Spaced practice, retrieval practice and dual coding: some practical applications in the teaching of history

As a trainee history teacher, I’ve been looking at all kinds of ideas and methods for making my teaching more effective. I’ve worked as a teaching assistant in a secondary school for a year, and this has given me the opportunity to observe how history is taught across a number of year groups. One thing I consciously did in the course of that year, was to try to get a feel for the most common areas of weakness for history students. This is what I came up with:

  1. Knowledge doesn’t stick, taught material is easily forgotten (poor substantive knowledge)
  2. Weak historical writing – the ability to structure essays, use proper syntax and make convincing arguments for and against a viewpoint before reaching a conclusion (poor disciplinary skills)
  3. Poor understanding of historical context and how events and people are linked – knowledge is too abstract and not contextual enough (e.g. poor understanding of chronology)

Having identified these common issues, I started thinking about ways to tackle them, helped and inspired by the rich resource that is edu-twitter which has brought to my attention teacher blogs, books and research articles. So what I want to do in this post is to look at each of these 3 weaknesses identified and suggest some practical solutions. In particular, I will be looking at three powerful learning strategies which I’ve discovered in large part through the wonderful work of the Learning Scientists, and these are:

  • Spaced practice
  • Retrieval practice
  • Dual coding

Knowledge doesn’t stick

How do we get our students to remember what we teach them? Well, the first thing to acknowledge is that just teaching something the once is not going to be enough. In history, our tendency is to follow the structure of a textbook, learn discrete topics one at a time, assess at the end, and then move on to the next topic. It’s quite common, two or three topics down the line, for students to have forgotten most of the relevant aspects of the first topic they learned. This is the conundrum that we face as history teachers. So what do we do? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Reserve 10 minutes of each lesson for small stakes quizzes or tests (retrieval practice). Make it part of the class routine. These can be self or peer assessed.
  • Work out what the most important bits of knowledge are for each topic and present them in clearly structured fact sheets or knowledge organisers, which pupils can take home and self-quiz with as homework. It’s important that pupils don’t just re-read a knowledge organiser, but that they quiz themselves (or maybe get a parent to quiz them). I would rather they did this kind of homework than create a poster or build a model of a castle.
  • Include questions from previous topics in your quizzes (spaced practice). So for example, in a year 7 group, you might recently have studied the Peasants’ Revolt. In your quiz, include questions about this current topic but also add questions about the Battle of Hastings, castles, King John, feudalism etc. Don’t just test what you have learned recently, mix things up.
  • These quizzes are an opportunity to check what topics have been forgotten or are still poorly understood. Feedback on the quiz with a show of hands to see which questions pupils are struggling with. Spend a little time explaining and correcting misconceptions. So, even if you are currently doing the Peasants’ Revolt, it could be that you spend 5 minutes explaining again the design of a motte and bailey castle or the reasons why they were so important in gaining control of England. And if, for example, you found that pupils had forgotten about castles in this quiz, make sure you include a question about castles in the next quiz, and again three weeks down the line. The important thing that we need to avoid, is to have a term or two pass by without even mentioning again some important concepts we learned at the beginning of the year. Once something has been learned, it needs to stay part of the discourse and not be put away on the back shelf and forgotten about.

Disciplinary knowledge

Historical writing is the holy grail of history teachers. Obviously, we don’t want our pupils to just learn the facts. We also want them to develop historical skills or disciplinary knowledge, most importantly the ability to discuss and write about concepts such as cause and effect, change and continuity, significance of an event etc. This is quite a challenge for a lot of our students. I don’t pretend to have the answers but here are a few strategies that I hope to implement.

  • Make students familiar with how historians write by reading from historical literature, even if at first it’s just a paragraph here or there. In order to get a feel for proper historical writing they need to experience it.
  • Explicitly teach essay structure – I’ve made a start with this diagram (a bit of dual coding).

  • Explicitly model appropriate language to use (I’m still figuring this one out, with the hope of producing some kind of visual representation with sentence starters or other useful historian language).
  • Consider this idea: “the ends don’t resemble the means”. I have been thinking about this a lot lately, after reading this blog by Greg Ashman and also from Daisy Christodoulou’s example of footballers practising specific skills, such as passing of the ball, rather than improving through match play only (can’t remember where I read this, was it in 7 Myths?) Basically, the idea is that what you practice doing to get to the end product doesn’t necessarily look like the end product itself. So if we want our students to get better at writing essays, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they will improve by practising essay writing per se. Break down the task of essay writing into chunks that can be practised separately. For example, practice good writing for an introduction, or writing one of the paragraphs that make up the meat of your essay, but don’t write an entire essay until a level of proficiency has been reached in the individual parts.
  • Try to develop their rhetoric skills through debates. My recent blog on Martin Robinson’s ResearchEd talk has some ideas for this. One half of the classroom could be for the motion and the other half against. Get them to prepare their arguments as homework and pick a few students randomly from each group to step forward and present their argument.

Poor understanding of historical context

Last year, my year 10 classes started their Edexcel course module on Elizabethan England straight after they had finished their medicine through time module. One of the first topics they studied was the Elizabethan Religious Settlement, and a question I heard many times was “Miss, was Elizabeth Catholic or Protestant?” They clearly had no real understanding of the religious divisions. As far as they were concerned, this was some sort of tribal conflict, like the Montagus versus the Capulets. The same happened when we moved on to Mary Queen of Scots. “Miss, was Mary a Catholic or a Protestant?” There was no contextual understanding about the religious conflicts of the time.

So, I would consider this. Teach content that may not be specifically on the GCSE syllabus but which will help pupils to understand that syllabus better. For instance, I would do a lesson on Luther and the Protestant Reformation and also a lesson on Henry VIII’s break with Rome, how that was followed by the more radical Protestantism of Edward VI and how Catholicism was reinstated by Mary. Pupils need to understand the context of the religious divisions when Elizabeth acceded the throne and why Elizabeth was always going to be a Protestant (Catholicism invalidates her father’s marriage to her mother and makes her illegitimate). I think this is a more holistic approach than just teaching to the test.

The other issue with context is that often, I’ve noticed pupils mix up their chronology of events and people. One common example is when we are studying the First World War, and a pupil answers a question by talking about Hitler. World War I and World War II get muddled up an awful lot.

One possible way to mitigate this is to draw a timeline, and place all the events that are going to be studied that year on it. Here’s an example of a year 7 timeline I’ve done.

When starting a new topic, always be sure to show its place within the timeline. Make that timeline visible in all your lessons, perhaps at the top of your Powerpoint presentation if you’re using one (see below).

Of course, what would be really helpful would be to sequence the curriculum in a linear, chronological way. This is how it used to be done before it all became about ‘skills’, making chronology seem slightly irrelevant.

I leave you with one last thought. Many of the students I observed seemed to have a very abstract understanding of the historical events and characters being studied. There was often no sense that they were studying real people and events – or at least, no sense that these were flesh and blood people who had had ambitions and emotions just like we do today. Perhaps we need to think carefully about how we portray historical characters and events. The ‘horrible histories’, cartoon style depictions, such as these below (which I lifted from my year 7’s textbook), are used to try to engage the interest of young students. I worry that, in actual fact, the opposite happens, turning history into fiction and caricature.

N.B: Since writing this, I had an enlightening conversation with my 8 year old son this morning. He was telling me all about Tutankhamun, as they had an Egyptologist visit his school this week. Having told me about the discovery of this famous tomb by Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon, he paused and asked me this: “Mum, was Tutankhamun a human?”

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