How does cognitive load theory affect teachers?

We talk a lot about the cognitive load that we impose on students and how to get the most out of them without overloading. In this blog, Matt examines how he felt overloaded himself as he worked his way through a difficult explanation – it’s so important that we take this into account so that we can have as much free headspace as possible to be able to adequately and efficiently respond to our students’ performance.

At cogscisci, we love publicising blogs and using them to spark debate. If you have your own blog or have read a blog that you would like us to publicise, please email it to us at We try to frame these blogs as questions, so if you are on social media, please join the conversation with us here by simply giving what you think is a good answer to the question.

How can I use explicit instruction to teach declarative knowledge?

Much of the teaching we do is of declarative knowledge: facts and ideas like what a giant ionic lattice is, or the parts of the EM spectrum or reflex arcs. Matt Perks has made many valuable contributions to CogSciSci and last year wrote a couple of really good blogs about common pitfalls teachers make when teaching material like this, as well as a really nicely modelled sequence of how to teach reflex arcs. Though he doesn’t use the phrase, Matt’s sequence is a great example of Explicit Instruction: the teacher-led process of gradually building complexity to help students grasp challenging and abstract content.

At cogscisci, we love publicising blogs and using them to spark debate. If you have your own blog or have read a blog that you would like us to publicise, please email it to us at We try to frame these blogs as questions, so if you are on social media, please join the conversation with us here by simply giving what you think is a good answer to the question.

How does a good night’s sleep affect student retention?

We are all probably worried that our students don’t get enough sleep. We are also probably worried that our students don’t remember as much stuff as we would like them to. In this blog, Andrew Watson looks at a simple experiment which tested the relationship between spaced practice and getting enough sleep. Definitely one to send to the year 11 head of year!

At cogscisci, we love publicising blogs and using them to spark debate. If you have your own blog or have read a blog that you would like us to publicise, please email it to us at We try to frame these blogs as questions, so if you are on social media, please join the conversation with us here by simply giving what you think is a good answer to the question.

Why do my students find it so hard to apply their knowledge?

Application of knowledge to another context is one of the holy grails of teaching – it means that your students can take what they have learnt in your classroom beyond the confines of those walls. In cognitive science literature, this is referred to as transfer, and is by now a well-researched concept. In this blog, Rob McEntarffer examins a fascinating paper by cogsci gurus Kirschner, De Bruyckere and Hulshoff on the topic.

At CogSciSci, we love publicising blogs and using them to spark debate. If you have your own blog or have read a blog that you would like us to publicise, please email it to us at We try to frame these blogs as questions, so if you are on social media, please join the conversation with us here by simply giving what you think is a good answer to the question.

An Open Letter to NQT Mentors and School Leaders about Science Teacher retention

Dom Shibli is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Hertfordshire for Secondary Science (@ShibliDom)

This is usually an exciting time of year for me as the student teachers complete their training and start thinking about their ‘proper jobs’ in July or September. I derive a huge amount of satisfaction knowing that they are in work and look forward to seeing them again when I visit the new crop of student teachers. But this satisfaction is somewhat quelled by the sobering thought that, “The odds of science teachers leaving their school within five years are 26% higher than for otherwise similar non-science teachers.” (Allen & Sims 2017)

There is a recruitment and retention crisis for science teachers and you can read more about that in the December 2019 the House of Commons on Teacher Recruitment and Retention in England here. One statistic I will quote from the paper is that biology recruitment has a surplus of 781 teachers and physics has a shortfall of 718 teachers.

These eager Biologists who I interviewed about why they want to go into teaching talk about their passion for the subject they have studied to degree level. At interview it is rare for me to hear of a Biology graduate talking about their passion for Physics. The usual phrase I hear when I ask them about their subject knowledge gaps is they will have to brush up on Physics. These NQTs are lined up like lambs to the slaughter and allocated GCSE Physics classes because a school does not have enough Physicists and I believe this contributes to the awful retention rates in Science.

I want to outline the reasons why and suggest how a school might be able to support an NQT especially when they are teaching outside of specialism:

NQT Mentors and Senior Leaders need to be aware:

  1. It is much harder and more time consuming to teach outside of specialism. When you are coming at a subject from a knowledge deficit it is going to be harder to prepare for and teach.
  2. The most egregious myth that when you teach out of specialism your lessons are more effective because you have to be better prepared. If you explore that further you are saying that in a subject where you might have a very shallow working knowledge you will produce better lessons than in a subject where your knowledge is at degree level. How are your explanations as rich as a specialist? I doubt you will know if you have taught something incorrectly? (However, I do concede that I have observed effective lessons from non-specialists. But they often take much longer to prepare and at a cost to planning other lessons). Boghossian and Lindsey (2019) cite a paper called “The Shadows and Shallows of explanation’ which studied a well-known phenomenon of people who believe they understand things better than they actually do. I agree that you might be better prepared for the lesson from an operational perspective but I remain to be convinced that lessons are better.
  3. It is a mistake to try and give NQTs a timetable so that they can cover the whole curriculum. This practice is pervasive in schools based upon the ill-informed idea of ‘well I had to do so should they’ when allocating a timetable. It is a particularly cruel form of natural selection which really shouldn’t happen. The objective should be to teach lessons well and not just try and enable the NQTs to experience teaching the whole curriculum.

