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@Rosalindphys Textbooks: remixed

Ruth’s booklets are game-changers for teaching physics and can be found on our resources page. Bob’s remix adds a bit of content and moves some things around, so may be better tailored to your department’s needs. Give them a look!

Occasional Witterings

It’s hard to overstate the impact that Ruth Walker (@Rosalindphys) has had on my teaching.

In July 2017 I was lucky enough to see Ruth present at researchED Rugby on the topic of textbooks. As has become routine at Ruth’s presentations, I was blown away. Her argument for well sequenced textbooks with Shed Loads Of Practice (SLOP) built in was utterly compelling. She’d already made textbooks for the GCSE Combined Science Physics content (a gargantuan task). I was a consultant at the time and made a point of telling literally every KS4 Science teacher I encountered about them, demonstrating their brilliance.

I returned full time to the classroom in September 2018 (2 years out) and Ruth’s textbooks were an absolute lifesaver.

Ruth has revamped them over the summer holidays and they’re better than ever. I want anyone teaching KS4 Physics in my school to make use of them…

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Some useful resources for Science teachers

We know how important it is to keep our subject knowledge up to date, and how the right resources can be a workload lifesaver. However, knowing where to look can sometimes be a challenge.

Thankfully Jasper Green (@sci_challenge) has put together a helpful list of useful websites. Well worth looking at these!

Team #CogSciSci

Tackling Misconceptions Through Conceptual Change – Part I

Identifying and addressing misconceptions is a crucial part of effective Science teaching. This excellent post (part 1 of 2) from Paul Kirschner and Mirjam Neelen looks at how we can tackle misconceptions when learning new concepts. Have a look at for part 2 (and many other useful posts).

3-Star learning experiences

Mirjam Neelen & Paul A. Kirschner

A while back, we discussed why some things are easy to learn and some are difficult by looking at learning through an evolutionary lens (see blog here), based on David Geary’s work. In this blog, we’ll look at some of the same questions through a different lens; a conceptual change lens. We now explore why some concepts are more difficult to learn than others and discuss how we can support learners when learning new concepts.

Here we focus on understanding and tackling misconceptions (also referred to as naïve conceptions) when learning new concepts (Chi, Slotta, & De Leeuw, 1994). Misconceptions form when prior knowledge conflicts with to-be-learned concepts, or, as Stella Vosniadou (1994) writes, as the “individuals’ attempts to assimilate new information into existing conceptual structures that contain information contradictory to the scientific view” (p. 45). A typical example of this is the misconception…

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Is cognitive science destined to mutate?

A Common Biologist

Education is fickle. In a desperate attempt to improve outcomes, and with the added pressures of crippling accountability and soaring workload, schools are quick to latch on to the latest edu-fad and take aim with its supposed magic bullet.

More often than not, this results in yet more work for those of us at the chalkface as teachers dutifully implement a whole school strategy that, if you’re lucky, might have a passing resemblance to the underlying principles it was based on. But there’s no time to explore the evidence behind it so we all get on with the how and don’t worry about the why and inevitably, inexorably it fizzles out over the course of the year to lay dormant, waiting for its chance to reinvent itself and rise again.

Dylan Wiliam coined the term “lethal mutation” in his book, Embedded Formative Assessment (2011) to describe this bastardisation of sound…

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Introducing the CogSciSci site

The winds of educational change have blown radically over the last few years. Fierce debates within the education community have become fertile proving grounds for new ideas to be tested, new thoughts to be crystallised and new voices to be heard. Twitter has emerged as an incredible driving force, allowing like-minded professionals from all over the world to connect. Grassroots organisations like researchED have advocated for teachers to become more in touch with rigorous educational research, the edublogosphere has translated empirical findings into front-line practice, and institutions like Michaela Community School have shown us what is possible given intellectual and organisational freedom.

#CogSciSci was a small part of that. Two and a half years ago, a few science teachers connected over social media and started thinking about implementing major findings from cognitive science into their day to day practice. Eager for rigorous standards of thought and practice, we tried to grow our community and increase the number of people sharing, thinking and innovating. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we found that many were desperate to be involved. Tired of conventional approaches to teaching and learning, CPD and non-subject-specific advice, the community has grown beyond what we ever anticipated. There are now over a thousand teachers on our email group, dozens of new blogs, hundreds of new Twitter users and a national conference that sold all its tickets within twenty four hours.

