The importance of Retrieval in learning and Revision

In just over one week I will be trying to get all the external exam students in my school to start to focus on their revision.   It is never easy to work out when is the right time to start the focus on this but with just 10 teaching weeks to go – the time seems to be about now.   Many students seem to think that revision is something that can be done at the last possible minute.  However, for revision to be as effective as possible it needs to be planned, strategic and needs to constantly recap over familiar ideas and concepts.


The more that I learn about Retrieval Practice the more convinced I am about how important this strand is within learning.   Over the last couple of years, I have become increasingly focused on how the brain actually learns stuff.   I have noticed the differences that often occur between boys and girls in the way that they prepare for exams and how this can sometimes have quite surprising outcomes.    I have changed tack with some of the ways that I support the learning of my classes.  I have changed my schemes of work and how I teach things to incorporate more opportunities for retrieval to take place in both a structured (with cues) and unstructured (without cues) manner.   I have tried to improve my own professional knowledge by jumping onto online training sessions and have read widely in this area to investigate topics of the brain, memory, learning, creating good habits, retrieval and sleep.

Adam Boxer notes that “As soon as you learn something new, you start to forget it.  This is a normal and natural part of human cognition, and it happens to us all.  In school, this is a particularly vexing phenomenon, as we want students to remember everything that we teach them.  In response to natural processes of forgetting, there are many strategies that students use to try and bolster their memories.  Most of the common strategies like reading notes or a textbook, highlighting, summarising texts or writing mnemonics are not particularly effective at strengthening memories and combating forgetting”[1]


I have been thinking recently about the differences between revision and retrieval.  Are they things that actually oppose each other or support each other?   The reality is that we sometimes see them as competing entities and not both tools that can be used to help embed and encode knowledge.    In some ways I see that Revision is the process of going back over the notes/ information that has been learnt previously.   Retrieval is when you try to recall or remember something that you have learnt previously.  Revision starts with a stimulus (a book, a page, some notes, a youtube video) but Retrieval starts with a memory.  But,  it is often just an attempt to go over the same stuff that we have gone over before.   Retrieval is all about trying to build and strengthen the links between our Long Term (LTM) and Working Memory (WM).   The more that we force the transfers of knowledge (or dredge those memories up) from deep within our LTM and bring them to the surface of our WM for use in an answer to a question etc – the better we will be at retrieving these memories.   The more we practice – the quicker we will work.  Free recall is often the most challenging act of retrieval because cues are absent[2].  Prof Jared Cooney-Horvath notes that, “the more effort required by an individual to dredge up a memory without external support, the stronger the memory will become” (Jones, 2020)[3]  For example, if I force my students to complete as many past paper questions as possible – each practice at answering a different question is making the students drag up the relevant memories to answer the question.   However, the important element is always in trying to work out how much of what we write/remember is actually relevant in answering the question. We need to go over the answers and learn to plug the gaps in our knowledge and learn from our mistakes and misunderstandings.    Kate Jones calls this building up the retrieval strength and I like the concept behind this – that we are gradually, over time, flexing our memory muscles and gradually refining our knowledge into a schema that is accurate and that can be recalled rapidly, even under the intense pressure of an exam.   Robert Bjork talks about how using your memory shapes your memory – so the reminder is that if we don’t use the memory we will lose it! (check out the short video here: )

As teachers (and as the lead adults in the room) – our job is to manage this process – sometimes without the pupils/students even knowing that they are doing this.    We have to set up the opportunities for retrieval (and revision) to happen.  Yes – it is something that pupils need to do for themselves, but we need to set the climate for this to happen.   The strategy that helps to embed the learning comes from us.    The push to start, the check over the quality of the notes, the quick reflection on how the learning is going – these all play an important part in the stimulation and motivation of the learning from the pupil.

Reflective teachers are always evaluating their own performance and trying to improve.  One key question that teachers should be asking of themselves as they plan and deliver lessons with their students as they plan the learning journey is this  – by the end of your course will your learners be able to answer these questions for themselves?

  • What can you actually remember about a topic? (Without hints and then WITH hints) 

  • Are you remembering the most important stuff? Have you identified what the key Target memories[4] are?

  • Are you getting distracted? Do you know the difference between information you NEED to know against information that would be NICE to know? 

  • Can you show the application of your knowledge through Past Paper Questions?

Is it the case that retrieval works better in a group or class setting and revision works better on an individual level?   There would be some that might argue both for and against but the reality is that there are different activities that can be done linked to both that can be achieved across BOTH of these situations.   Both are useful and effective ways of working, but retrieval helps learners to work out what they do and don’t know which can help reduce workload as learners will have a clear picture of what the missing pieces of their knowledge will be.

Maybe the deeper question – especially for students who are trying to plan for exams is one of just how effective are the different strategies that you intend to use as part of your revision package?   Are we teaching our students enough self-analysis to know that one thing works better than something else?   Do they know what are the different things that work best for them?  Often teacher promote techniques like reading notes and highlighting that actually give a false sense of completion to a student.   They think that just because they have spent time ‘in revision’ that this is all money in the bank.   They need to make sure that the revision strategies they are using are actually helping to add to the knowledge and are not just a form of window dressing.

This weekend I am travelling over to London for the InnerDrive Teaching and Learning Summit and I am hoping to have my ideas and concepts further strengthened in this area!  Will keep you updated!

[1] Boxer, A (2022)  Retrieving Better, Carousel learning

[2] As noted in Evidence Based Education (2023)  Retrieval practice:  Myths, mutations and mistakes

[3] Jones, K (2020) Retrieval practice 2:  implementing, embedding and reflecting, John Catt Educational

[4] Kate Jones notes that Target Memories are those key ideas/concepts that we ask students to recall – are they focusing on the right things?

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It’s a brain thing


In 1994 I started my PGCE course to allow me to train as a teacher.  This followed 3 years of studying for my BA in Geography (and History!)   I was young.  Enthusiastic.  Driven. Motivated and really keen to learn as much as possible.  However, through that whole year of training – at no point did we learn ANYTHING about the brain.   We just about had one session on behaviour management and another one session on the psychology of the classroom.  But – on the whole we were largely unprepared for the actual pedagogical approach to teaching and learning.  Our focus remained on subject knowledge and how to deliver this.  Little more.

In fact, it was quite a few years into my teaching career before I really started to get to grips with some of the fundamental aspects of teaching.


It’s been over 28 years since I started teaching but it has been fascinating to watch how the importance of brain science has developed in that time.  If I’m honest, it’s really only in the last couple of years that I have started to take a big interest and understanding in the science behind how the brain works.  For a long time, teachers and psychologists stayed in their own lanes and there was little overlap or collaboration.   But, today – there is a real focus on the science of learning and how we can best make sure that our approaches to learning will actually make a difference.

Often students would say to me that they had spent a lot of time doing revision and preparing for exams but found that the impact of this work on their final grade did not match their efforts.   Different elements of the science of learning help us to tease out these issues and ensure that pupils are working in the right way and making the best use of their time.


Increasingly, teaching and learning in schools is becoming a brain thing.  Teachers need to strategically think and plan how they deliver and develop knowledge and new content so that it will remain in the memory and so that it can be retrieved quickly in an exam setting.   Finally, students are stating to think and focus on the how and why of learning.   They are gradually changing from seeing revision as something which is just reading through stuff and are moving towards a more nuanced approach where they will use a range of study techniques depending on what works for them and what subjects they are trying to work on.   Gone are the days when students could say that ‘you can’t revise for English and Maths’.  Gone are the days when students could get away without refreshing their knowledge and still get top marks.

Today – it has become common practice that students are involved and understand the different processes that make up their learning.  They need to be actively engaged in this process. They need to be shown how to revise properly so that they can use the language of learning to ensure that their brains are being as effectively deployed in this process, as possible.   Learning, has moved from being solely a ‘subject’ thing and is increasingly becoming a ‘brain thing’.

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The pursuit of kindness

The Pursuit of Kindness

I’m not naturally a particularly tolerant or deliberately kind person.  It’s not something that I find easy.  I usually describe myself as a realist but the truth of the matter is that I might be closer to being a pessimist and I struggle to see the good in a situation.   It is something that I have been working at over the years but I am someone whose default position is NOT one where I am free with praise and encouragement.


This means that for me to be tolerant, supportive and kind to the people that I work with – takes a lot of deliberate effort and concentration.   It is something that I have to consciously and deliberately think about so that I am trying to reassure and help to motivate my colleagues.    Some days this works and other days it just doesn’t and I feel a little embarrassed about the way that I might have spoken to or interacted with people in a particular situation.

I was listening to a podcast recently from Simon Sinek who was talking about the power of kindness in the workplace.  Being a school leader/manager can be tricky.  I often find it difficult to find the line between being too harsh/ honest and too easy/walkover.   It’s a fine line to tread and I probably get it more wrong that right.   Especially when sometimes you have been covering all day for colleagues and still trying to get your work and admin done at the same time and still have to solve issues but are still expected to answer any queries both rationally and professionally when they come your way!


Check out a video by Simon Sinek about this 

For example, last week I had to give some feedback to some students on work they had handed in to me.   The quality of the work was not fantastic and I felt that the students had not spent as much time and effort on the work as they should have.  I was not sure how to get started as I was not happy with them.  I really wanted to shout a bit and get cross and show them how annoyed and disappointed I was but I realised that actually there was little impact in me trying to do this with them – it would only get them to be defensive.  So instead, against what I thought I wanted to do – I decided to try to be deliberately kind and focus on the positives and look at the issues as areas for improvement to help to fix and improve the piece rather than go on about negative things.    Many school students are struggling with their own mental health issues.  Covid has removed the resilience that many pupils would have built up over time in school and they have not learned the techniques to be able to deal with even the most basic setbacks.   Therefore, it is our job to try and manage both their reactions and how we deal with and support work that needs to be improved.

Developing a stance of being deliberately kind (when we probably would be more likely to not be) is not something which is easy.  It has massive limitations – as often we might not get to say what needs to be said but it does have a massive positive impact on those people that we meet and work with.  Sometimes the biggest impact of this is that it takes more time to be a constructive presence than it is to be negative.     But sometimes that it a price worth paying for the long term good of others.

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The Reading Challenge 2022

The Reading Challenge 2022


Last Christmas my daughter encouraged me to download and start to use the Good Reads app on my phone.   In recent years I had started to lose track of the different books that I had read (and what I had not read) so I had been using a wee app to keep a log of things.  However, she tried to get me to join her on GoodReads so that I might manage my reading a bit more.    I decided to sign up and thought I would try and set myself an ambitious target for my yearly reading challenge of 20 books for the year but quickly found that I was reading through things a lot quicker than I thought I might.