If you are now starting to plan the timetable for September here are some suggestions for what you can do to support your NQTs:

  1. Allocate as many GCSE classes in specialism as possible so that they can spend less time planning subject knowledge and can therefore concentrate on all the other variables in the classroom.
  2. Allocate a subject specific mentor if they have to teach outside of specialism at Key Stage 4. If there is no subject specialist engage with professional bodies like the Institute of Physics, the Royal Society of Chemistry or the grassroots CogSciSci community.
  3. Give them 2 classes in a year group and arrange it so they can teach the same topic twice so they can reflect on what they have taught and improve.
  4. Be realistic about expectations of your NQTs and use lesson observations as developmental tools.
  5. Provide your NQT mentors with the training to support their NQTs effectively and focus on the development of subject specific support and not generic strategies.

There is a recruitment and retention crisis in science. Schools will not have a huge amount of influence on the recruitment of teachers to the profession but perhaps by considering the suggestions above can influence the dire state of teacher retention.

Further reading can be found here:

The Gatsby Foundation: Increasing the quality and quantity of science teachers in schools: 8 evidence-based principles:


Allen, R. & Sims, S. (2017) Improving Science Teacher Retention:do National STEM Learning Network professional development courses keep science teachers in the classroom? Education Datalab [date accessed 18.6.2020]

Boghossian, P. & Lindsey J. (2019) How to have Impossible Conversations. A very practical guide. New York. Lifelong Books

House of Commons Library (2019) Teacher recruitment and retention in England [date accessed 18.6.2020]

To the newly qualified science teacher: what I wish I’d known

Starting your first year of teaching is daunting at the best of times, even more so when your PGCE year has been disturbed as in this year. In this post, a number of CogSciSci regulars share the tips and tricks they wish that they had known when they were first starting out. Topics covered are listed below in case you want to find something in particular:

  1. Simple tips for managing behaviour in a classroom
  2. How to say no
  3. Focusing on what’s important (i.e. not science club)
  4.  Subject knowledge
  5. What I wish I’d read
  6. The number one research finding to know
  7. Simple tips for managing behaviour in a practical
  8. How to start lesson one
  9. Where to find great resources
  10. Paying attention to attention
  11. Don’t mark books – plan meaningful feedback
  12. Becoming an evidence-based practitioner

– Ed. 

Simple tips for managing behaviour in a classroom – Ian Taylor

The single most important thing here is to be predictable. There should be no surprises when it comes to the way you manage pupils’ behaviour. Through calm, consistent and fair application of your school’s behaviour policy you should be able to achieve a stable and purposeful environment. (If you don’t have a whole school behaviour policy or centralised detentions, mention it to someone as being something to look into – or, find a job at a school which does!)

Be respectful. Even if a pupil is being ridiculously rude you should remain, as the adult in the situation, the role model. If a pupil is shouting at you, don’t shout back. If you stay nice and chilled they usually run out of energy (or the room) as they realise that you aren’t going to lose your cool or self-control.You also stay in the correct frame of mind for seamlessly continuing the lesson once the pupil has either settled or been removed.

Ignore anyone who says “Don’t smile until Christmas” as much of student progress is built upon positive relationships between teachers and students. Show your students that you care and that you believe they can achieve their potential: in fact, tell them. 

Ultimately any behaviour management you have to do is designed to get the classroom back on track and performing again. If someone walks into your classroom and sees students working calmly, but the behaviour board is brimming, then that just means you are using the system correctly. Praise the good, challenge the bad. Consistently. Every time. Without fail.

How to say no – Chris Baker

Teaching is never finished. There’s always another book to mark. A lesson to plan or improve. Emails to send. Phone calls to make. Duties you could do. Displays you could improve. After school clubs you could run. Colleagues you could observe. Trainees you could help out. Books you could read. Twitter you could read. CPD you could attend. Things you could try in your lessons. None of it ever finishes.

You could do what I did, and basically say yes to everything, and wait until you get ill (physically and/or mentally), or you can be selective now. Say no to things (or at least keep quiet when someone asks for volunteers).

What are the most important things to you? Do those things first, to a sensible quality, as quickly as you can. Then stop. Relax.

What really helped me was keeping a to-do list in Trello. It’s a free website with a phone app which let’s you track multiple to-do lists at once, and move stuff around easily. Setup a column for Today, one for Tomorrow, This Week, This Month, This Term, This Year. Put work in as you get it, and move it around. You could use the colour feature to track who the work came from, or categorise it.

If you’ve got more than you can do then ask someone to help you allocate (Your mentor or HoD would be good first people to try). If you recognise that you are heading into problems, shout up as early as you can. It’s not a weakness to say “I’m struggling to finish everything. I’m fine right now, but I’m worried if I keep going like this I will run into big problems”. Be open and honest with the people you work for. If you wait until the day before a deadline it might be too late for them to help much. 

The someday list lets you track stuff that YOU want to try. Writing it down let’s you get it out of your head, but puts no pressure to try it now. Because you can’t do everything at once, and you’re way better off doing a few things well than everything badly. Then when you’ve got time and you want to try something, you know where to turn.

Focusing on what’s important (i.e., not science club) – Rachel Wong

As a teacher, the most important thing is to deliver content to students and help them progress effectively from one stage to the next. So your number one focus as an NQT should be on developing your teaching practice, rather than all the extra stuff. The first year of teaching is one of the best times to do this as you have more opportunities to try out different ideas and methods, which is something you’ll miss and have less time for afterwards. Getting involved in other things (such as managing Science club) is also good, but they may divert too much of your time and attention in your first year and take up more of your cognitive load, making it harder for you to improve your teaching practice.

Here are what I think to be the two most important things to do during your NQT year:

  1. Plan your lessons carefully – Practise your explicit instructions. Plan your scaffolding and modelling of complicated concepts. Provide feedback where possible and allow time for pupils to act on them. Set up a routine of retrieval practice to help pupils reinforce their learning.
  2. Give yourself time to reflect on your lessons – note down what works and what doesn’t, and why that is the case. Remember it’s ok to have a bad lesson. It’s only through learning from mistakes that we can become better at what we do. Spend your protected time wisely, for example to observe lessons of other experienced teachers and learn from them. Don’t be afraid to try out different ideas that you may have, as long as you are clear on the purpose of each activity for your teaching and not just for “edutainment”.

