s also made the questions I write far richer and more interesting than ever before. A standard lesson on volume would include questions on upper and lower bounds, percentage changes to a volume when dimensions change by different percentages, and using Pythagoras’ Theorem to find missing dimensions before calculating a volume. These questions were the normal ones. They were not special extension questions for the top 20%. The message this broadcast, combined with the cognitive effect of the desirable difficulty, has made a noticeable impact on learning.

2. Spaced testing of *everything*
We know that spacing and testing are two of the most powerful tools in an educators’ arsenal. So I’ve made it my aim to space out testing of everything my students’ have studied.

The first way I’ve done this is through our departmental testing. This year we’re using low-stakes quizzes on each topic as a replacement for the half-termly summative tests we used to use. What’s great about this is that each topic has two quizzes: one taken at the end of the topic, and one a month later. This reinforces the expectation that students should remember what they’ve been taught, and incentivises them to revisit their learning when it will have the biggest impact on longer-term retention.

The second way is through an idea I’ve borrowed from Bruno Reddy and Kris Boulton at KSA. Long ago they told me about “Only 100% Will Do” starters: simple recall or procedural questions that had been previously studied. Now my students begin every lesson with an “Only 100% Will Do” sheet where they work on concepts from any past year group to make sure that they’re keeping up to speed.

3. Lightning fast in-class assessment
I have always been a big fan of in-class assessment, and could singlehandedly prop up the UK’s mini-whiteboard industry. But over the summer Joe Kirby introduced me to an app called Quick Key. It changed my life!

Quick Key is an optical scanning app for mobile phones. It works by scanning in students’ answer sheets to a multiple choice quiz, and giving you great analytics on your phone or in a spreadsheet. It’s also fast – I can scan a whole class set of answers in about a minute. This lets me pinpoint exactly how well the class are doing at a topic. I will discover that one mistake or misconception is bogging down the whole room, or that four students need extra support in this lesson and another five need extra challenge. The laser-like precision with which I can adapt during a lesson or plan the next one is having a big impact on my teaching.

Like any technique, these three have worked well because I made them a habit. We do these three things in the same way in almost every lesson. This consistency no doubt aids their effectiveness. But they are nonetheless three real techniques that put into practice the theory of learning we know to be so powerful.

7 thoughts on “3 Teaching Techniques That Made My 2014

  1. chemistrypoet

    This is a very encouraging blogpost….in that you are implementing themes that have been all over the edu-blogsphere over the last 2 years, in what appears to be a consistent and coherent manner. I’m guessing that many people will be interested to see more detail of just how these approaches can be practically implemented. How are you evaluating the effectiveness of them (too early?)?

  2. bt0558

    Very intreresting post.

    I would be very interested in the way that you handle number 3 i.e. software and hardware.


    Are the students completing hard or soft copies of tests?

    Is it a multiple choice sort of a thing?

    I have spent most of the xmas break on informal training/designing materials that are completed by students and they are then given feedback on the spot based upon their responses and they get a second try based upon feedback. The whole process is captured in a single bar code for me to scan and analyse. I am just considering the best way to read the barcodes etc so I am fascinated to know how yours is done. Always interesting to see things going in a similar direction.

    I shall watch with interest.

    1. dmthomas90 Post author

      They do multiple choice tests on paper and I scan the sheets in using my mobile phone. I can then review results on my phone, or in more detail on my laptop. Take a look at the app (the link is in the blogpost).

      1. Steve Webb

        That app looks very useful – I hope they get the Android one back up and running soon.

  3. Austin Booth

    Really interesting post. I’ve been implementing spacing by use lesson starters to practice past content, going right back to the start of the year (or beyond) [see https://eviedblog.wordpress.com/2015/01/11/how-can-i-simply-implement-cognitive-science-findings-to-improve-learning/ for more info ]. I like you’re approach to interleaving by making sure you use several different concepts in questions.

    I’ve also been wanting to implement low-stakes multiple choice questioning. I like how your doing an initial test and then another one a month later.

  4. Austin Booth

    I really like how you’re interleaving by combining concepts into the same lesson/question. I’ve tried to use starter activities to revisit previously learnt material [see https://eviedblog.wordpress.com/2015/01/11/how-can-i-simply-implement-cognitive-science-findings-to-improve-learning/ for more info].

    I also really like how your multiple choice tests are retaken a month later as this helps you see what has been retained. A lot for me to think about!

  5. Pingback: 26 Strategies for Meaningful Manageable Assessment by @powley_r | UKEdChat - Supporting the Education Community

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