But that growth has largely been organic and undirected. Without a doubt, this has been a strength and positive characteristic of what can now be called a movement. It’s allowed anybody to join in and share: all voices and ideas have been welcomed and we have all benefited. But this kind of model also has its downsides: the sheer productivity of the community has meant that some of the growth will have passed some people by. The ad hoc posting and sharing means that ideas and resources are not collected and organised systematically into any central location. Furthermore, it’s not always clear to newcomers where they should start. Our community’s knowledge is dispersed and spread out, leading to newcomers having to navigate a sporadic and sketchy curriculum that only ever existed in people’s minds.

This new website seeks to fill that gap. Without aiming to be authoritative, it hopes to be at least a comprehensive representation of the productivity of the CogSciSci community. We have tried to collect the best of what the community has thought and said into one place so that we can all grow further. This site will provide training, resources, communal collaboration and intellectual stimulation, all from a desire to use cutting edge educational research to improve student outcomes.

Do please take a few minutes to travel around the site. Some of it may look quite familiar to you, but we have tried to build areas that are truly different to your standard fare.

We’re incredibly excited about this. We want it to become a vibrant hub of energy and dynamism, a place where ideas and innovations become the norm and where science teachers across the world can come for knowledge and support.

CogSciSci is, and will always be, free. We are completely grassroots and run by a team of volunteers giving up our time for a cause we believe in. We ask for only two things in return. First, we ask that you subscribe via email, which you can do at the bottom of the home page. This means that you won’t miss any content and that when we publish a new blog, learning module, resource or departmental development tool you receive it straight to your inbox. We are doing this because we want to help: you subscribing is how we know that we are reaching people.

Secondly, and more importantly, we want you to support us. Not financially, but in terms of the human social and intellectual capital you can bring. We want you to blog for us. We want you to write resources for us. We want you to complete our professional learning courses and we want you to discuss your thoughts with us. We want you to find a fascinating book to read and to write a review for us. We want you to share us with your department and to bring more teachers into the fold. If you want to help or to contribute but don’t know how, send us an email. Without you, without your ideas, your reading and your experience we cannot continue to grow.

So please, take some time to look around.

Write down one of our courses as a performance management target for this year. Think about an idea you’ve tried recently and how you could share that. Look at some of your resources and think about how we can help you improve them. And if you have a question: ask, ask ask.

We’re excited, and we hope you are too,

The CogSciSci team

Module: Introduction to cognitive science

Welcome to the professional learning module introducing some key aspects of cognitive science. We hope you find it helpful and informative, and send us any feedback you might have. For the full list of the modules and explanation of how they work, please see here.

This module serves as an introduction to some key aspects and foundational concepts behind cognitive science. As an entire branch of science, there is by necessity a number of topics which we will not be able to include in this module, but we hope that via completing the module and its activities you will acquire a “taste” for cognitive science and choose to complete more modules which will go into a greater depth. There are a number of activities to complete throughout the unit and we have prepared an optional Google form here to help you structure your notes and thoughts throughout the unit. 

  1. Pre-Module Task

Define the following key words to check your prior understanding and then revisit them at the end of the module:


Working Memory

Long Term Memory


2. Introduction

This module serves as a primer for all the other modules you choose to undertake. Cognitive science is a multidisciplinary field with many elements which are brought together under the umbrella of Cognitive Science. At its heart cognitive science attempts to make sense of the human mind and behaviour. There are many researchers in different fields who are looking for the answer as to how the mind works and no single approach is likely to be successful in demonstrating this. There is theoretical disagreement on the basic terminology and unlike science there are no concrete laws like Newton’s Laws of Motion (Bermúdez 2010). This makes it challenging to state anything with certainty but a teacher engaged with the latest research is more likely to make more informed decisions about lesson and curriculum design that are more favourable to how we learn.  

The next challenge as Smith and Firth (2018) write is,

“this knowledge must be applied to a particular educational context by you, the teacher.”

Understanding your context is essential because as Dylan Wiliam suggests ““what works?” is not the right question because everything works somewhere and nothing works everywhere, so what’s interesting, what’s important in education is: “Under what conditions does this work?”.