I’ll end with a piece of advice my department head gave me on my first day: Teaching is a marathon, not a sprint. Taking care of oneself is just as important as working hard to improve as educators. As you continue to develop professionally, you will become more able to take on more responsibilities and expand your skills set, but to start with, focus on consolidating your teaching practice.

Subject knowledge – Satinder Bains

You might not really want to, but take the opportunity to teach outside of your specialist area with open arms. It may seem difficult at the time, however having an appreciation of a wider range of subject areas, will give a greater depth to your explanations in lessons which overlap in content. For example, teaching ‘The Atmosphere’ topic in chemistry is supported with photosynthesis, respiration and the carbon cycle in biology as well as the electromagnetic spectrum in physics.

In some lessons you may have to teach content you are not very familiar with. The best thing to do in this case is to create your own worksheet. There are lots of resources out there already so you shouldn’t have to start completely from scratch. Ensure all the key information for the lesson is included in a way that you feel comfortable explaining it. Make up your own questions along with their answers, this part will really help you to get ‘inside’ the lesson. Then use that resource as the basis for your lesson. It may seem time consuming and you may not be able to do it every time, but it really will help.

As a novice teacher I spent hours preparing a lesson on electrolysis and was pretty confident that it was going to be amazing, but it was an epic fail. Why? I was overloading the students with too much information in one go, I didn’t appreciate the tricky concepts that are always worth recapping, I wasn’t giving them time to master an aspect before moving into the next. Teaching, reflecting and making tweaks to your teaching practice is invaluable in helping you to develop the specialist skills in teaching your subject. It doesn’t always have to be that hard, as I mentioned there are many resources out there that may highlight the pitfalls so you can avoid them, or you may be lucky enough to have a subject specialist mentor to guide you along the way. However, this is just one of those areas that improves with experience.

What I wish I’d read – Adam Robbins

The book I’d wish I had read in my NQT year is without a doubt ‘Why Don’t Students Like School’ by Daniel T Willingham. It’s a cognitive scientist’s attempt to simplify the most relevant research that is applicable in the classroom. In my defense it was published in 2010 and I was an NQT in 2003, but let’s not let the arrow of time get in the way. Willingham is famous for his quote “memory is the residue of thought”. It’s simple, kind of obvious and transformed my teaching. Before I was under the impression that students learnt from awe and wonder. I thought relevance and quirks were the secret to teaching them and that they should learn without realising they were being taught. When looking at Willinghams quote it’s very easy to see that all this did was take their attention away from the most important parts of the lesson. This led to a series of terrible choices where students were bombarded by multisensory non-sense. I’ve written about some of my daftest lessons here. I wasn’t the only one as others who came into the profession have confessed their #badlessons on twitter. Read them so you don’t make our mistakes and take solace in the fact that you are probably already better than we were back then! 

If memory is the residue of thought then we have a few principles we must adhere to:

  1. We must focus students’ attention on the right things: Try to avoid complicating explanations and including banter or other distractions (eg gifs)
  2. Students must spend time thinking about the content: Tasks must be designed to direct their thinking to the most important things and for long enough (eg SLOP
  3. Calm and quiet classrooms are better learning environments: So task choice should avoid unnecessary motion and distraction (eg no treasure hunts)
  4. Competition is motivational but not effective: They will be thinking about their score and not the work.

Some of these ideas will go against your PGCE training. I’m sorry if that confuses or frustrates you, but trust in Willingham. He knows his stuff. 

This one research finding – Bob Pritchard

Test-Enhanced Learning:Taking Memory Tests Improves Long-Term Retention  (Roediger & Karpicke, 2006) 

There has been plenty of research into the (well established) benefits of retrieval practice, but the results of this paper are so clear (and the experiment so well put together) that it’s become one of the most well cited papers on the subject. It was one of the first cogsci papers that I read, and it had a real effect on my teaching, particularly how I structure lessons. 

The results of Roediger & Karpicke’s experiments show that testing pupils after exposure to new material has greater benefits for long term retention than repeatedly studying it. This is initially more difficult for pupils (and as a result it’s a strategy they tend to avoid, preferring to re-read, copy out notes etc). As teachers we can help show them the benefits by building retrieval practice into lessons. This can be through regular quizzes on previously taught content (for example, retrieval roulette) or through building shed loads of practice questions to help both reinforce concepts and check understanding. 

Testing (low stakes) is a very good thing.

Simple tips for managing a practical in a classroom – Ian Taylor

  1. Make sure you have practised the experiment. You need to be confident in the process in order to be able to guide your pupils safely through it. Check with your lab technician for any tips on either completing it successfully or about safety.
  2. Consider how equipment is to be distributed. Position it in different parts of the room and assign different pupils to get different apparatus: not all at once though, maybe partner A has 30 seconds to collect the Bunsen, heat mat and tripod. Then partner B has 30 seconds to collect the evaporating basin and gauze… etc.
  3. Take it slow. The cognitive load of practical work is astronomical. Demonstrate a couple of stages then let pupils carry them out. The Adam Boxer ‘Slow Practical’ blog is an essential read.
  4. Whenever possible, stand back and take in a view of the whole room. It is all too easy to get sucked into helping one group for a minute or two, within which all hell can potentially break loose! 
  5. Keep an eye on the time. Sometimes (usually physics experiments) things don’t go to plan and the minutes fly by at an extraordinary rate. Make sure you leave enough time for a calm pack up and a quick review of the planned learning: without this, the meaning of the experiment will most likely be lost and pupils will find it very difficult to recall the method and equipment next lesson.