Being challenged to read a set amount is a really good way to encourage reading.   The rules of my challenge were that I had to read every page in the book for this to count (I could have easily added in a lot of other books that I have dipped into and out of through the year for research and school).   So far, I have completed 35 (now 38!) books which is a fantastic feat and I am hoping to get at least one more book completed before the end of the year.    One of the reasons why I wanted to take on this challenge is that I love reading, and love spending time reading but I have felt that over the last few years I have not read as much as I maybe should have.  It is far to easy to flick on Netflix rather than pull out a book (or in many cases – pull up the Kindle app).

For many years I have told young pupils that reading is the key to developing your knowledge and getting smarter . . . and it really is!    I have a very wide taste in reading – from Geography to History to education to Icelandic noir crime novels to war history and fiction.    I like to read different types of books – usually if I have read a novel one week – I like to move to a more fact-based book next.   This tends to keep things interesting and my interest up.  But, finding the time to read when you have a pretty busy work and family life can be difficult.   To help with this, I have found that I read a lot more than usual through the Kindle app on my phone and ipad.  This means that the book is always available when I am sitting waiting in the car or find an unexpected couple of minutes sometime that the book is already ready to go!  The fact is that I usually much prefer having a physical copy of the book in my hand but sometimes you just need to be able to grab a few moments of reading when you can get them.

Next year I am aiming to increase my target but I am worried that I just won’t have the same amount of time to be able to get through as much as this year  . . . . but it is always good to dream  . . . and read.

If you have any good recommendations – let me know!

 Books completed in 2022

Exclusion zone by John Nicholl Island Reich by Jack Grimwood The Odin Mission by James Holland Surrender:  40 songs One Story by Bono
Outbreak by Frank Gardner Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory in Action by Oliver Lovell How to Teach anything by Peter Hollins Fear no evil by James Patterson
Triple Cross by Tom Bradby The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry by John Mark Comer Beyond Band of Brothers by Dick Winters Deadly Cross by James Patterson
Major & Mrs Holt’s Definitive Guide to the DDay Normandy Landing Beaches by Tonie Holt Lonely Planet Normandy & DDay Beaches Road trips by Lonely Planet Death in Dalvik by Michael Ridpath Hidden Belfast by Raymond O’Regan
DK Eyewitness The Netherlands Black Sun by Owen Matthews Tom Clancy Zero Hour by Don Bentley Why we sleep by Matthew Walker
Silence of the grave by Arnaldu Indridason Secret Belfast by Lorenzo Bacino The Listening Party by Tim Burgess The 6 needs of every child by Amy Elizabeth Olrick
Ghost Force by Patrick Robinson Poweful Teaching by Pooja K Agarwal The Power of Geography by Tim Marshall Retrieval Practice:  Research & Resources for every classroom by Kate Jones
Helgoland by Carlo Rovelli Conclave by Robert Harris World War I Battlefields by John Ruler Shorelines:  The Coastal Atlas of Ireland by Robert Devoy
Around the World in 80 days by Jules Verne Space 2069:  After Apollo by David Woodhouse Tom Clancy Chain of Command by Marc Cameron

My Top 5 books of the year  . . . .

5:  Beyond Band of Brothers by Dick Winters

4:  Silence of the grave by Arnaldu Indridason

3:  Power of Geography by Tim Marshall

2: Why we sleep by Matthew Walker

1:  Surrender:  40 songs One Story by Bono


Update:  30/12/2022 – 3 more books added to the list over the Christmas break – bringing the end of year total to 38!

  • Tom Clancy – Red Winter by Marc Cameron (Great book)
  • Ireland’s forgotten past by Turtle Bunbury
  • The Lost Lights of St Kilda by Elisabeth Gifford (really enjoyed this – I have a fascination with islands and how people used to live on islands and this book really delved into this)
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Using research to develop the practice of teaching

I am a member of the Chartered College of Teaching and have been for a while now.   I don’t really engage with a lot of their stuff or activities – I just don’t have the time,  and much of it is very focused on English teachers.  However, one of the things I really, really like is their termly ‘Impact’ journal.  My most recent copy arrived through my door this morning and I have already spent a few hours this afternoon reading through some interesting material.  I am meant to be writing a presentation for a CPD session I am leading on Monday morning – but found myself thinking through other aspects of cognitive science.


The most recent journal (Issue 16 – Autumn 2022) was titled ‘Translating research into practice’ and is focused specifically on cognitive science and beyond.   As a Vice Principal who takes the lead for Teaching and Learning in a post-primary school, this is something that is close to my heart.   I read a lot of highly useful books, articles, and journal items with very interesting educational research.  Sometimes trying to synthesise these into workable practices and meaningful strategies can be difficult.   I often remind my colleagues that our job is to make hard stuff easy to understand (with a hat tip to Rob Coe) and I suppose in some ways, my job is to read all that really hard stuff and research and try and make it easier for the busy teacher to understand and implement.


In this edition, I really liked some of the opening piece by Jo Herwegen, Michael Thomas, Chloe Marshall and Rebecca Gordon dealing with, “Neuromyths about special educational needs:  What should teachers know?”   As a teacher of over 28 years, my understanding of how the brain works in learning has improved in leaps and bounds – especially recently.  I have been fascinated about some of the neuromyths that I have picked up and accepted as ‘normal’ practice along the way.  They write, ‘a recent systematic review of 24 studies examining neuromyths concluded that the majority of misunderstandings regarding the brain focused on the same small set of neuromyths (eg ‘learning styles’)’.   It goes on to look at other neuromyths linked to SEND disabilities and disorders that result in teachers not actually understanding the true nature of a condition to be able to support the student in a meaningful way.


An article titled ‘Applying cognitive science principles to primary science’ by Sarah Earle and Kendra McMahon was one that I might usually have bypassed as I might see it as not being particularly relevant to my educational context.  But I was drawn into reading the article by the opening sentence which noted that, ‘Cognitive science provides insights into learning that can inform practice in education, but the plethora of publications and, in some cases, the lab-based nature of studies that are remote from classroom realities make it difficult for practitioners to use this evidence to support or adjust their teaching.’  I have been doing a lot of research and reading into Cognitive Load Theory recently and they note that, ‘knowledge exists as patterns of connections between brain cells and that learning is the process creating those patterns of connections as networks.’ They then go into a straightforward summary of how the link between working memory and long-term memory (and the encoding process) works to consolidate the learning connections.    The bit I really enjoyed was what followed (which I will repeat in full).

‘Working memory has a limited capacity:  it can be overloaded if there is too much information to process at once.  If working memory is overloaded, then information cannot be encoded into longer-lasting memories and ‘schemas’ (knowledge structures in long-term memory).  The implication of this is that cognitive load needs to be managed to support learners, especially when engaging with new information that they may not link together into ‘chunks’.  This matters when lesson planning and teaching;  we need to make informed guesses about how much new information children can hold at once, given their existing ideas, and to avoid additional information that may distract from the learning focus.’ 

The whole area of ensuring that teachers are continuing to improve their practice as teachers is something that I am passionate about.  Access to professional courses can be expensive and often the financial support is not there within NI and from cash-strapped schools.   Yet – how are teachers meant to stay current with educational research?   How is this filtering into  schools in anything more than an ad hoc basis.   Improvements in teaching is something that is often localised and lacks strategy.   We need to make it easier for teachers to continue their development throughout their career.  We need to make professional training more accessible.   We need to reward those teachers who are at the cutting edge and developing their practice – and not just hope that their reward is in that they will eventually move into school leadership roles.   We need to find a way of rewarding the good teachers and keeping them in the classroom – where they will continue to have an immediate and long-reaching impact.


Read more of my blog posts in this area here 

Is it time for common holidays/training days across NI schools? 

Supporting Teachers 

Why I am more convinced than ever that we need to rethink teacher education 



Herwegen J V, Thomas M, Marshall, C and Gordon R (2022) Neuromyths about special educational needs:  What should teachers know?  In Impact, Issue 16, Autumn 2022,  Chartered College of Teaching

Earle, S and McMahon, K (2022) Applying cognitive principles to primary science  In Impact, Issue 16, Autumn 2022,  Chartered College of Teaching



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The joy of reading

At the start of the year my daughter introduced me to the joys of “good reads”.  I took a bit of time to add some of the books that I had read and then set myself a 2022 reading challenge – to read 20 books.  I thought at the start of the year that this might be a bit ambitious but it turns out that I have already beaten my challenge and with one third of the year left, I have read 28 books.


Ever since I was a child – I have loved reading.   I read lots of different types of books and within the last year alone I have read 4 history books, 3 geography books, 4 education books and 8 novels (usually techno thrillers, Icelandic crime or spy stuff).   I buy a lot of books – lots of 99p kindle offers and lots of things that I spy in shops and think that might make a good read some day.   The issue though, I have realised comes when you come to a book that you don’t really like. I am currently reading a book on my phone at the minute that I am struggling with.   When I really like a book I will pile through it in about 3 or 4 days.  When it is a book that I don’t really like – this can take a while.   I have a small stack of unfinished books on the coffee table in my study – books that I have started but not got back to.   I find it hard to stop reading a book.   I think there have been only 3 books in my life that I have completely given up reading.  I used to do a 50-page challenge – the author had 50 pages to convince me the book was worth reading  . . . but I rarely gave up on a book – though have regretted not giving up a few times!

I usually have about 3 or 4 books on the go at any one time.   A couple in my study at home, 1 on my phone and another on my ipad.  I like to dip in and out of them, depending on what I am feeling like.   Sometimes my interest in something is based on having read or seen something that I want to find out more information.   For example, I watched the Band of Brothers TV series recently and then had to read the book ‘Beyond Band of Brothers:  The war memoirs of Major Dick Winters’ so that I could get a deeper understanding of the man and the leader who was the central figure in the series.


However, online streaming can really eat into your reading time.  It is always easier to sit back and relax to some netflix that to grab a book.   But, the imagination and thought processes and memory are just not stretched as much with a TV programme compared with a book.  (When I was younger too – I used to also insist on having read the book before I saw the movie! I always loved comparing the 2 and seeing where the film and book were different).

I often say to my students in school that reading is what can make you smarter and I do really believe that.  My many different interests across the things I have read are some of the things that help to make me smarter.   Reading is a challenge for young people and as adults, sometimes we have to help create the conditions for reading.   When my kids were younger we used to have a reading half hour (or hour) when everyone had to read quietly for a while.  It helped to set the standard for reading and showed that this was how we could acquire knowledge.   It is important that if we want to make sure that our kids become readers that we just keep handing them things that we think they will like.

Maybe this is something that we can bring in to our practice as teachers at the start of a new year – can we provide some level of challenge to our young readers to read stuff outside their usual comfort zones and things that might actually challenge them?


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The Retrieval Mindset


This year in my school we have started a focus on ‘Retrieval Practice’.  You can read more of my thinking in this area on this page  . . . 