Understanding the conditions in which a technique is going to work is what every teacher in their own context has to establish. On one day something you do might “work” but on another day it doesn’t.  Cognitive science is engaged in uncovering ideas and concepts which are widely applicable. It could be true that retrieval practice, SLOP or spacing aren’t effective for every student or every concept, but they are for the overwhelming majority.

To begin with we will consider 2 constituent parts of your Memory:, the Working Memory (WM) and Long Term Memory (LMT). Willingham writes that the WM is the site of conscious thought or “it holds the stuff you are thinking about” (Willingham 2009). The LTM has been described as an infinite store of information (Willingham 2009) but as Pashler and Carrier (1996) write, “The capacity of the long term memory is obviously vast, although exceedingly difficult to quantify”. Efrat Furst’s suggestion that information stored in LTM could be used by the learner in the future is quite pertinent in an educational setting. If learners are unable to do anything with what they have learned then what is the point of learning it?

This is a useful model for a teacher to be familiar with because of the different characteristics of the WM and LTM. If the aim is for learners to use information in their LTM in the future then how can we devise sequences of learning that maximise learning and support remembering?

Knowing the characteristics of WM and LTM is a good starting point:

WM Characteristics
Limited capacity
Temporary store of information
Information is live and can be manipulated
Distraction can empty it
Retrieves relevant information from the Long Term Memory (LTM)
Able to process visual and auditory information simultaneously
LTM Characteristics
Thought to have unlimited capacity
Organisation of information into schema
Construction of models in the mind but not thought to have a physical existence
Schema formation is more organised in an expert compared to a novice
Memory is reconstructive in nature and whenever a memory is activated it can be altered.

(Gathercole & Alloway 2007; Sweller 2019 et al; Sumeracki, Weinstein & Caviglioli 2019)

3. What are WM and LTM?

Read this blog post by Efrat Furst and consider the following:

  • What does Efrat state are the key features of the WM and what is essential for LTM storage?
  • What is deep processing and how can you encourage this in your classroom?
  • How would the model of building long term memory representations effect your lesson planning?
  • Explain what happens in the WM as a learner becomes a master in that topic. Why is this desirable?  

Bjork and Vanhuele (1992) write that the retrieval and storage of information in our memory is not always a straightforward process. Read the paragraphs below and consider the following questions:

(Bjork & Vanhuele 1992 – accessed here)

Why do you think that learners are not able to recall information they have done so previously?

What factors do you think might impact on retrieval of information in your classroom?

4. What is attention?

Read this webpage and if you have time listen to the podcast where Learning Scientist, Megan Sumeracki, interviews CogSciSci member Michael Hobbiss. Questions you can use to frame your thinking are:

  • How does Mike suggest that attention is captured?
  • How can you minimise the environmental influences that can affect attention in the classroom and at home?
  • Mike’s work shows some interesting results but why is it important to be cautious with the findings?In his book ‘Natural Born Learners’ Alex Beard wrote that “Attention is the holy grail of teaching”. Why do you think attention is so important in the learning process?

5. Schema

In the final part of this module we will focus on what a schema is and schema formation. Weinstein, Sumeracki and Caviglioli (2018) define a schema as, “ Pre-determined categorisations of the world and the behaviour of objects and people.” This meaningful information is stored in schemata in our LTM (Smith & Firth 2018) and is not based on discrete pieces of information that sit in isolation but in complex webs which are influenced by emotional and environmental cues. If you are feeling sad you might refer to a memory and interpret it in a different way to when you might feel happy. This adds yet more complexity to Cognitive Science.

Read David Didau’s explanation of Schema here and consider the following questions:

  • How does Didua demonstrate the formation of a complex schema?
  • How do you think your teaching can support learners retrieving schemata effortlessly and automatically?
  • As a teacher how could you organise your teaching to support complex schema formation?

Organising information in schemata does seem to be important. In his book Memory, Parkin (1992) cites a classic study carried out by Chi (1978) in which she examined the ability of child chess experts and adult chess novices on a conventional memory span task and a task involving memory of chessboard positions. The results showed that on the conventional memory test the adults did better but on the memory of the chessboard positions the expert children outperformed the adults. It does demonstrate that knowledge rather than age is critical in determining memory.

  • Is a piece of research like this useful in helping you inform your planning?