One final point to bear in mind is that, as alluded to in point 3, the actual amount of learning which will take place during a practical lesson is often disappointingly low. It is really important to consider whether it’s worth it. Often, a demonstration will be more effective in illustrating the knowledge you hope to deliver as you are taking on the cognitive load of manipulating the equipment, freeing up the pupils’ internal resources for learning.

How to start lesson one. – Bill Wilkinson

I made a lot of mistakes in my NQT year, but the biggest was probably trying to be the cool new teacher in town who the kids all liked. Believe me, you don’t want to be liked, you want to be respected and you only get one chance to make a first impression. So make it count. The objective of the first lesson is to show that you are the teacher in charge of your classroom. It is not to get to know them or tell them all about yourself. You need to show them that whilst you are a pretty strict teacher, you are also warm and care about the educational success of each individual student in the room.

I get them lined up at the back in silence and put them in their seating plan row by row. I then rigidly stick to it.  Whilst they then get started on an accessible starter – an easy win to give them confidence – I go around and ask what they’d like to be called during the year. Some kids have names I mispronounced at the start and I’ll write out phonetically on my plan. Others prefer a shortened version or middle name, others still don’t like their name being shortened. I annotate my seating plan accordingly. You can only show you care about their education by using their name correctly.

While going around, I’m checking that they’re in the seating plan correctly. I don’t let anyone “accidently” swap with their neighbours. I insist – loudly, so the rest of the class can hear –  that they swap back again. Because we, the teachers are in charge of our space and nothing happens in it without our agreement. Finally I go back to the front and I bring them back together with my classroom call to attention “Show me you’re listening”, and I get on with lesson one.  

Where to find great resources

We’re obviously biased but the bank of resources that we host here are genuinely brilliant. We’ve covered pretty much the whole of KS4 and large chunks of KS3. No need to reinvent the wheel, especially when the wheel in this particular case was made by someone who knows the subject and the pedagogy backwards. Click here for a world of resource delights!

Paying attention to attention – Dom Shibli

In the early years of my teaching career I was not a student of the learning process. I was probably more concerned with getting through a lesson and the activities I had planned regardless of whether they supported the learning or not. What I now know is that the brain focuses on the moments that it considers important. So attention is a limited resource. Your challenge is to be able to focus students’ attention on what you consider important to the learning process. Put your subject matter in the spotlight and guide the students. Direct your students attention to where you want them to look because as Dehaene (2020) writes, ‘what they cannot perceive, they cannot learn.’

Don’t mark books – plan meaningful feedback – Helen Skelton

When you were at school you were probably used to teachers writing lots of comments on your work, perhaps you were expected to respond and the teacher would check up on your response. This time consuming dialogue marking, writing copious comments in every students’ book and using lesson time attempting to get them to respond was probably my biggest NQT time waster. Invariably I would end up writing the same comments in the majority of the books and then half of my students didn’t take any notice. This could have taken 2-3 hours for one class.

Checking work is important – you need to know what students have understood, what they are finding difficult, where there are misconceptions which need addressing, and which individuals are struggling or excelling. A whole class approach is a much more efficient and impactful means of checking work and giving useful feedback. This is the approach I now use – the books can be checked in half an hour and I have gained all that time to spend planning how to address the misconceptions, writing additional practice questions for consolidation, thinking about the best way to introduce or explain the next challenging concept we need to cover, or just doing something else that I enjoy!

  • Have a whole class feedback sheet to hand (the one I use is here).
  • Read though the books with pen in hand jotting down common strengths and weaknesses on this sheet. No need to write in the books at all. Make a note of students who deserve praise and those who might need some additional support.
  • Look at the big picture of what you’ve learned – what needs revisiting, consolidation or further practice?
  • Plan the start of your next lesson (or the whole lesson if necessary) to address the areas you’ve identified through further explanation and practice.

Changing my approach to marking and giving feedback has been transformational both in the impact it has on students’ understanding and in managing my workload.

Becoming an evidence-based practitioner

At CogSciSci we are always trying to take techniques that we know work and transplant them into the classroom. There are a number of ways to become more attuned to the evidence base and a more effective practitioner:

  1. Blogs: we are proud to boast a number of blogs here that bridge the research-classroom gap
  2. You can also use the WordPress app to see which blogs we at CogSciSci follow. Download the app, follow a load of blogs and you’ll find your practice changing for the better incredibly quickly.
  3. Up-skill: our modules are designed to help teachers just like you learn more about evidence based practice
  4. The Go-Bag: if you’re interested in something in particular or just want to browse all the research-goodies on offer for something that piques your interest, then check out the Go-Bag.

Book Review: Teachers vs Tech

Francesca Timms is a Science Lead Practitioner for a multi-academy trust on the South Coast with an interest in applying educational research in the classroom. You can follow her on Twitter here.

Given the current climate, it is more important than ever to be thinking critically about the place of educational technology (ed-tech) within science teaching. Christodoulou’s book ‘Teachers vs Tech’ was uncannily prescient in its publication earlier this year. The book begins with a thorough explanation of cognitive science including ideas of how direct instruction can help minimise the limitations of the working memory.

During this period of working from home, some have been lured down the path of projects as a possible solution to student’s learning with minimal access to teacher input. Christodoulou cautions against this, as our students are novices in the skills we are teaching them. And therefore it is likely that working memory will become overloaded if students are learning by trying to solve real world problems whilst learning new knowledge. The exception to this is projects with a narrowly defined focus which is likely to more closely align with applying previously taught knowledge in a new situation. For example learning to calculate surface area to volume ratio and then applying this knowledge to a range of different organisms.