Retrieval Practice principles (from Kate Jones)

It has been interesting working through some of the key elements of retrieval practice.  Even the very basic focus on how learners actually process and embed knowledge is something which many teachers forget to spend enough time thinking about.  If we did – we would change a lot more about our approach to learning, our resources, how we organise and sequence our lessons and our learning environments.   There are a lot of really good resources now available to help teachers to develop their practice.

Screenshot 2022-06-07 at 22.31.01

Definition from Jennifer Gonzalez  (

In many ways, though, thinking about Retrieval is not something which can be done as a one off.   It is not just something that can be covered in a Professional Development Day and then ticked off the list of things we have achieved.   For a teacher to develop and change their approach to one that puts the idea of retrieval at the core of the learning process takes time, energy and effort.   It takes experimentation and sometimes failure as activities and resources maybe do not land or work in the way that they were intended.  I have witnessed teachers in my school this year starting to make subtle changes to how they have done things.   They have been much more deliberate about what and how students were to learn key points.  They have drilled and embedded as much information as they can.  They have engaged with the learners in new ways so that the actual learning content is embedded deeply into their memory.  Sometimes the information has stuck and sometimes it has needed another go;  another activity to really get the points in.   The idea that instead of trying to cram knowledge into our brains but we need to practice forgetting and drag those memories from our brains – is revolutionary to some teachers.   However, the point is that as teachers adopt this Retrieval Mindset – they will adapt their teaching so that memories are embedded in such a way that the key facts can easily (and quickly) be recalled.    Retrieval Mindset is a way of organising the teaching and learning that goes on in a classroom.   It is a deliberate way of ensuring that the learning ‘hooks’ are created and practiced until they stick fully in such a way that the learner can easily recall the core aspects.   It is something for both the teacher and the student.   It is a way of approaching the learning of new material so that it sticks.  Then, weeks and months later – the teacher will lead another activity that will refresh what had been done before.   It’s all about that recall.  It’s all about dragging those memories from the long term to the short term memory storage areas.   


Pedagogical change in the world of education can sometimes be glacially slow.  On other occasions a sudden Jökulhlaup (where a glacier bursts and there is a sudden increase in floodwater) can take place that will not only force change to happen in seconds but will also change the landscape for years to come.  The short and long term impact of that change can be felt for ages beyond.

I do get extremely frustrated (as many teachers do) when pupils (and sometimes parents) complain to me that they do not know how to revise – “no-one has ever taught me to revise” they say.  The reality is that most teachers have taught them how to revise on a number of occasions.  They have taught the building blocks and complexities of revision over a number of years but often the students do not recognise if for what it is (there is an extent to which students struggle to make the connection or struggle to transfer the skill and language of one subject to another).  So – do we have a perception problem with revision?  Is it just some form of ephemeral thing that cannot really be described or contained?   Perhaps this is linked to the sometime binary nature of revision . . .

  • I am revising/ I am not
  • I have revised/  I have not
  • I can remember what I revised/ I cannot remember
  • I understand what I revised/  I did not understand

Revision is something you complete.  It is not a state of mind – it is an event.  It is something you tick off from a list.  Does anyone ever feel they have completed ‘enough’ revision?  Is it something that has a finite endpoint?  Is it some form of insatiable thirst that can never be quenched?  When does fulfilment of revision come?  Is it when the exam is complete?  Is it when the results become known?   Sometimes the relief of completion masks a real, solid analysis of how well each question might have been addressed on an answer paper.

So, if we are now set on implementing a retrieval mindset – where does this leave us in relation to revision.   I have done a lot of work on revision techniques and strategies to help support learners.  See some of the pages here.   However, I am now starting to wonder if the whole ball game is now to move away from the concept of revision (and the idea of revisiting previously learnt material) to one where retrieval will take the focal role.   For example – is it about cramming as much detail into our heads or is it in taking a few moments to test to see how much knowledge we can already remember (and can actively retrieve) and then use books/notes/ revision guides to fill in the gaps.   As someone who writes revision guides to support GCSE and A Level courses – this is something I have been thinking about a lot recently.  It is making me think about how I shift the approach that I take with my pupils and through how I manage the information that the students need to learn for these courses.   Should we start referring to our work/guides/books as Retrieval rather than revision resources?

One way to look at this is that retrieval is a process.  It is a verb.  It is an action performed within the memory.  Is this really that different from revision?  Should it be different?  Revision is a process.  It is a verb.  It is a strategy that is used in the lead up to exams.  The differences are subtle and revolve on whether we value knowing what we don’t quickly recall.

I find it fascinating that we are still learning a lot about how the brain works and remembers things.   As someone who has often struggled to remember huge amounts of information (and then get them back out again through the course of an exam), I am starting to realise that if I had taken a very different approach from an early age – then things might have been very different.   I’ve always been better at the interpretation and analysis side of things than the raw memory/facts/ knowledge that can be required in written exams.   Its food for thought – as we think carefully about whether retrieval is the one thing that might help us complete the most effective revision and preparation for an exam.

Check out this YouTube video about Retrieval Practice


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The thing about exams

Over the last 10 years there have been some massive changes to assessment in Post Primary schools in Northern Ireland.  But, these changes are not quite what you think might have happened.   If you had asked me ten years ago – I would have assumed that by now, we would still have elements of Geography coursework somewhere – either at GCSE or A Level.   I would have assumed that we would be using computers in some shape or form to complete tests/ exams/ coursework in a controlled environment.   But things have gone in a slightly different track.

Ten years ago – if you were doing a GCSE in Geography you would have completed exam papers in both Physical and Human Geography and you would have completed a piece of Geography coursework that was worth 25% of the overall total.  There was a choice of tiers – Foundation and Higher to cater to the particular literacy needs across the variety of pupils.   In fact, most GCSE subjects contained sizeable chunks of coursework and then ‘controlled assessment’.   Yes – there were issues with this.  There were centres that did not fully follow the rules precisely and maybe had too many ‘perfect’ pieces of work.  But – generally these pieces of work allowed pupils who maybe struggled with exams to get a bit of confidence for themselves through some hard work.   Instead of tightening up on the moderation system – most of these opportunities for coursework were dropped.  Now – we have a Fieldwork paper – so students ‘have’ to be great at exams.  If you cannot think fast, write fast and depend on a really quick recall – you are sunk.


The wider issue though is . . .  are exams actually fit for purpose?   What actually do exams test?   The current Year 13/AS in Geography involves two 1 hour 15 min papers on Physical and Human Geography.  Both are very tight for time.   Time management and working quickly and effectively are extremely important for success.   There are 3, 15 mark short questions followed by 2, 15 mark essays.  Each needs to be completed in 15 minutes flat.  Candidates have to write TWO big essays in 15 minutes.   It is not easy.  Students need to think and write fast.   But, the question is – is this actually a test of understanding and application or is this just a test of memory?  Have we lost (have we ever had) a method of assessment that tests how students think instead of what they can remember? Many talented students can learn off case studies from textbooks and teacher notes – but do they really understand the intricacies of the place?  Have they learned to interrogate the data and come up with their own independent conclusions?

My daughter is just about to go into her final year of a university course.  She has not done one exam at all.  Yet, the rigour and discipline required for the attainment of a university degree is no less than if she had exams.  Some of the pieces of work she has been having to wrestle with and write up as essays and pieces of work have been incredibly difficult.  They have allowed her the opportunity to research and to organise and develop her own thinking and ideas.   Is it important that exams are part of learning?   Are exams the be-all-and-end-all for us to measure progress and work out who is doing well and who needs to work a bit harder?

The day when I wrote this –  was the first Geography exam of the year.   I had some pupils who were physically sick with worry.  Great students with a great knowledge and understanding were totally stressed.   There is only so much reassurance you can give.   There is only so much preparation and confidence you can try to inspire in your classes.   Surely we can come up with a better way of trying to grade and assess our pupils as they move from one stage of learning to the next.

So – my question is – can we start looking to see if we can consider how we find a way of moving back towards an approach which uses and integrates coursework?  Can we shift thinking away from an approach that values exams (and memory) versus other methods that will help students think, explain and justify their opinions.

What do you think?

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The thing about memory

This week I have been doing some work with my Year 8 students about memory.  I usually introduce each class by explaining that I often describe myself as having “a bad memory” but then point out that actually that is not true because I have some really vivid and old memories of my childhood, my first day of school, summer holidays, Grannys and Grandas that are no longer with us and things I did with my friends.  The reality is that I have a very good memory but that sometimes I am not deliberate about what I actually put into my memory.    This leads into a discussion about how we can make deliberate memories and how we need to make sure that we are filling our brains with knowledge so that we can remember them.   You might be surprised that young people seem to think that knowledge is something that will seep into their brains through some form of osmosis.   They seem to think that they will be able to remember things that they have looked at in class a month ago without any form of recall or retrieval – without any deliberate feeding of this information into their brain.  We need to realise that building up our explicit memories is the secret to retention.

Human Brain - Psychology

Many recent commentators on memory tell us that memory is actually about forgetting.  I look at it as having some type of ‘half-life’ where we will gradually lose what we are wanting to remember over time.  The longer we go without ‘triggering’ that memory – the more will be lost to us.   I do sometimes wonder if my memories are actually real or are they just a scrapbook of stories handed down by family members or through photographs that help us to recall certain things.   When we look back at old photos of family holidays that happened 30 years ago – will we only be able to to recall the things that have been captured by the camera?

The book, ‘Understanding How we Learn’ by Yana Weinstein, Megan Sumeracki and Oliver Caviglioli (2019) notes that, “Memory is used in almost any everyday activity.  But as soon as we learn something, we immediately start to forget it.”


I suppose one the main things I realised after reading about their work on memory was that, ‘memory is not like a library (or a computer) but memory is reconstructive’.  I always have thought of my head a bit like a library – though maybe in a more haphazard way – as I don’t think my memories are as well catalogued and organised as the books in a library.  Weinsten et al (2019) note that, “Many studies have shown that this is not at all the way memory functions.  We don’t lay down objective, definitive traces that are later retrieved verbatim. Instead, memory is reconstructive.”

I used to think that my memory was a finite resource – when I learned something new it would force something else out of my brain (to make space).   But, the weird thing is that when I read or learn something new – usually I find that this gets catalogued in such a way that I can recall this at a later time.   For example, sometimes when teaching A level Geography, I have a certain schema that I will use year-on-year but each year I will adapt and amend parts of this to suit current events and changes that I know that have happened since the last time I addressed this topic.   My memory and my brain work in harmony to try and ensure that any examples are the most up-to-date that they can possibly be.   Weinstein et al (2019) comment on this as they note,

“This is a key concept in long-term memory:  the idea that every time you retrieve a memory, you are actually changing it.  Every time you tell the same story it comes out a little more polished, with a few embellishing details added, or a few boring ones removed.  The memory itself – not just the story – is changing, so that the next time you retrieve the memory of that event, it will be more like the story you last told, rather than the way it really was. Memory is reconstructive in nature, and every time a memory is activated, it is altered.”