6. Summary

  • Cognitive Science is a complex, multidisciplinary field which is trying to understand how the mind works.
  • The characteristics of LTM and WM are useful to know in planning lessons.
  • Attention is a limited resource and focusing attention is essential for memory formation.
  • Schema are mental representations of information that form in the LTM. An expert has a more organised schema than a novice which enables them to access information more quickly.

7. End of module task

As with all modules, there is a task at the end. This task should serve not only to consolidate the work you have done throughout the module, but is also a way for other teachers to see how you have applied and used the things you have learnt. We would like to publish your task when you are finished, but if you would rather that we didn’t then please just let us know when you submit it.

Please choose a task from the below and send it to

  • Describe how you have used the characteristics of Long Term Memory and Working Memory to plan a lesson.
  • Give a concrete example of how you have developed a resource to focus student attention.
  • Look for a piece of research on Schema formation. Summarise the research and state how it has helped inform your teaching.

If you have any feedback for us, you can submit it anonymously here.


Bermudez, J.L. (2010) Cognitive Science. An Introduction to the Science of the Mind. (2nd Edition) New York. Cambridge University Press

Bjork, R. & Vanhuele, M. (1992) Retrieval Inhibition and Related Adaptive Peculiarities of Human Memory. Advances in Consumer Research [accessed 8.9.19)

Beard, A. (2018) Natural Born learners. Our incredible capacity to learn and how we can harness it. London. Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Didau, D. (2018) How to Explain Schema [accessed 9.8.19]

Gathercole, S and Alloway, T. (2007) Understanding Working Memory. A classroom guide. Harcourt Assessment.

Learning Scientists & Hobbiss, M. (2018)  Podcast on Attention [Accessed 8.8.19]

Parkin, A,J. (1993) Memory. Phenomena, Experiment and Theory. Oxford. Blackwell Publishers.

Smith, M. & Firth, J. (2018) Psychology in the Classroom. Oxford. Routledge.

Sweller, J., van Merriënboer, J.J.G. & Paas, F. Educ Psychol Rev (2019) 31: 261.

Weinstein, Y., Sumeracki, M. & Caviglioli, O. (2018) Understanding How We Learn. Oxford. Routledge.

Wiliam, D. (2006) Asessment for learning:why, what and how? Cambridge Assessment Network talk [accessed 9.8.2019]

Willingham, D. (2017) A Mental Model of the Learner: Teaching the Basic Science of Educational Psychology to Future Teachers. International Mind, Brain, and Education Society Volume 11 – number 4 [accessed 8.8.19]

Module: Introduction to assessment

Welcome to the professional learning module introducing assessment. We hope you find it helpful and informative, and send us any feedback you might have. For the full list of the modules and explanation of how they work, please see here.

This course will outline some basic assessment theory and will be the first module of a number looking at assessment. During the course we will ask questions to guide and frame your thinking. At the end of the course we will ask you to complete a short written task, so you many want to take notes as you progress through the course. You can do this using our virtual notepad here, which also gives you the option of receiving feedback on your notes.

1.      What are some of the purposes of assessment?

There are many reasons we assess. Throughout the many threads in the #cogscisci email group we have seen the range of these reasons become apparent. Some teachers assess in order to identify students for specific interventions and some teachers assess in order to (try to) predict the spread of attainment when their students finish GCSEs. These are all valuable reasons but unless teachers are clear on their reasoning, the assessment design they produce might not be suited for it. Before we start, here are some questions to get you thinking:

  • Think back to last week. Where in your practice did you assess? Try to be as specific as you can.
  • For each of the examples you remember, what was your purpose behind the assessment activity?

Read this blog by Evidence Based Education. Here are some questions to frame your thinking about the blog:

  • How far do you agree with the statement that “no assessment is 100% accurate”? 
  • Does it make sense to say the answer to the assessment “What is your favourite colour?” has some inaccuracy?
  • Focus on one set of assessments done at your school (you might want to focus on January mocks for example): what purpose do these assessments serve to people in various roles in the school, MAT lead? Headteacher? Assistant Head for Data? Head of Department? Fellow colleagues? Yourself?
  • What does the word “construct” mean in the psychological literature? 
  • Think ahead to a point in time where you will formally assess. What is the construct you’d like to assess? Do you think this construct is useful to you? Is it useful to your fellow colleagues? 