Another area which is significant under the present circumstances is personalised learning. Most are now clear that students having different learning styles is a myth (if not read this) and that it is more important that the style that content is taught in is a more salient consideration. For example it is likely to be better to teach the structure of plant and animal cells using a picture instead of solely a paragraph of text. Further examples of how explaining concepts using the optimal mode can be found here on Pritesh Raichura’s excellent blog. Instead of personalising based on learning style or student choice, Christodoulou persuades that learning can be ‘personalised’ by adapting learning to what pupils do and do not know. Ed-tech can be useful here as software can ask students questions and then respond accordingly to help them progress. Many of these are free (Quizlet, Quizizz and SenecaLearning) and some are free whilst schools are closed (Tassomai, GCSEpod and TheEverlearner).

Teachers vs Tech ends by trying to answer how technology can help with assessment, a topic that is a clear link to Christodoulou’s previous book ‘Making good progress?’. This chapter is the least linked to science teaching due to its focus on essays, the assessment of choice for English and Humanities. The chapter does discuss that short answer questions and multiple choice questions (MCQs) could quite easily be marked using machines but does not provide any solutions for ensuring that these questions are of a high quality, as good MCQs are tricky to write.

Overall, Teachers vs Tech gives a superb introduction into the field of cognitive science and how this knowledge can be used to implement ed tech as a tool to help improve our teaching. But I wouldn’t worry, it seems unlikely that robots will be taking our jobs any time soon.

Guest post: Completing a #CogSciSci module (and lesson planning)

Abby Camilleri (@CamilleriMiss) is a Physics teacher at St Anne’s Academy in Middleton. She’s recently completed the (totally free!) CogSciSci Introduction to Cognitive Science module. Having submitted her end of module task (“Describe how you have used the characteristics of Long Term Memory and Working Memory to plan a lesson”) we asked Abby if she’d be willing to share an annotated example lesson plan that puts what she’s learned into practise (see below).

In addition to the Introduction module we currently have modules on Retrieval Practice, how to write SLOP and assessment. Further details here.

I am a newly qualified teacher of Physics. I have always been eager to develop myself professionally, particularly as being the least experienced member of an amazing science team. I came across this course via Twitter. The CogSciSci website is something I’ve used multiple times for resources but never before used for CPD. I chose to complete the ‘Introduction to Cognitive Science’ course as I am often very sceptical (possibly the scientist in me) of educational ideas which are not backed up with research, The basis of the CogSciSci website being the science of learning in particular drew me to this. The main things I learned from this course where:

  1. The key features of Working and Long Term Memory, made clearly transferable to lesson planning
  2. Storage of information is made easier by relating new information to existing knowledge
  3. What a schema is and how I can use this to help students to learn by making connections between pieces of information

My example lesson plan (with annotations) is here.

How to do a learning walk

We’ve had a couple of people on the CogSciSci forum ask for advice about learning walks and good ways to do them. We asked a few of our regular contributors for their brief thoughts on different aspects of observing learning and delivering feedback and we hope that you find their ideas helpful. As ever, if you would like to write for us about how you do them or think they could be improved, please be in touch.

~ Editors

On delivering feedback: Adam Robbins – Head of Science, The Regis School

As the person delivering the feedback there is one irreconcilable problem you face: you have no control in how your feedback is received. A teacher can do many things to try and get students to pay attention, but they can’t physically force a student to think. Similarly, you can set your conversation up as well as possible, but that doesn’t mean the teacher will hear your feedback.

The word feedback can mean three different things. When someone asks for feedback they could be asking for:

  • Appreciation; some words of encouragement
  • Appraisal; to know how they are performing
  • Coaching; to know how to improve


Triggers are barriers that can be in place that prevent the feedback being heard. There are three kinds of triggers that might stop a teacher listening to your feedback.

  • Relationship triggers: The feedback might be spot on, but they don’t respect your opinion so won’t listen.
  • Truth triggers: The feedback just seems false from their point of view.
  • Identity triggers: The feedback makes them question something they hold as part of their core persona. If the feedback is right, it will make them question who they really are.

All three triggers are common in teaching. School politics, policies and personalities make them inevitable. It is in an observer’s best interest to try and be wary of them when giving feedback. How to remove them is a complex issue with too many factors to consider here, but some simple suggestions are:

  • If it is an issue that might seem hard to be believed find some proof. Might they agree to video a couple of lessons so they can see for themselves?
  • Give areas of improvement as suggestions and then get them to commit to give it a try and see how it goes. This removes issues of identity triggers in some cases.

I’ve written about this issue with feedback in more detail in my blog here.

Finding a focus: Adam Boxer – Head of Science, The Totteridge Academy

I’ve been doing a lot of learning walks this year and I think the process that I’ve come to looks a bit like the following:

1) Go into as many lessons as you can
2) Try and find commonalities between them in terms of things that can be improved
3) Discuss with the team in an abstract sense (e.g. I saw this, what do we think the problem is? In my own lessons, I did this, what do we think the problem is?)
4) Formulate things people could do in the classroom to remedy the above as a kind of departmental action step (e.g. if the problem is students are frequently responding to low challenge questions with “I don’t know”, the solution might be No Opt Out)
5) Do another learning walk, focused on step 4
6) Start feedback with some general stuff, but the main thrust of the conversation is on your step 4
7) More learning walks, all focused on perfecting the departmental action step given that you have delivered feedback already once on it
8) Once you’re happy with that, go back to step 2

I also have a form for observing expert teaching here that might give you an idea of something that would be suitable for point 2 above. The key is to trim the feedback to focus on just a couple of things and have shared language and success criteria over what those things look like. 