In fact, we need to make sure that we are deliberate about our memory-making.   It needs to be something that is done consciously and through a repetition of the details.   Usually, I need to say things out loud to remember them properly.  Yet, I sometimes am frustrated as my memories are often imprecise (and I cannot for the life of me remember exact quotes).

Again, Weinsten et al (2019) note the process of getting things into our long-term memory  . . .

“In order for memory to be recallable later, it needs to go from short-term to long-term memory.  Whether something makes it from short- to long-term memory depends on a number of factors, some of which may not yet have been pinned down.  However, a very important factor is whether information is encoded in a deep and meaningful way (Craik & Lockhart, 1972), so that connections can be made and understanding can be achieved.”

Nader & Hardt (2009) note that long-term memory often refers to a four-stage model:  encoding, consolidation, storage and retrieval.   One of the most important things in relation to memory is the transference of information between the short and long-term memory.   This is where the learning happens.  To put this in a more scientific way  (according to the work of Efrat Furst in Weinstein et al (2019):

  • Memories are represented by groups of neurons that are connected to each other by synapses.
  • When neurons are active – we can recall an idea.  Neuroscientists call the pattern of neurons an engram.
  • Engrams are connected to each other (by synapses) to create associations.  One specific memory is made up of a series of multiple engrams that are connected to each other by neuronal pathways . 
  • When we learn something new, groups of neurons fire in our brain as a response to the new incoming information and these create a pattern.  In order to remember, we need to reactivate a similar pattern to the one that was active during the learning.

Weinstein et al (2019) note that, “Arguably, one of the most important features of memory is actually the opposite of remembering: forgetting.”  Forgetting is the inability to retrieve information after it was learned.  Usually we can get over this failure of retrieval by providing hints or ‘retrieval cues’.  Therefore, as we try to learn, we need to also make sure that we create a series of ‘triggers’ that will help us to be able to recall the key parts of what we trying to learn.

Doug Lemov (2021) in Teach like a Champion 3.0, mentions the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve and notes the importance of this in that:

  1. As soon as you learn something , you begin forgetting it almost immediately
  2. The rate of forgetting is often shockingly high;  a few hours after learning something, people routinely only remember a small fraction of it
  3. Each time that you practice recalling what you know, the rate and amount of forgetting is reduced somewhat
  4. Retrieving something back into working memory slows the rate of forgetting, but how and when the retrieval happens is important.

`Therefore, just as learners need to be more deliberate about the approach that they take to build the ‘hooks’ that will enable their brain to attach to specific learning  – so too, teachers, need to be making sure that their learning structure, lesson plans and activities all contribute to the learning agenda and help build up a true schema.   We need to understand the process fully and embed this into our practice.

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The thing about energy drinks

News reports tell us that young people in the UK consume more high-caffeine ‘energy’ drinks than children in the EU or the USA and the debate is raging about how significant these things are in harming their health and education.

From the outset – I am going to make really clear that my children have never been allowed the drink energy drinks.   Thankfully, they don’t like the taste but I am more concerned with the medical and physical side effects that can be established and build up as a result of taking energy drinks – especially in teenagers.     I hate seeing my students in school with an energy drink in their hand.  The reason why they want these drinks is the get that ‘kick’ that wakes them up – and it is this kick that is the issue as it is usually caused by the combination of both caffeine and sugar.

I always feel a bit like a hypocrite when I say things like this because I love coffee. I have loved coffee for a long time. I probably drink about 3 to 4 cups a day. Usually from the Nespresso machine in my office or kitchen at home. Though I also really love a nice cup of Established El Rubi prepared in my French press when I have the time. But, I have long acknowledged the effect that coffee has on me. I don’t drink coffee after 9pm as I switch to tea (so that the caffeine does not impact my sleep). But, the difference between tea, coffee and energy drinks is that the caffeine in coffee is natural and occurs as part of the actual plant and processes involved in preparing the coffee beans for the market. Energy drinks have the caffeine added intentionally so that the drinks have a kick. Plus, generally because the coffee is taken hot and slowly, the impact is not as concentrated as a cold energy drink.

The amount of caffeine and sugar in these drinks can be staggering. I noticed the following poster up in out school HE rooms. Here, the children learn about healthy eating and a balanced diet. But how many of them realise the damage that is being done due to these drinks?


So what impact will drinks like this have on us. The whole reason people take them is for the kick. The problem is that the caffeine and the sugar does work and people will get a bit of concentration and. Energy from the drink. The issue is what happens after. Accounts differ about how quickly the effects from the drink wears off. Some students tell me that it might be 20 to 30 mins after taking a drink that they feel themselves starting to flag and their eyes get tired and they want a nap. The brain then naturally wants another hit to pep it up again. If it does not get this , then concentration continues to drop and students feel tired and the impact on concentration can be catastrophic.


If students are not well rested- they will struggle for concentration. They often use this energy boost or jolt (no wonder where the names come from) to wake me up in the morning. But, surely this is just covering over the cracks of another issue – the fact that many of our young people today are not getting enough sleep. They spend too many hours gaming or watching online streamlining services like Netflix and therefore cannot get into a regular sleep pattern. (I can feel another post coming on). If students are getting into the habit of relying on energy drinks to provide energy and stimulation for concentration then they are in trouble. This is not something that can be sustained and is something that can cause actual damage to the child in the longer term. In an article called “Energy drinks and young people”, The association of British dieticians noted that:

  • The mounting body of evidence demonstrates that the consumption of energy drinks is detrimental to both the physical and mental wellbeing of young people, as well as encouraging other risky behaviours such as alcohol use

  • Physical effects from over-consumption of energy drinks are mostly related to caffeine. Increased caffeine consumption in children and adolescents results in increased blood pressure, sleep disturbances, headaches and stomach aches. Self reported injury due to hyperactivity has also been reported.

  • Adolescence is also the time of maximum bone deposition and caffeine interferes with the absorption of calcium in the small intestine and so may lead to reduced calcium deposition in bones. This may also be as a result of energy drinks being consumed instead of calcium-containing drinks such as milk

  • In addition to physical effects, mental health effects due to consumption of energy drinks can include sensation-seeking behaviour, self-destructive behaviour, insomnia, problems with behavioural regulation and poor lifestyle behaviours, such as poor diet and consumption of fast food. The use of energy drinks in adolescents may also be affecting future food and drinks choices in young people due to alterations in the developing reward and addiction centre of the brain and the addiction due to the high caffeine content

The addictive nature of these drinks is that after a while, the body will start to crave the jolt of energy again so the drinker will get stuck in a continuous loop of needing to get the buzz from the sugar and caffeine instead of from more traditional methods like sleep and healthy food. By replacing more natural ways of maintaining the blood sugar levels and energy levels, the students are playing a dangerous game that often leads to insomnia and sometimes ill health.


There is no doubt that many young people now depend on these drinks to provide them with the energy to ‘survive’ school. The dependency on these supplements grows because kids are not getting a healthy breakfast and are not getting adequate rest. Its something that schools need to take more action on but this can be difficult as there seems to be few drinks that are actually immune from this. The bigger issue is not the taking of the drinks but the frequency and regularity that young people take them and how they have come to depend on them so that they can get through the day.



Teens are probably drinking too much caffeine (in The Atlantic, 30 June 2019) 

How much caffeine and sugar is in some of the UK’s most popular energy drinks?  (ITVNEWS, 30 Aug)





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How John Dunlosky changed my [teaching] life

I have been teaching for over 27 years now.   I have always tried to be as innovative as possible.  I started with a Bachelors degree in Geography at Queen’s University in Belfast and then went straight into my PGCE in Geography at the University of Ulster at Coleraine.   However, I never really felt that the PGCE prepared me for the classroom.   Yes – I learnt some behaviour management strategies, and how to deal with a special needs child and how lessons were meant to be structured.   But then – it was out to schools to try and learn on the job.   I never really felt that I really understood or knew much about the philosophy or the psychology of the classroom.   That, I needed to work on myself.   Since then, I have completed a wide variety of courses – both formal and informal that have helped expand my understanding of education.   Over the years – learning + experience have helped guide and shape me into the educator that I am today.  I have spent my whole career working in secondary schools.   I have always had a wide variety of students – from the really intelligent and interested to those with real learning needs or who lack any interest in improvement of education.   It’s been a rollercoaster.   I’ve attended conferences all over the world and met famous educators.   I’ve spoken at (and organised) conferences myself and written books that try to condense the difficult stuff into more manageable chunks and worked with the Guardian, the BBC and other publishers in trying to make geography as accessible as possible.   I have read a lot of educational theory.  Some I have accepted and some I have thrown out.   Much of this has been done quietly and not through social media.   I have grown as a teacher and a leader and I believe that I am a much more well-rounded, experienced and knowledgeable teacher than I was when I started out all those years ago.

Screenshot 2022-03-20 at 20.19.06

In early 2014, I had just started a new job (in the school where I currently work) and I remember coming across a pdf copy of an article from the American Educator by John Dunlosky called,  “Strengthening the Student Toolbox:  Study Strategies to Boost Learning”.  You can see the article here 

I remember reading it, then printing it out, and then going through again to highlight the things that I though were the most important.   The whole article was covered in yellow highlighter ink – making it really difficult to pick out just the best bits!   One of the first things that I connected with was the idea that teachers had a responsibility for actually doing things that would strengthen the set of tools that each individual teacher might have.   I had been toying with the idea that teachers should have a set toolbox of activities, approaches, measures, behavioural standards, actions and tools – that could be easily interchanged and adapted for whatever class you had.    This idea that we also needed to be people who would build up the tools/strategies in our students – was revolutionary.   Yes – for many years I had tried to identify and encourage my students to build up different aspects of their study habits.  I had helped prepare and adapt courses in learning to learn and effective study courses for sixth formers.  I had taught about study skills and tried to get students to try out new ways of learning old stuff.   But – this article challenged everything that I had ever tried and made me think about what the next steps were going to be in learning.

  •  What makes an effective study strategy? 

How did you learn to revise?  I was terrible at revising.   I used to convince my parents that as long as I was sitting in a quiet room, flicking through pages and trying to memorise them that this was enough.  It wasn’t.  I scraped through my GCSE and A level exams just about getting enough to get me into the course I wanted to study at university.  Then – finally, at university, I started to realise how I really needed to learn things for exams.   Is revision just about reading, re-reading and highlighting in a revision guide or textbook?  Trying to cram as much information into your head the night before the exam.  Dunlosky notes that, “Unfortunately, in a recent review of the research, mu colleagues and I found that these strategies are not that effective, especially if students want to retain their learning and understanding of content well after the exam is over.”  