Read the paper by Archer. Here are some questions to frame your thinking about the paper:

  • Do you agree with Archer’s three basic purposes for assessment? Why? Why not?
  • Archer (along with Paul Newton at the top of page 2) argues that classifying assessment along the lines of summative/formative “leaves something to be desired”. How far do you agree with Archer? How useful (or not) has this distinction been so far in your career?
  • Archer then lists Newton’s and Schildkamp and Kuiper’s interrogation of assessment purposes. Is this framework more useful to you? 
  • In the section “Assessment to Support Learning”, what dangers does the triangle metaphor imply? 

2.      What is meant by “validity”?

Validity is often referred to as the central concept of assessment. The history of validity thought stretches back to the birth of large scale testing 120 years ago. Because validity is such a large and often misunderstood topic, each reading is paired up with an accessible introduction. Read section 2 of this blog to get a history of validity thought as well as this blog by Evidence Based Education to clarify some of the ideas.

Whilst reading, here are some questions to frame your thinking:

  • Why doesn’t it make sense to talk about validity as a property of the test?
  • What are some construct-irrelevant factors when your students sit a science mock?
  • What does construct under-representation mean?
  • Think back to the last formal assessment that you administered. Was there any construct under-representation? 
  • Think back to the last formal assessment that you administered. Was there anything that introduced some construct-irrelevant variance? 
  • Summarise, from the two blogs, a definition for validity that you could give to a trainee.

Sometimes a concept is made clearer when you’re told what not to do! This article introduces a paper by Crooks, Kane and Cohen that explores some of the threats behind validity claims. After you have read the article, read the 8 page section titled “Threats Associated with Each Link” from the bottom of page page 269 to the top of page 279. The questions that follow will help guide your reading of the paper.

  • Why is a chain used as a metaphor to hold the approach of Crooks, Kane and Cohen together?
  • Read the paragraph that starts off with “The importance of the eight links…” on page 269. Could you come up with another threat for any of the links before you read the rest of the paper?
  • Do you agree with Crooks, Kane and Cohen that “for a classroom-based assessment intended solely for diagnostic and formative purposes, the aggregation, generalization and extrapolation links may be somewhat less important than other links” (page 269)? 
  • Think back to the last formal assessment that you administered. Was there a weak link in the chain? What stage was the weakest?

3.      What is meant by “reliability”?

Reliability is probably best thought about as “freedom from uncertainty”. If we have highly reliable assessments, we are likely to get the same results if we apply that assessment to the same students under similar conditions. Whilst validity can be quite discursive, reliability can get quite technical fairly fast. 

One of the biggest mistakes newcomers can make is that they confuse the term “reliability” with “dependability”. Reliability is a technical term with the restricted meaning mentioned above, however, “dependability” is a judgement made on the quality as well as the certainty we get from an assessment. 

This blog by Evidence Based Education is a good introduction to reliability. Here are some questions to guide your thinking:

  •  Reading the “sources of error” section from the blog, can you think back to your own practice and identified real situations where some of the sources of error were present?
  • What is the difference between inter-rater and intra-rater reliability?
  • What assessment scenarios have you been part of in school that involved an attention to inter-rater reliability? Intra-rater reliability?
  • How often have you implemented the suggestions in the section “improving rater reliability”?

The Institute of Education ran a study on how reliably teachers assess in classrooms. Read pages 4, 5, 6 and 7 starting with “In-depth review” two thirds of the way down page 4. Here are some questions to guide your thinking:):

  • What could the main conclusions from the first six bullet points be??
  • How do these conclusions differ from your own personal experience? 
  • From the next section reporting the validity of teacher judgement, what could be the main conclusions from the report?
  • What were the main findings from the conditions that affected the reliability and validity of teacher summative judgement?
  • How can teacher judgement be made more reliable using the findings from this report?
  • Did any of the findings surprise you? Which ones and why?

4. Bringing it together

We don’t think this is the be-all-and-end-all of assessment. Assessment is much more than what we have presented. It’s the systematic enterprise of finding what our students know and so there is much we haven’t covered. We haven’t covered motivation, ethics, comparability, the estimation of reliability, modern test theories … the list goes on. 

In future modules, we will look at how to apply some of this thinking to the classroom. Adam Boxer has brought together these principles in his blog “What to do after a mock?”. Here are some questions to guide your thinking:

  • How has Adam used the concept of validity to guide his practice?
  • To what extent have your question-level analyses run into the problems Adam describes?
  • What are your top 3 takeaways from this blog?