One thing at a time: Rebecca Flint – Head of Science at South Dartmoor Community College

Learning walks, Learning Ambles, Learning Drop-ins, whatever you call them you will likely have mixed views on them. My experiences have also been mixed. We have been through all sorts of different models. Some have involved very generalised paperwork heavy activities that tended to make the teacher feel very under pressure whilst making the observer feel either: guilty for listing things that needed tweaking or weren’t quite right, or making them feel like they were doing a disservice by listing things that were good practice but ignoring things that really needed developing. As a department we really didn’t enjoy it and it wasn’t moving anyone on and more importantly not helping the students at all. We decided to explore other strategies and developed a tick list that was focused on key areas of practice. Now this approach worked a little better. It gave instant specific feedback, but feedback was limited to things on the list which reduced the professional dialogue between staff.

As a school we have experienced some very quite big changes. Thankfully one of these is the introduction of Developmental Drop-in’s. These focus on a very specific area of practice and the observer spends no more than 10 minutes in a lesson. It might be looking at the use of modelling in a lesson. If that particular lesson at that moment doesn’t include it, that doesn’t matter.  The observer can come back when advised to by the teacher. After the drop in the observer discusses the key focus with the teacher, offering very specific coaching. We are not talking about wishy-washy “guess what’s in my head” coaching. We are talking about coaching more in the style of a sports coach, specific and direct. Sometimes this coaching might even happen live and discreetly in the lesson. This approach has been really powerful and has involved much more open and well received feedback with the staff that have experienced it so far. We are very excited to be rolling it out school wide. Fingers crossed it continues to be so positive, it has the capacity to really impact our students and engage our practice in a way that Learning walks never did!

Student-centred studies: James Bullous – Vice Principal and Director of Science at a MAT across Stoke-on-Trent

Do learning walks accurately assess learning? Using The Hidden Lives of Learners I developed a new style of learning walk we call a Student Centred Study (SCS).

A SCS engages the learners in dialogue about their learning, how it fits in with previous schema and how the students experience in the classroom translates into changes in long term changes memory.  This is a whole school approach and is used to look at the learning across departments, not individual teachers.

The process involves engaging the students in the lesson in dialogue prompted by questions such as:

  • What are you learning about and why?
  • What did you learn about last lesson/week/term/year?
  • Can you link this lesson to anything you have learnt before?
  • Can you show me a piece of your learning you’re proud of?
  • Inviting staff to share their views on the curriculum) and how their teaching promotes changes in long term memory.
  • Feeding back the findings of the day to staff on that same day.

SCSs can be done by leaders at all levels and can give some information on how the curriculum is accessed by students and how it relates to learning.  You can look at trends or teacher behaviours and see if there are common themes that you can develop during CPD. The ideal process becomes a cycle of monitoring, CPD, development and improved learning.Please find more at

More reading:

Never forget the dangers associated with observing learning, for which we direct you to Professor Coe’s seminal work.

David Didau has also written extensively about lesson observations and you can see all his work on that here.

For the more policy-minded reader, Ofsted wrote a really interesting paper on six different models of lesson observation which is definitely worth a read.

Embedding Retrieval Throughout Your Teaching

This is the fourth blog in the CogSciSci symposium on retrieval practice in the classroom, following on from contibutions from Adam Boxer (How to not screw up retrieval practice) and Damien Benney (Retrieval practice, retrieval roulette, schema, spacing and even a nod to Rosenshine) You should read the introduction to this symposium here before reading this article.

Rachel Wong (@BioRach) is a Science Teacher at a state school in Bath. Originally from Hong Kong, Rachel came to the UK to do A-levels and has been here ever since. She’s already produced a lot of resources that she’s shared with the #CogSciSci community (some of which can be found here) and has a Youtube channel for A-level Biology.

The concept of retrieval practice came to me through Twitter, in the form of “retrieval roulettes” made by Adam Boxer and Ruth Walker. I pretty much bought into it immediately because the benefits of retrieval practice are so obvious. It directly addresses the key problem that I find most of my students have, which is the lack of knowledge in their brains. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to me as a good learning practice though, given that I came from an educational background where constant practice is expected of us as students – I grew up having to do loads of extra practice questions on English grammar, Science and Maths. My mom bought many exercise books of various subjects from bookstores from primary school through to Year 11. They weren’t even my homework set from school, just extra practice that everyone is encouraged to do outside lessons. It may sound like horror to some of the students in the UK, but where I’m from, this is the norm. The logic wehad was simple – the more you practise, the better you become.

So the question I had was: why isn’t this the norm in the UK? It could be that a few years back, the concept of “edutainment” became the more welcomed idea, and a lot of teachers (myself included) focused more on thinking up crazy ideas to engage students, rather than actually thinking of teaching them proper content and teaching them how to learn. Recently though, I have learnt that the cognitive science behind the whole push on retrieval practice is the actual key to raising students’ attainment and engagement, not crazy engagement.

A lot of other amazing teachers have already written tons on the science behind retrieval and lots of other papers that back it up (here for more), so in this blogpost I will focus on reflecting my own experience within the field and share specifically four things: 1. The problems I’ve identified in students; 2. The aim of retrieval practice (RP); 3. Examples of RP; and 4. The next steps.

Problems identified

There are mainly three problems I’ve spotted while students are learning new content:

Problem 1: They simply don’t remember

Pupils don’t remember the content learnt in previous lessons, weeks, months, or years. If I’m teaching meiosis to Year 11 pupils, which involves going through the chromosome arrangements within a nucleus and the cell cycle, the pupils seem to not have a clue as to what I’m talking about. They’ve completely forgotten everything they’ve learnt in Year 9 about mitosis and the cell cycle. Even if we shorten the time frame, if I were to teach them a topic linking to a lesson they’ve learnt last week, a lot of them would not have remember what we actually covered in the lesson.