I have about 10 books on my shelf that are about study strategies and how to revise for exams.   I have even written stuff about this myself for books.   But – often the advice that teachers give to pupils is trite, ineffective and actually a total waste of time.    If I think about the amount of time I spent ‘revising’ – I could probably have better spent my time by playing cricket and hanging out with my friends and ended up with the same results.  If students are to set aside time for effective revision  – then it needs to be something that will actually make a difference.   Dunlosky continues that, “Put differently, the emphasis is on what students need to learn, whereas little emphasis – if any – is placed on training students how they should go about learning the content and what skills will promote efficient studying to support robust learning.”  

This year, in my school, we have tried to work on this more than in previous years.   Recognising that our students are having to complete exams for the first time in over 3 years – we have tried to help them plan when to start their revision and have given advice about how to actually do this.   We started with a series of assemblies where I tried to address the motivation for learning and included some information about how to plan and implement revision.  There is a follow up session planned in a weeks time for Y12 and Y14 students BUT the real big driver was to encourage subject teachers to take some time to help their students plan and develop revision techniques for each individual subject that they take.    Yes – we need to ensure that our students know and understand what they need to know.  But – it is equally important that we can model and support them as they actually get down to the nitty gritty of revision.


  • Do teachers know enough about how learning happens?  

The second thing that Dunlosky queries is “another reason many students may not be learning about effective strategies concerns teacher preparation . . . current textbooks do not adequately cover the strategies; some omit discussion of the most effective ones, and most do not provide guidelines on how to use them in the classroom or on how to teach students to use them . . . teacher preparation typically does not emphasise the importance of teaching students to use effective learning strategies.”  

As noted before,  the big question here is whether teachers are prepared enough for this element of learning.   I can only remember one lecture about learning.  ONE.   Surely we need to be making sure that people who are entering the learning profession are well versed in how the brain works and how knowledge is developed and stored.  I am sure that things have improved in the 28 years since I left university – but this needs to be an integral part of Initial Teacher Training.   How can we ensure that teachers who are going into post-primary schools will be able to teach their students different revisions skills from day one?   How can they promote subject-specific techniques that will be useful in that subject area?   This is probably an area for further development for us all – where are the books that help teachers to navigate their way through the intricacies of learning particular subjects?  How can we try to make sure that textbooks include more brain-influenced material? (It’s not always easy to convince publishers that this stuff is of any benefit to the pupil)


Look up some of David Didau’s thoughts on this here 

  • The ten effective learning strategies 

Dunlosky and his colleagues therefore have listed 10 effective learning strategies that they then go on to review and categorise as Most effective, Promising or Less useful.

  1. Practice testing:  self-testing or taking practice tests on to-be-learned material
  2. Distributed practice:  implementing a schedule of practice that spreads out study activities over time
  3. Interleaved practice: implementing a schedule of practice that mixes different kinds of problems, or a schedule of study that mixes different kinds of material, within a single study session
  4. Elaborative interrogation:  generating an explanation for why an explicitly stated fact or concept is true.
  5. Self-explanation:  explaining how new information is related to known information, or explaining steps taken during problem solving
  6. Rereading:  restudying text material again after an initial reading
  7. Highlighting and underlining:  marking potentially important portions of to-be-learned materials while reading
  8. Summarization:  writing summaries (of various lengths) of to-be-learned texts
  9. Keywords mnemomic:  using keywords and mental imagery to associate verbal materials
  10. Imagery for text:  attempting to form mental images of text materials while reading or listening.

Each strategy listed above helps us to consider how we actually go about learning stuff.  It does not matter if this is for an exam or a job interview.   When we need to learn stuff for questions – we are trying to recall and retrieve learned material.   Sometimes when under pressure or in unfamiliar surrounding we can experience a type of mind blankness that impacts our memory.  Interestingly, it has never occurred to me that when working for job interviews that maybe I have been employing totally the wrong techniques for learning what I needed to know.   Equally, (and thankfully), it seems that some universities are starting to move away from the memory tests of exams and towards a more skills based, formative analysis of marks.  For example – my daughter who is currently doing the same degree at the same university that I went to – has not actually done any exams and there is no sign that she ever will.  A degree awarded with just emphasis on the continuous course work is a great start and removes that dependence on memorisation.


  • Most effective Strategies 1 – Practice Testing 

Dunlosky recognises the impact that exams/tests/quizzes can have on students.  Over the last 2 years, as a result of the impact of COVID and school lockdowns, we have become more versed and understanding of the big difference between the high stakes and low stakes exams that can happen.   If anything,  this coming year will involve some of the highest stakes testing we have ever seen.   There are pupils in my school who are doing Year 14, A Level History who did not do AS exams and did not do GCSE exams and who are expected to get a final history grade based on ONE exam.  The stakes do not get much higher than that and this brings a pressure of its own.

Yet – using tests and exams can also be a major source of helping to improve student learning.  Dunlosky writes, “For instance, college students who reported using practice tests to study for upcoming exams earned higher grades, and when middle school teachers administered daily practice tests for class content, their students performed better on future tests”  

When my daughter was revising for her GCSE exams, she became clinical about how she used past papers.  She would look up the questions, break them down, colour code them and analyse the different ways that questions were asked.  She would write model answers and then check that she was getting everything right with mark schemes.   It took a LOT of time and effort.  But – it worked.  There were few places where she was surprised by questions.  She had seem them all before and had prepared answers for everything.  I used to joke that she knew the papers better than some teachers – but, I’m not sure how much of a joke it was.

But – we need to also note the commitment that the teacher needs to show when using this particular piece of research.  It is up to the teacher to feed their students these questions.  To make sure that they have seen and answered the breadth of the questions (and answers).   To try and provide daily (or at least, regular) challenge with practice questions.   With a Year 11 GCSE geography class we have been trying a little experiment this year where we have emphasised the retrieval of knowledge with a class to see if they can retain the details of longer questions and case study material for a longer time.   We have interleaved work and worked on many, many practice questions in a variety of formats and tested constantly to see if they are picking up on the subtleties required for long-term memory retention.  Yet – sometimes when we set a test – the students still fail to do adequate revision and have no real detailed information to draw on.   It can be frustrating!

For many years, I have employed the same follow up to tests and exams with all my classes.  Following a test we will always go through the answers so that pupils can see where they went wrong and correct their answers accordingly.   The theory is that pupils will learn from their mistakes  . . . but that is not always the case.   Dunlosky notes that, “When a student fails to retrieve a correct answer during a practice test, that failure signals that the answer needs to be restudied;  in this way, practice tests can help students make better decisions about what needs further practice and what does not.”   

The big question here is – do the students actively go back and re-learn what they missed or were wrong about?   Are they learning from failure?   Are they bouncing back from tests and exams, armed with the knowledge of what they don’t know?  And, to what extent does the motivation of the student play in this?  A student who lacks motivation will struggle to see any relevance to this activity and will not actively engage.

Dunlosky recognises that actually one of the biggest benefits to testing is that students get the most from the requirement to retrieve ‘content from memory’ and that when they ‘require recall from memory.’   Retrieval practice tells us that it is this act of pulling the memory form the long-term to the working/short-term memory that actually helps the student to remember things.  Therefore, the process of answering questions in this fashion is what is writing the memories into the minds of the student.


Dunlosky then goes on to notes that, “students should be encouraged to take notes in a manner that will foster practice tests.  For instance, as they read a chapter in their textbook, they should be encouraged to make flashcards, with the key term on one side and the correct answer on the other.  When taking notes in class, teachers should encourage students to leave room on each page for practice tests.”  

Flashcards are an essential piece of revision kit.  You can now buy pre-printed revision cards for lots of different subjects BUT really, it is when you actually go to the effort to create your own – that the real learning begins.   The actual process of thinking what to write on one side of the card and then the other is where the learning really happens.   Then, these concepts get embedded again and again over time.  There are lots of different ways where teachers could and should try to include answers to tests and past paper questions into the learning process.

Dunlosky then moves on to the idea where students actively test themselves.  He notes simply that, “students should continue testing themselves, with feedback, until they correctly recall each concept at least once from memory.”  This means that they need to keep going until they get it right.  It puts a bit of low-stakes thinking and learning onto the process of coming up with the right answer.   However, the issue again with this involves the motivation of the students.   Some students do not have the resilience or the desire to keep cycling back to things that they thought they knew and understood.   It takes a fair bit of teacher ‘leaning’ to ensure that students keep going with this loop until they know/understand the key concepts.   A certain amount of traffic lighting can be used here as they realise the extent to which they have learned something.

Dunlosky further suggests that, “the idea is for teachers to choose the most important ideas and then take a couple of minutes at the beginning or end of each class to test students”.  Testing therefore should be constant.  It should be repetitive.  It should be fresh.  It should be something that pupils come to expect and experience on a daily basis.   It should be focused on real past paper style questions.   It should be something that pupils will immediately be able to identify as fitting into the same pattern of what to expect.   There is massive onus on the teacher to make sure that what is delivered is vitally important and that the tests/quizzes and exams are taken (and prepared for) in a serious manner.

  • Most effective  Strategies 2 – Distributed Practice 


Dunloskey begins his discussion of the second most effective strategies for learning by explaining how massed practice works.  This is when students will repeat the same process/ spelling continually by writing it out again and again.   Dunlosky suggests that the process for distributed practice as, “the student writes out each word only once, and after transcribing the final word, going back and writing each one again, and so forth, until the practice is complete . . . the practice with any word is distributed across time (and the time between practicing any one word is filled with another activity – in this case, writing other words).”  Dunlosky also suggests another alternative way of looking at this where a student learning something would, “study his notes and texts during a shorter session several evenings before the exam and then study them again the evening before.”   In each case the learning is distributed across a number of sessions.  The principal at work here is that if students learn things and dip in and out of them from time to time – they are more likely to be able to retain this knowledge/information.  Dunlosky argues that, “students will retain knowledge and skills for a longer period of time when they distribute their practice than when they mass it  – even if they use the same amount of time massing and distributing their practice.”  In other words – spending on hour a night over 3 nights is MORE effective that spending 3 hours the night before a test cramming the knowledge into your brain.

The other issue here is that often students struggle with the self-motivation and organisational skills required to be able to manage distributed practice effectively.   The number of distractions that young people have to contend with is probably not more than when I like to listen to cricket matches on the radio – but the potential distractions from smart phones, Netflix, social media and Xboxes certainly makes it difficult for ever the most self-disciplined pupil to set aside enough time.

Weirdly, students will use elements of distributed practice increasingly in their online lives and then not translate them effectively to their school work.   I sometimes have watch my son play along with experienced gamers as he follows their actions and movements from youtube videos as he goes through similar scenarios in the game.    He will spend time each night coming back to the same place in the game to do it again better and to improve his moves and skills at a certain level.   What sometimes looks monotonous and boring to an outsider (like me) looking in – is actually building skills and resilience in the gameplay.  Yet – our young people do not seem to transfer that same skill into how they do learning and school.