Our last activity is a youtube video of Dylan Wiliam’s webinar “There is no such thing as a valid test”. We hope that by re-covering some of the ground from sessions 1 to 7, you have a clearer picture of what good assessment is. 

5. End of module task

As with all modules, there is a task at the end. This task should serve not only to consolidate the work you have done throughout the module, but is also a way for other teachers to see how you have applied and used the things you have learnt. 

Please choose a task from the below and send it to

  • Write a short article about what you have learned throughout this module about assessment. You may want to focus on a few key ideas.
  • Prepare a keyword glossary of key assessment terms for your colleagues based on this module.
  • Write a reflective article about your previous practice, where you may have changed your mind in light of what you have learned, and what you intend to do in the future. 

We would love to publish anything you produce, but will obviously not do so without your permission. If you are happy for us to publish it on CogSciSci please let us know in the email. 

If you have any feedback for us, you can submit it anonymously here.

Module: How to write SLOP

Welcome to the professional learning module on writing SLOP. We hope you find it helpful and informative, and send us any feedback you might have. For the full list of the modules and explanation of how they work, please see here.

This module has been reviewed by Nick Soderstrom.

“It is virtually impossible to become proficient at any mental task without extended practice”

Daniel Willingham

This course is about SLOP: Shed Loads of Practice. It will cover the role of practice in learning and how to prepare resources that are conducive to your students conducting extensive amounts of practice. The beginning of the module is theory focussed, but as the module goes on there will be a number of activities to help you start writing your own resources. We have prepared a Google form here to help you structure your notes and thoughts throughout the unit. 

1. The role of practice

This section will consider a brief introduction to practice in the classroom, and ask you to conduct an audit of the amount of practice your students receive.

Start by reading Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction. If you have read it before, please do so again. Focus on sections 4, 5, 2 and 9 in that order. Reading the rest is worthwhile, but those sections will suffice for this module.

  • What are the different types of practice that Rosenshine describes?
  • Your explanation sets the ground for practice. How do the best teachers prepare their students for practice?
  • Why is it important to monitor student practice?

Next, read Adam’s blog on how he uses booklets.

  • What are the different types of practice identified?
  • How much practice is provided for students?
  • How is the practice structured to support students?

Audit – how much practice do your students receive?

  • In general, how much practice do your students receive in lessons?
  • What percentage of the time over a 5 lesson sequence is spent with your students independently practising content?
  • After teaching new material, how many practice questions do your students complete independently?
  • How often do you revisit past material as a part of student independent practice? (i.e. not in something like a retrieval starter)
  • People tend to appreciate the need for practice in physical activity (like sport) more than in purely cognitive activity. Why do you think this is? How could you convince them of the need for more practice?

2. Overlearning

You can find an introduction to learning and performance by Soderstrom and Bjork here. From it, read the “introduction” paragraph which looks at the difference between learning and performance. Pay particular attention to the mention of overlearning. Next, read the middle paragraph on page 7, then read the paragraph at the bottom of page 9.

  • What is the difference between learning and performance?
  • What is overlearning?
  • What does “performance [was]…at asymptote” mean?
  • What are the ramifications for AfL of the distinction between learning and performance?

3. Drill and thrill

Students completing extensive, individual and independent practice has been out of vogue for a little while, and can be touted as boring or uninteresting. First, read Joe Kirby’s blog about the importance of drill here.

  • What justifications does Kirby give for student drill?
  • In the football video, what is the purpose of the drill?
  • How is the drill arranged so that all players participate?
  • Is the drill monotonous and boring?
  • Consider Lemov’s six rules. Which one do you think you already do the most, and which one the least?

Read Dani Quinn’s blog here. Though it is maths focussed, there is much there for us to learn.

  • How do Quinn’s justifications for drill relate to Kirby’s?
  • Look carefully at how the problem sets increase in complexity. In science, which topics/concepts are conducive to this kind of practice?
  • Quinn mentions a number of pitfalls and occasions where they “don’t work.” Which items in her list do you think are most pertinent to science teaching?
  • How does Quinn justify her claims that drilling can be joyful?

4. Spacing and interleaving

In the retrieval practice module, we discuss spacing as the act of spreading out learning opportunities on a given topic over time, and we saw it has many cognitive benefits. Interleaving is about how topics are mixed together during practice. Watch this video by Robert Bjork which introduces interleaving.