Problem 2: They don’t realise that they have to remember

This is a matter of metacognition. If I’m teaching Year 9 about the cell structure and referring to the topic taught in Year 7, I often get replies such as, “that’s Year 7 stuff! Why would we need it now?”. The students often lack an awareness of the reason for learning that topic then and there. To solve this problem, students need to know why they’re learning this and how to learn it. But without clear guidance and explanation, students won’t necessarily know that they even need to have an awareness.

Problem 3: They can’t apply their knowledge in exam questions

Exam questions are all about application of knowledge and linking concepts together, so it’s no surprise that pupils struggle with them without sufficient understanding. They don’t have enough content in their heads so they cannot identify what the related content would be. Some simply cannot understand what the questions are asking for. The closest thing some pupils can get is writing a paragraph on something that they know which is within the same topic, but not actually answering what the question is asking for. Some others would claim that they’ve never been taught that topic. 

The aims of retrieval practice

Retrieval practice is the solution. The aims listed below serve as the background reasoning for using this method to tackle each of the problems listed above.

Aim 1: Practise until you “cannot get it wrong”

It’s quite simple actually – practice makes perfect. The more we practise something, the better we become at it. Therefore, the more students practise using their knowledge, the more they will remember it. Obviously, they need to understand the content before they actually commit it to memory, which should be brought about by clear and direct exposition. This should always be followed by constant and regular practice of using that knowledge to let it sink into students’ long-term memory, eventually becoming something innate to them.

The mentality shouldn’t be “practise until you get it right”, but “practise until you cannot get it wrong”.

Aim 2: Learn how our brain works – realise the existence of the schema of knowledge

It’s not surprising that most students find it extremely difficult to memorise so many different facts they’re learning each day, as they’re constantly adding new things into their brains, increasing their cognitive load. Some youngsters may become discouraged and feel that they’re not “clever enough” to do science (or any other subject), simply because they really struggle with learning facts. But if we can tell them that it’s understandable that they’re finding it difficult and explain how the brain learns, we may be able to bring their self-faith back up in order to tackle the problem again. By telling them that our brains learn by repeated practice and building links between things, they may try to seek links between the things they’re learning. We as teachers can also guide them in building these links, given we are the expert learners of our field. Helping them build this schema of knowledge boosts their understanding, memory and ideally confidence and interest, as they start to see the connections between these topics.

Aim 3: Increase the ability to realise what the question is really asking for

With a wider scope of knowledge in their brains, students can spot the topics being tested on in questions more easily. This could simply be recognising a keyword or phrase used within the question or the passage, then linking it to the related topic(s). In synoptic questions, this becomes an especially important skill.

For example, a question says “Explain why the body cells of a diabetic patient lose water”. From first glance, it’s obvious that your knowledge of diabetes is needed in this question. Most students would happily write: “diabetes is where your blood glucose level is too high/low” or “a lack of blood glucose level control”. Then many will get stuck there, as they don’t seem to have an idea how this may link to anything else. Those with the schema of knowledge built firmly in their brains may then spot the phrase “lose water” and link to water movement – osmosis. A further link then is formed into how water moves – down the water concentration/potential gradient. And ultimately, they may arrive at the correct answer, illustrating how high blood glucose level means low water level in the bloodstream, hence water moves from the body cells into the bloodstream, down the water potential gradient by osmosis.

If the students don’t have a firm understanding built in the brains about osmosis and diabetes, they may not be able to get full marks on the questions. In most cases that I’ve seen, pupils only spot the most obvious keyword in the question and try to build their answers around that topic, without extending further into other areas of the subject. With retrieval practice and exam question practice, this will improve.

I quite like tables to summarise things, so here we go:

ProblemAim/Reason for RP as solution
Pupils don’t recall previous contentInternalise knowledge and facts until they “cannot get it wrong”, before doing application in exam questions
Lack of metacognition – Pupils don’t realise they need to be familiar with previous content in order to understand new contentUnderstand the existence of the schema of knowledge and build it
Failure to apply knowledge – Pupils cannot do exam questions due to lack of understanding and synoptic linksLearn how to interpret exam questions, especially synoptic ones

Examples of retrieval practice

There are many ways to implement retrieval practice in the classroom. Here I will explain how I’ve used it with my GCSE and sixth form classes, and the idea I have behind each of them.


There are usually three ways I use the retrieval questions:

As the starter

My year 11 group comes into my lessons now with an expectation of 5 retrieval questions on the board that they will complete while I do the register. With them being an especially lively group, this works really well. The questions are always related to the topic we’re doing and definitely cover the content done in the previous few lessons. This retrieval time allows their brain to recall the content they’ve learnt previously and brings focus to the lesson.

As end of topic quizzes

Example of an end of topic Retrieval Quiz

When I first started doing this, my classes moaned saying it’s impossible to do 50 questions in 20 minutes (yes, 50 fact-based questions in one chapter). As I pointed out to them during feedback, that it contains questions that they’ve done before (and has green pen-marked them), they started realising the importance of those mini-quizzes, starters and hinge points I’ve thrown at them before. And as time went on, they became better at those quizzes, not necessarily those on the same topic, but quizzes on other topics. I suspect this has something to do with them changing their mindset about learning facts and realising that it is, in fact, possible to memorise 50 facts in a relatively straightforward way – tons of practice. This also served as a really good way for me to see if there are any misconceptions, which I can then tackle during the whole-class feedback in the next lesson.