Three weeks ago I spent some time with some students in my school to talk to them about how they needed to start the revision needed for their exams.  They had just completed a test in the course and had not really achieved the marks that they should have.   None of them had taken heed of the advice.   So – I asked why not and predicted that they had said to themselves that easter was time enough.  The reality is that students expect to rely on massed practice rather than distributed practice.  If we really want them to distribute their learning we need to actually help/force them to do this.  Its not enough to expect them to have the self-discipline to be able to achieve this on their own.   An experienced teacher knows that they are just storing up pressure that will make it difficult for them to achieve their potential and that a more distributed practice would help – but unfortunately most teens need to experience the sense of failure for themselves first before they start to listen (I am worried that I am starting to sound like an old man here – but I often explain to my students that the earlier you start revising the less pressure and less worry you will have in the run up to the exams).

Dunlosky suggests a practical approach to this, he says, “teachers should focus on helping students map out how many study sessions they will need before an exam, when those sessions should take place (such as which evenings of the week), and what they should practice during each session.”  

Finally, distributed practice can and should be used in the classroom.   It is important that teachers return to important material constantly.   Within lesson plans, I often spend time reflecting on what we covered in the last lesson and then trying to create the connections in the learning with the new material to be covered in the next lesson.  Dunlosky suggests that this is connected together with a selection of short and longer (cumulative) tests that will regularly assess the progress (and learning) of the students.

  • Promising Strategies 1 – Interleaved Practice 

interleaving-5There has been a lot of talk recently about interleaving and interleaved practice.  There are a lot of misconceptions about it as well and I have no doubt that this particular method suits some learners more than it does others.   For example, I am not sure that this idea would work well with me.   I have a very linear brain.  I like to learn things in order.  I like to teach things in the order that they come up in an exam paper.  I think this helps students to identify with the structure.   It means that they are using less brain capacity trying to work out the order of things and can concentrate on just answering the question.   Dunlosky describes Interleaved practice as being, “similar to distributed practice in this it involves spacing one’s practice across time, but it specifically refers to practicing different types of problems across time.”  

Some evidence suggests that Interleaving the learning as opposed to having massed practice can have an impact in test performance where students are likely to be three times as successful that learners who only use massed practice.   The argument here is that massed practice leads to quick learning – the students gain a solid knowledge of the key concepts but they then forget this quickly as well.  The learning is not practiced, embedded or revisited and this means that learners lose the sense of what they were trying to learn.  By contrast, interleaved practice can slow learning down (and in some ways can interrupt other streams of learning) but it can lead to much greater retention.

So how exactly does this work and why is this a better way of managing learning as a teacher than through a reliance on massed practice?  Dunlosky answers this by noting that, “In contrast to massed practice, interleaving problems requires distributed practice, which by itself benefits student achievement.”   A question then can be asked about whether it is the distributed nature of the practice or the interleaving which has the biggest impact?  Dunlosky suggests some things that teachers can do to help boost student achievement, he writes, “I suggest that teachers revise worksheets that involve practice problems, by rearranging the order of the problems to encourage interleaved practice . . . teachers should do their best to interleave questions and problems from newly taught materials with those from prior classes.”  Therefore there is much that the teacher can do with how they arrange their lessons, schemes of work and resources and tests to make sure that information is studied, revised and then further revisited.

  • Promising Strategies 2 and 3  – Elaborative interrogation and Self-Explanation 

Elaborative interrogation is when students might be reading and try to then explain why a fact might be true.  The exercise is not necessarily aimed at trying to find a ‘right’ answer but allows the student to elaborate on why a fact might be true or why something might happen or be linked to something else.  Dunlosky notes that, “even when the explanations are not entirely on the mark, [they] can still benefit understanding and retention.”  In fact, often when I am teaching new content and I am asking questions to try and tease out what students already know about the topic, this can lead to a ‘euraka!’ moment when they start to connect different pieces of knowledge into something that actually makes sense of the wider topic.    Dunlosky notes that, “if the student were using self-explanation, then she would try to explain how this new information is related to information that she already knows.”   As teachers, we often try to get students to vocalise their thinking and as we encourage them to do this – those sometimes rambling thoughts and ideas can be shaped into something that makes more sense and helps to solve the problem or answer the question.   For example, the geographer in me loves asking the one word question – ‘why?’ constantly in my classes.   As the students get older, into GCSE I progress to ‘so what’ to help them to scaffold more detailed answers that can serve as the foundation for good longer answers.


In relation to Self-explanation, Dunlosky writes that, “in solving new problems that involve transferring what one has learned during practice, those who initially used self-explanation perform better than those who did not use this technique.”   In this way, students learn to give reasons as to why they have taken certain decisions or done things in a particular way.  This verbal expression of things, the thought processes behind thinking an answer and then verbalising it for marking/commentary/ reflection, helps to reinforce ideas and allows them to ‘stick’ longer in the brain.


Check out the infographics from @ImpactWales

  • Less useful strategies 1 and 2  – Rereading and Highlighting 

The issue with many of the final strategies that we mention here is that they are massively prevalent and are used a lot by students as they plan and prepare for exams.  I am often advising students to find the revision technique that works for them and stick at it.  However, the reality is that in most cases we will need to employ a series of different techniques to help get us across the line.


Rereading is a massive issue.  When I am talking to students about revision I ask them what the difference is between revision and reading.   They usually look at you a bit funny when you ask it – but when you start to delve into things – they start to realise that in their head the 2 things mean the same thing – get their notebook/revision guide/ textbook and flick through the pages reading them and hoping that something will stick.  Some will argue that the more you read the same material – the more that it will stick.  For those of us who have photographic memories – that would be amazing; but for the majority of us who don’t and struggle to retain even the most mundane thoughts – re-reading is never really going to provide us with the memory capacity we are looking for.   Dunlosky writes,  “Despite its popularity, rereading has inconsistent effects on student learning:  whereas students typically benefit from rereading when they must later recall texts from memory, rereading does not always enhance students’ understanding of what they read.”   For example, I have written revision guides for the A Level Geography specification for NI schools.  If my students just re-read these books and go over them again and again – they will have knowledge (and hopefully it will stick) but a major part of the exam is that they students need to know how to apply this knowledge to some complex questions.  Sometimes the questions can be wordy and tricky to understand – students must be selective with the information that they use to back up their answer.  they cannot just download all of the information in their head and hope that some of this scores points.   Re-reading things on their own is a start but it is not enough.  Yet – for many students this is the ONLY form of revision that they do.

The use of highlighters has its place.  I like to use different colours of highlighters to help me to emphasise really important things when I am working.  Dunlosky notes that, “highlighting is only the beginning of the journey, and that after they read and highlight, they should then restudy the material using more-effective strategies.”  The problem is that often highlighting means that students are searching for the core information and then loose the sense of the material as they do this.   A highlighted page might only end up with key terms/ phrases and might miss some of the key detail required for a more detailed answer.   When my daughter started to revise for her first external exams she used to go through a set of highlighters each week as she colour coded everything in sight.  The pages were lovely to look at but visually difficult to pick out what actually needed to be learned properly.

  • Less useful strategies 3 – Summarization 


John Dunlosky writes that,  “Summarization involved paraphrasing the most important ideas within a text.  It has shown some success at helping undergraduate students learn, although younger students who have difficulties writing high-quality summaries may need extensive help to benefit from this strategy.”  Following some extensive trial and error – I discovered that the best way for me to remember stuff for exams was to condense or summarise all of my notes into revision notes.  I would then take these revision notes and summarise them down again and again until eventually I would be left with one A3 page that was just covered in key words and concepts.   I called these my ‘hook’ words as these words would provide links and hooks into the detail of different concepts.   Its a variation on summarization and maybe it worked because I was at university – the big question is whether this same technique can be effectively used by young er learners.

There is evidence that if this technique is coached carefully that it can make a difference to the success of the student.

  • Less useful strategies 4 and 5  – Keyword Mnemonic and Imagery for Text 


The final techniques reviewed by Dunlosky involve different aspects of mental imagery (Dunlosky calls this, “developing internal images that elaborate on what one is studying”).  For example, when studying things like languages and vocabulary – students might learn that the word for tooth is la dent and will make a mental pairing of the 2 words with one image.  In fact, much of the way that modern languages is taught tries to get students to match images with words.

In addition, they might make links between the words – the dent in the french word is reminiscent of the word dentist so students will link the 2 keywords together.

Dunlosky notes that these techniques are useful and “Mental imagery does increase retention of the material being studied, especially when students are tested soon after studying.  However, research has shown that the benefits of imagery can be short-lived.”  Therefore, if linguist rely solely on these methods to embed the words required within languages, it is likely that the students will quickly forget the connections between the key words or what the words that match the pictures will actually be.


Dunlosky finishes with some tips for teachers for using effective learning strategies

Screenshot 2022-03-20 at 20.19.41

This relatively short article (though based on much longer research) by John Dunlosky is a game-changer.   It gives teachers guidance on how we should be trying to both plan and encourage our students to improve their revision strategies and techniques.  If we can help them to become more efficient and effective learners – then they will do better and will be able to answer those difficult questions in more detail.  It is based on empirical research and uses the most up to date information on cognitive science.   But – Dunlosky rightly comments towards the end of the article that, “Even the best strategies will only be effective is students are motivated to use them correctly”.  That is another long post entirely – because sometimes it is difficult to motivate EVERY Learner.  COVID has not helped – it is like out students are awakening from a long coma and they are trying to get their eyes working before they even start thinking about getting up and moving around on their feet.  But – they need to want to. They need a reason to get up.


Thanks for the inspiration and ideas John!


Dunlosky, John et al (2013) Improving Students’ Learning with Effective Learning Techniques:  Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology, Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14 (I) 4-58, SAGE 

John Dunlosky – How to build a better learner in the TES, Sept 2021 

Dunlosky, John et al (2013) What works, what doesn’t.   2013 Scientific American Mind Sept/Oct 2013 

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Is it time for common holidays/ training days across NI schools?

Some years ago I was involved in helping to organise some training events for our local Area Learning Community.   Each school had agreed to designate ONE day where we would all get together and share training/ ideas in teaching and learning.   We actually managed to run this for two years.  The first year was fantastic and all the teachers gathered in a local hotel for training and to hear from top quality keynote speakers.   The second year was done on a much tighter budget with each school hosting speakers and training events so that local teachers could choose what they specialised in.   Both of these events were great and did a lot to help improve the sense that we were part of something bigger and that we on the same team.   Relations between schools were at an all time high.  However, since then – we have not has any shared training and rarely schools rarely interact with each other (even before COVID brought any contact to a grinding halt).

I still find it odd that schools still have (to some extent) some control over their holidays and when they take any training or exceptional closure days.   The reality is that the Translink bus schedules are often the key driving force when decisions are being made about when schools will be open or closed.   I know that discussions have been had at a senior level between department and EA figures about whether some form of consolidation of exceptional closure days can be made.

But why might this be useful, let me list the main reasons I think this should happen.

  1. Improvement in training programmes
  2. Opportunity for greater collaboration and sharing of good practice between schools 
  3. Opportunity for Area Learning Communities to come together and improve relations 
  4. Common training days means that national programmes of training in collaboration with local universities and providers would mean that we could have a resurgence of training within the NI education system 
  5. Families with children (and parents) who are at or work at local schools will finally have holidays that are alignment.   
  6. Finally – an end to that sense that another school is getting more time ‘off’ that what you are  


1:  Improvement in training programmes

The common timetabling of holidays and exceptional closure days across schools would allow the education authorities and schools themselves to better plan ahead for training.   Much of the training within NI schools comes from within.  This is one of the key strengths of the NI education system but it is also a weakness.  We often are slow to act and change along with changes within educational practices.  We continue to use and follow old, out-of-date teaching techniques and fall behind the research and advances that are made in other countries.   If we want to be at the forefront of educational chnage – we should ensure that we are training up our leaders and teachers as much as possible and then disseminating that information.  It is easier to do that if we have common days.  It also means that we can share our expertise.  Instead of being insular and not hearing about what other schools are doing – we often are led by the same people, pedalling the same old things and change grinds to an unsteady halt.


2:  Opportunity for greater collaboration and sharing of good practice between schools 

The sad reality of the competitive nature of the NI education system is that schools compete for pupils.  At both the primary and secondary levels – the number of staff that we have available year-on-year is directly linked to the number of pupils on our books.   When another school down the road starts to ‘do better’ and take on more pupils, this has a knock on effect on that other school.   This competition brings caution.   We are reluctant to share what we do and how we try to improve and do things differently (and share what the business world calls our USP or Unique Selling Point).  We are wary of our neighbouring schools and it is actually easier to collaborate with schools in other parts of NI than it is to collaborate with our neighbours.   It should not be like this.

Secondly, the lack of training and development that disappeared with the education boards, means that we rarely have any opportunity to meet with teachers who teach the same stuff that we do.   The last time I saw some of the other local Geography teachers in the are where I work was when the Revised Curriculum was being introduced – over 10 years ago now!

If we are serious about actually improving teaching and learning on a subject by subject level  – we need to encourage collaboration by removing the threat of competition.   We need to be able to share the good practice from one department to another and from one school to another.

It is getting increasingly difficult to make a difference with some pupils and students within our society.  The challenges of inequality, deprivation and a local of motivation for success combined with alcohol and drug abuse mean that we need to learn to work together to see how we can change minds and lives.   Now – more than ever – we need to learn how to share the good practice in one area with other schools so that we can build each other up (and encourage each other to keep up the fight!)


3: Opportunity for Area Learning Communities to come together and improve relations 

I have noted above about the successes that can be gained when local schools work together with a common goal.  But we need to be forced to do this.  We need a timeframe.   We need a shared sense of purpose.   We need our leaders in education to actually lead and be people who are keen to bring groups together in order to collaborate and help support children.   Maybe we have forgotten what the purpose of education is.  Maybe we have been told to focus too much on the quantitive measures and the numbers of passes and have lost sight of the qualitative – where success is not measured in grades but in survival or in smiles.

I feel that trust between schools is at an all time low and we need to start to rebuild the bridges and the partnerships that once were about.   We need to strengthen ALCs and we need to make them effective vehicles for social and educational change.  We need to improve our sectoral and phase links from nursery to primary, primary to secondary and secondary to tertiary level.

Having common training days is a start.  They will require co-ordination.  They will require trust.  They will require sharing and this will require transparency as we open up about our strengths and our weaknesses.


4: Common training days means that national programmes of training in collaboration with local universities and providers would mean that we could have a resurgence of training within the NI education system 

I know that during the COVID lockdowns many teachers started to think about improving how they did things.  The EA is (finally) starting to put together a better programme of support and training for teachers.  The local university have developed a series of new courses to help support teachers.  But, we are still miles off where we could be.

Some occupations have much more robust professional development programmes and we need to do something similar in NI.  We need to professionalise our training and development.   There are still too many teachers who have done very little since they left Initial Teacher Training.   There are too many who instead of having 20 years of experience – actually only have one year of experience that is repeated 20 times.

We need to build in accreditation programmes so that teachers have to build an annual portfolio of training to prove that they are being reflective and learning on the job.  These days should be set aside for teachers to be able to go to refresher sessions at the Universities in their subject areas.  To catch up with what is current thinking in that subject area.   To find out about the most recent advances in learning.   Each teacher in NI should HAVE to complete training courses and modules EVERY.  SINGLE.  YEAR.  They do this in other professions (especially nursing and medicine) – why do we think that we do not need something similar?

You might also want to take a quick look two posts I wrote a while before in relation to this:

Supporting Teachers 

Why I am more convinced than ever that we need to rethink teacher education


5: Families with children (and parents) who are at or work at local schools will finally have holidays that are alignment.   

At one time in our house there were 3 of us at 3 different schools with 3 very different holiday schedules.   As a teacher, it was difficult when my young children were ‘off’ at different times to me and we had the luxury of Grandparents who were close by and who were glad for some time with their Grandchildren.   But, for many that is not the case.

How much easier would it be if every calendar was lined up in the same way?  It would be easier to book days off and to know when you could actually go on a break.


6: Finally – an end to that sense that another school is getting more time ‘off’ that what you are  

Most teachers DO sit and try to work out whether the teachers in THAT other school were getting more time off that us.  ‘How could they get those extra 2 days at Christmas?’  ‘Where are those days coming from?  They are off the same amount of time as us at Half term and Easter . . . .’  We have all heard it.   We have all said it.   We reckon that some schools do not get the same amount of supervision than others.  We reckon that some are twisting the rules in all manner of directions so that their workload is less.

It’s a small point, yes, and there is probably not much truth in it anyway – but if the decisions were taken by a higher power – then there is not much that anyone can really say!!

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Revision – When is the time to push the button?

This year our pupils in Year 11, 12, 13 and 14 will be doing external exams for the first time in over 2 years.   Some of them maybe have already done an exam or two already in November, January or February so they are starting to get to know the feeling of pressure that comes with any exam season.   However, our students in Y14 – did not do any exams last year or in their final year of GCSE study.   They have not had the same time to refine their skills and work out the best revision practice that will suit them – compared with previous years.  In addition, these exams have the highest level of peril ever.   Whilst taking modular exams off the table does mean there is less for students to prepare for – the other side of the coin is that they have fewer chances of actually nailing that good grade.  For example, Y14 History students only have to do one exam but this means that their whole A Level grade is based on their performance in ONE paper and not the usual FOUR.   This is pressure.   Previously, if you had a bad day in one paper, at least you would have other papers to be able to help bring you back up.

Success poster

There is always pressure at the important end of year exams.  For Y12 and Y14 students – this is their final chance to achieve their grade.   The exam season can be long and draining.   For students to be successful – they need to be determined and consistent in their approach to their revision and preparation for these exams.   I often talk about trying to work out the best time, the ‘sweet spot’ when we should be trying to ‘push the button’ on our students and to try and get them to 1) realise how much they have to do, 2) start to prepare properly for their exams and 3) actually start doing it!

This year, I have felt that timing this right has become even more important.  Too late = they won’t have enough time to adequately prepare for the exams and they will heap more pressure on themselves.   Too early = the risk that they get bored and de-motivated and turn off before the exams have even come around.    It is a tricky balance.

This week, in my school I decided it was time to do some assemblies with Y11 to 14 to try and get them motivated to get started some work.   It was never intended to be a practical ‘help’ session of what they should do and how they should do it – but more of a rallying cry about why they should be starting and how they could start organising and thinking about how they work.

The big problem with revision is that how we actually best learn and prepare for exams looks really different from one person to the next.  When I was a pupil – I really struggled with revision and I did it all wrong.   I used to sit out in my garden, listening to cricket with a book on my lap as I flicked from page to page.  There was no note-taking, no writing,  no processing or transformation of the knowledge.  How I managed to retain anything is a miracle to me!   Eventually, at university I worked out the method that best suited me.  It was labour and time intensive but it suited someone like me who had a pretty lousy short-term memory.

Although big whole year-group assemblies and ‘How to revise’ sessions can have an impact.  The biggest impact comes when the everyday class teachers help their students to scaffold and prepare for their learning.   It is when these teachers share their ideas and tips about the best ways that pupils can learn in their subject – that the realisation of what needs to happen is felt best.

I shared the following graphic (seen on twitter)  with my colleagues this week in an email  . . . sometimes we do forget that we are the adults in the room and we are the ones who have a better idea of the ‘big picture’ and know what to expect and that maybe ‘they’ don’t really get it – so we have to help as much as we can  . . .


BUT, and this is a big BUT – one of the most important messages that I have been trying to get across to my students this week is that revision is something that is their own personal responsibility.   It is up to them.  The amount of time they spend learning stuff will equal the results they get.  Revision is something that happens at home.  It is something that is independent and not directed by the teacher.  It is all about developing their own responsibility, appetite and effort in preparing for the exams.

If you would like to see a version of my revision presentation called ‘Focus on Revision’  that I sent out to parents this week click here 

Screenshot 2022-02-26 at 20.41.20

Also check out my other revision links on this site


All work here is copyright to T Manson (c) 2022

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Do we have a crisis within the teaching profession?


Being a teacher is hard.  I don’t think that people outside the profession really understand the pressures that are made on teachers.   The amount of energy required when working with young people.  Or, the stress of having to work with up to 30 kids (from 30 different households) in one room during a global pandemic.    We are cannon fodder.   It is pretty much a done deal that we will all get COVID.  At least once.  Cracking open a window and wearing a mask is not enough to stop the spread.  But – we continue to muddle on.


Over the last couple of weeks and months in Northern Ireland the impact of Covid has really started to bite.   Before Christmas and in the weeks that have followed there has been a real squeeze on the number of teachers available to work.  This puts schools (and school leaders, in particular) under a great deal of pressure.   In many ways this is the perfect storm – schools need more sub (substitute) teachers than at any time in the past.   We need to rely on a network of former/younger teachers who have never been required in this way before.   We need them at the same time.

It is literally a supply and demand issue.  For years, there have been more subs than work.  In fact the number of young teachers who were sitting at home kicking their heels had been increasing.   Then, the government decided to cut the number of places available for teacher training.   The number of retirement packages for older teachers dried up and the wheel stopped turning as fast as it had done in the past.

Even how we manage to get in contact with sub teachers has changed.   We used to keep lists of available people and ring them when required.  Then we had NISTR (which never really worked) and now most people use the NI Teachers Collaborate Subs page to ask people to step up.