As combined quizzes – spaced retrieval

If time allows, the classes do a mixed quiz that contains retrieval questions from a few chapters. This usually happens a week or two after we’ve finished that topic. And as before, it will contain questions that they’ve seen before, but rather than all 50, it’ll be just 2-3 questions from different chapters. They may not necessarily be linked, so it’s testing if they’ve learnt isolated facts. It may not provide us with much insight into how they’re learning, but serve more as a reminder to the students: how well do you remember the the stuff we’ve done a few months ago? There should be forewarning to these quizzes, as it provides the chance for pupils to revise. The point of these quizzes is to make them go over old topics, so it doesn’t matter if they’ve done the questions before. If they’ve revised and scored high marks on a random selection of questions that they’ve done previously, we’ve achieved our purpose.

A-level (specifically A2):

The main problem with A-level is the amount of content that students have to internalise. Many of my Y13 students cannot recall basic facts they’ve learnt before the summer holidays, as they’ve mainly stored their information as short-term memory. To tackle this problem, I’ve built a routine with my A2 students that they will complete 6 retrieval questions on a selected AS topic every week. They will stick the questions into an exercise book and answer them in the book. We then go through the questions and they correct it using a green pen. But what I find as the most useful thing isn’t just them correcting their answers, but the extension questions we have while discussing the previously chosen ones. I will literally try to think of anything throughout the specification that links to the general background of a printed question, then pose it out to the class. We then write notes and build that knowledge on. It could be an extension within the same topic, deepening their understanding and exploring their memory on it; or it could be something entirely different but with a simple or sometimes subtle link with the topic.

For example, in this picture below, the pupils were doing questions on Ch.3 Biological molecules, so all the biochemistry bits.

The first question is “What is the primary structure of a protein?”. The answer is “the amino acid sequence”.

I then stretch it further with the following questions:

  • What are the other levels of structures of proteins?
  • Name the bonds involved in each of the levels of structures.
  • What amino acid can form disulphide bridges? Why can it do that?
  • How are the hydrogen bonds in secondary and tertiary structures different?
  • What is the structure of an amino acid?
  • How does each part of the amino acid form the different levels of protein structure?

It took up around 10 minutes at least to go through just the extent of the first question, but it’s time well-spent, as the class gets to dive into the bigger, underlying background of content behind this question.

Another example is question 5: “Describe the structure of amylose, including the bonds involved and the shape.”. We don’t just look at the structure of amylose, but what it is actually part of, which is starch.

The related extended discussion includes:

  • What is the other part that makes up starch? (amylopectin)
  • What is the structure of amylopectin? What are the bonds involved here?
  • How do amylose and amylopectin interact to form starch?
  • How do their structures and interactions make starch such as a good energy storage?

And perhaps further onto:

  • How are the glycosidic bonds formed between the glucose molecules?
  • How can they be broken when glucose is needed for respiration?
  • What type of glucose is used to make starch? (α-glucose)
  • Draw it out – how would β-glucose be different? (inverted OH group)
  • What other macromolecules are formed by α- and β-glucose?
  • Spot the similarities in terms of structure and arrangement of the storage molecules (ie. Amylopectin and glycogen) – why is glycogen such a good energy storage in animals?

Another 10 minutes has gone by, but again, it’s worth it.

When it comes to photosynthesis and respiration, I go absolutely mental with it – the students come into the lesson and will draw the whole reaction out (at least up to the point that I’ve taught them). This will be for every single lesson we have on the topic. It doesn’t even matter if they get it wrong to start with, it’s about them thinking hard to recall the content and physically drawing it out. They don’t like to get it wrong, but it’s important to assure them that learning takes place from correcting your mistakes. The aim is to turn it into muscle memory – “you need to get to the point you can draw it with your eyes closed”. Again, they started thinking it’s impossible, but eventually they get used to it and realise drawing it out becomes easier, quicker and more accurate as time goes by. Quite a few of them have actually achieved the point of drawing the whole reaction out with their eyes closed!

Next steps

I firmly believe that retrieval practice is a fundamental method to help pupils build and secure their schema of learning and boost confidence alongside it. What I don’t believe in is that retrieval practice alone can solve all our problems. It can only work up till a certain point, as when it comes to assessments, most of the questions asked will be more application-based and/or synoptic, requiring students to isolate information from certain areas of their schema in order to form a logical and relevant response. This requires exam question practice and reflective feedback. But without the secure schema of knowledge, students can’t even start to access these exam questions, let alone to achieve sufficient marks on them. Once the students are more fluent in stating facts, they move onto topic-based past paper questions, completing them without notes and referring back to the mark scheme once they’re done. They should pay specific attention to keywords or phrases that are underlined in the mark scheme, notice what words or phrases that are not accepted in them, and hopefully spot questions that are commonly asked. This helps them identify and focus their revision targets. When I return the marked topic tests to them, they are encouraged to analyse their paper, trying to identify the reason they’ve lost marks, such as not knowing enough content, not interpreting the questions properly, careless mistakes, or lack of organisation in longer responses. This should inform them on how to improve their work, which may be to revise more by retrieval practice or doing exam questions to enhance their exam techniques etc.

To summarise, here are the two key things that I’ve picked up in these two years of pushing retrieval practice:

  1. Regular retrieval is the basic expectation, as the more you practise, the more you recall;
  2. Linking between topics helps build the schema of knowledge, which deepens understanding, aids memorisation and allows pupils to better apply their knowledge into specific contexts in assessments.

It’s a first for me to write a more “official” and public blog so please let me know what you think and any feedback is much appreciated. I’m very interested to hear what people are doing to help their students recall facts better!

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