Catch it bin it kill it TWITTER

The sub teacher/ support teacher system has never worked.   There has never been a real sense of ownership in it.  No-one really knows who is responsible for it.  Its just there.  Most schools had probably never really used it before Covid arrived.   And, we have never needed it more.

I’ve been teaching for 27 years and now I’m a VP I have a significantly lighter timetable than I used to.  However, this means that the other Senior Teachers and I are shouldered with the burden of covering when we can’t get subs.   This puts more pressure on us.   We have sometimes had to combine classes and double them up – sometimes trying to teach out sixth form class in a small corner while we look after another class in the back of the room.   Already this year –in my school the other VP and I have covered a huge number of periods each. It works out at about 9 hours a week.  Extra.  Beyond what we are timetabled to do.  Eating into our admin time.

So – how have we come to be in this place?

  1. Retirement packages

Only teachers really understand the fatigue that happens in a classroom.   Young children suck the very energy out of you.   I really admire teachers who leave the classroom reluctantly at age 65 having done 43 years of service.  They deserve a long and happy retirement.   But, I don’t know many that make it that far.   I think that 60 is a realistic target for teachers.  I think it should be easier for teachers to muster out at 60.  But – there should also be a better escape hatch for people who have got to 55 (after 32 years service) and are looking for a new challenge.    This would allow us to bring in a lot more young, energetic teachers (though I hasten to add I have seen my fair share of older, energetic teachers too – who are dearly missed when then go).

  1. Lower numbers in training

The government made a decision years ago to reduce the number of people in training.  At the time – it was the right decision but I do wonder if once the dust has settled from COVID – that there will be an increase in the number of people who have had enough and just want OUT.   Do we have enough younger teachers coming through?  Do we need more places?  It used to be that NI was a great exporter of teachers and maybe they continue to leave us – but maybe we need more in training.   Some countries offer Beginning Teachers a funded job in their first two years – this keeps them here and adds to our workforce – I am sure that most schools in the country would gladly take on one more pair of hands around the school.


  1. School Planning

In some ways this perfect storm is the fault of schools.   For years we have been told by the EA to cut our cloth so that timetables are exceptionally tight.  We have no room to spare.   We have no wiggle room for cover and absences as we want to keep our budgets as tight as possible.   This means that we depend on ‘the usual’ subs.  We go to the same people time and again to cover the general absences.  But, with the increase in demand created by COVID – this has often meant that the ‘usual’ subs are already snapped up and we cannot get someone in.  It’s a tricky balance – subs cost money and this takes money away from other things.    But – sometimes it is necessary but we need to try and encourage a bigger pot of sub teachers who are ready and willing to help us out when required.   (I do wonder how many schools in NI actively plan for cover and give teachers deliberate time for cover duties – drop me a line if you do!)


  1. Perceptions of the substitute role

Do we value the band of merry travellers who move between schools?  Do we welcome them appropriately into the life of the school?   Do we just see them as a stop gap or as something more?   Maybe it is like a relationship – are we only in this for the one-day stand as opposed to a more long term and fulfilling relationship?   Perhaps, we need to do more to include and support the sub teacher?  Maybe there should be some form of retaining fee – to maybe pay them over the breaks – so that they continue to make themselves available.  Should EA have a more involved registration programme so that they know (and manage) where the teachers are based.


  1. Increased use of job shares/ part time

The increased flexibility – temporary variation of contract/ job share and part time work has meant that there are gaps that could be filled by people already in the system.   How can we encourage teachers to make themselves available for work in peak times of crisis?   Sometimes, teachers feel that to offer their services might create a precedent – but we need to look into a greater flexibility that allows them to offer themselves for more work.

  1. Union rules

The Jordanstown agreement (remember that one) clearly states that cover should be fair.  In fact – Appendix I of the ‘Guidance and advice on the allocation and operation of cover arrangements’ (TNC 2011/8) says in paragraph 1.2   that cover should, “ensure that a fair and equitable distribution of cover duties amongst teaching staff in school”.

When we can’t get a sub for a class?  What do we do?  Senior staff have to step up.  But teaching unions have created a scenario whereby basically we cannot ask staff to help out.  Some offer.  Some don’t.   But is it fair that the load for absences is taken by the busiest?  Is it right that this means that other strategic meetings get cancelled?   Is it right that this means that Senior teachers are put under more pressure and get fewer breaks?  This is not ensuring a fair and equitable distribution.

This crisis in teaching is one that was always on the horizon.  It was waiting to happen.   Covid is just one of a number of things that could have easily have caused the issue in supply and demand.   With the GTC (NI) rendered ineffective – we need someone to take this on and to set up a user friendly system that enables and supports schools and sub teachers to make sure that they get the work they are looking for.  It should not be up to senior teachers to make pleas on Facebook on a nightly basis to try and find subs.  It should be a lot easier than that  . . . . .

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Goodbye to 2021

I thought 2020 was hard.  COVID arrived.  Schools were disrupted. People cowered in their houses afraid to even go for a walk.   Toilet rolls were in short supply.  People ordered their food out of delivery trucks.   Exams were cancelled.   NHS staff were treated like heroes.   Parents realised how difficult it was to actually get their kids to learn anything.  Teachers dabbled with online learning.


2021 was worse.   We thought things would improve.  It’s the hope that kills you.   We could not even get the school year started in school until  . . . . March!  Schools were closed.   Pupils and parents were forced to communicate digitally.  Learning kept going but everyone agreed that it was just not the same.   Just before Easter the return to school began and people were scared, wary and did not know what to do.   The ‘experts’ talked about the COVID lag in learning.   They missed talking about the behaviour lag as students had forgotten the basic ways of behaviour, manners and how to interact fairly with other people.  No-one came back the same.  Exams were cancelled (again) but this time attempts were made to provide evidence which just meant that grades were overly inflated.

The wheel kept turning.

We started September and things started to feel a little more like ‘normal’.  The usual school activities started back gradually.  Sports activities resumed;  the Home Economics cookers got turned on again;  the Technology tools could once again be heard scraping along wood.  Senior teachers spent ages talking to Y11, Y12, Y13 and Y14 students to convince them that ‘Yes, you WILL have exams this year – so you do need to work and NO – you won’t be getting free grades this year’.  Like they actually listen.   And then – BANG.  New variants change the game and we stand at the end of the year, once again looking ahead to another year of uncertainty.  We have no idea what 2022 will look like.   We have no idea what January will look like.


We have learnt to be patient.  To not jump the gun.  To NOT plan too far ahead.   These plans change too quickly.   We have become responsive to governmental edicts and now just wait for the details rather than second guess everything.   We have learnt to be flexible – so that we can change things quickly.

From a personal point of view – I am now getting fed up of this virus.  My wife (a nurse in the Nightingale hospital in Belfast) is under a huge amount of pressure to continue to manage a complex service through a global pandemic.  On 1st December my worst fears were realised when I tested positive.  I have a few medical complications including asthma and I am immuno-depressed.  This was was my worst nightmare.  It was not nice.   It was hard, hard going but I survived and have now been back to work over a week since.


I am glad to be saying goodbye to 2021.   It has been a long, tiring, emotionally-draining year for many of us.   In the hard times – it has been the support from my family that has got me through.  It has been the shared support from my friends and colleagues.  It has been my faith in one who is greater and who is in control of all things.

Before I got COVID, I was absolutely knackered.   I now sit with half a day of school to go and I am weary and just ready for a break.  Knowing, that in a couple of weeks the creeping sense of unknown, disorder and disruption is coming as the next wave.

So – my prayer is that you can take some time to relax, to laugh, to gather with those you love.  To reflect on the year that has been and to hope that this next year will be the one where the shackles of this disease are broken and we can once again live our lives to the very full!

Have a great Christmas and see you in the New Year!

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Are exams just tests of memory?

There is an inherent and build in flaw to all examinations.

Some students MUST fail.  Usually, for every one student who has done well and achieved the top mark in any test or exam – one student must fail.  It’s all based on the Standard deviation bell curve below.


The Centre point in the bell curve is at 50% – this means that half of the marks are above the peak and 50% are below the peak.   The distribution of marks is often seen to to fall into this pattern.   But, the issue is that for every pass, there must be a failure.   This seems to be unfair but I suppose it helps to maintain a consistency from one year to the next.   But, is it fair?  Is it fair that we might not consider outside factors like – the class might have been better taught, done more past paper questions, used better revision tools etc.  However, it has been pretty obvious that the application of this bell curve has not really been how things have been done in recent years (due to COVID).

I was struck by an article recently that noted the changes to C or above pass rates since the start of the GCSE system in 1988.  The University of Buckingham have done more research on this – they note that the pass rate at grade C or above in 1988 was 42%.  In 1989 (the year I took my GCSEs) it was 46%.  By the end of this study in 2014 – it was  standing at 69%.  Incidentally, the percentage of A (and A* grades) rose from 8.6 to 21.3%.  The measures taken through COVID meant that 40% of students achieved a grade A or above and 90% of students achieved a grade C or above.  (For some context – the latest pre-Covid figures for 2019 were 32% and 68% respectively).


Are exams easier?  Is it easier to gain a high/top grade?  Are GCSEs not as hard as they used to be?  I don’t necessarily think so.  Some of this is down to better resources, better online help and support, better teaching,  better revision guide support, better preparation.   Surely – as we live in an age with a multi-million dollar annual industry based on educational support and tuition – we should be seeing annual improvements.

I have been pondering recently about whether written exams are actually fair.   The modern written examination is usually divided up into 3 distinct areas:

  • knowledge
  • understanding and
  • skills.

The thing is that for a sizeable number of pupils – this means that any success in these subjects is based on how good their memory is.   Can they remember the knowledge?   Can they apply/ understand the knowledge?   Does this disadvantage the less able student?  Do these hand written exams disadvantage the student with learning issues/ those who struggle to read and write quickly within the time allotted.

I teach A level Geography.  The specification I cover at AS level means that students have to write an essay (over 1 1/2 pages or more) in 15 minutes flat.  It is NOT easy.  Successful candidates are those who can think, plan and write as quickly and effectively as possible.  Some pupils, who are perfectly good geographers are disadvantaged because they just don’t have enough time to get everything done.  This is where it comes a test of ability rather than a test of geography.   Is that the way things should be?

I am increasing coming round to the idea that we need to modernise the examinations process so that students can start to use more technology that might help level the playing field.  Technology will allow them to ‘read’ the paper and hear it read to them more effectively and help their thought processes.  Instead of depending on a pupil being a fast writer – they can dictate into the computer.  Plus – this model would allow us to start testing other modern things like digital mapping and GIS.




GCSE Trends 1988 – 2014 (Alan Smithers) 

CCEA GCSE Provisional results and statistics for 2020-2021 

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