  • What is interleaving?
  • Without knowledge of the art example, would you expect the sport example to be generalisable to more concept-based areas?
  • To what extent is the art example generalisable to the classroom?

Read the first four pages of this study by Rohrer et al.

  • How do the researchers define “interleaved” practice?
  • What do they suggest as the main mechanism by which it improves learning?
  • How does this contrast with previous reading about overlearning?

Read the “caveats” section from on page 10.

  • Which caveats do you think are the most important for generalising to the classroom?
  • A small amount of blocked practice may be necessary first. How does this relate to previous reading about overlearning?
  • Feedback is clearly crucial on tasks of this kind. How can you ensure that your students receive rapid and precise feedback?

Read the last page of the study. It notes that this is a highly feasible intervention, but relies on the availability of good resources. Researchers also note that this is an effective intervention, but is not “flashy.”

  • What other possible obstacles to implementation are there?
  • Do you have resources which feature interleaving?
  • How have your beliefs about teaching and viable interventions changed based on literature such as this?

5. Guidance fading

The next reading is a chapter from Sweller et. al.’s Cognitive Load Theory. Set aside some time, as it is packed full of useful information and pointers and should frame much of your activities when designing practice. You can skip page 6-11.

Key terms to help you understand the chapter:

  • Guidance is how much support is provided
  • Worked examples are a form of high-guidance
  • The expertise reversal effect is where as students become more expert, they require less guidance.
  • Why is it important to tailor the amount of support students receive?
  • What is a completion task?
  • What is the guidance fading effect?
  • What is the difference between backward and forward fading?
  • Which is superior, backward or forward fading?
  • On page 5, what is the effect of prior knowledge on the optimal rate of guidance fading?
  • The chapter focusses on worked examples/completion tasks as a route to fading. What other routes are available to teachers in terms of the support they offer and how they fade it?


Download the quantitative chemistry mastery booklet below, and look at page 5.

  • How has guidance been faded across this problem set?
  • Why have some questions had the answers provided with them?
  • Is there enough practice in the problem set?

6. Summary so far

At this point we pause to summarise what we have found so far:

  • Instruction begins with an explanation based on a small amount of material
  • Students receive a worked example or model
  • Students receive practice with faded support like a completion task
  • Students conduct massed independent practice of the new concept
  • Independent practice becomes more interleaved

7. Procedural and declarative: practising procedural knowledge

Procedural knowledge relates to knowledge of how to do something, like balance an equation or change the subject of a formula. Declarative knowledge relates more to knowledge of concepts or ideas, like that mass is conserved in chemical reactions, or how the tilt of the Earth”s axis causes seasons or how a root hair cell is adapted. You cannot write practice for taught material without this distinction in mind.

Procedural knowledge tends to be much easier to write practice for, but still requires skill and careful thought given our summary steps above. Tom’s exemplary blog here looks at both, but pay particular attention to his thought processes when structuring procedural knowledge.

  • Why is it important to distinguish between procedural and declarative knowledge?
  • How does Tom build complexity and fade support in his worksheets?

Look at questions 38-80 of the booklet on B1 below.

  • How are the problems sequenced?
  • In what way is complexity gradually added?
  • How is interleaving incorporated by the end of the question set?

Look again at the quantitative chemistry mastery booklet you downloaded above, and consider how all the principles already mentioned have been built in.

Look at the year 7 worksheet below:

  • In question 2, how is variation introduced into the problem set?
  • What is the effect of this variation?
  • In questions 7-11 how are topics mixed together?
  • What is the purpose of question 12 and what knowledge/skill does it build?
  • How long do you think it would take for an average year 9 student to complete the worksheet?
  • Overall, do you think there is enough practice on this worksheet?


Choose a topic you are due to be teaching with features heavy procedural elements. Construct a worsheet to accompany your instruction featuring:

  • Worked example
  • Completion problems (or another route to fading support)
  • Extensive massed practice
  • Followed by interleaved practice

8. Procedural and declarative: practising declarative knowledge

Declarative knowledge is much harder to write practice for than procedural. Read this blog by Ruth on “SLOP-resistant” topics, and this blog by Adam on similar.

  • Why is it harder to practice declarative knowledge?
  • What simple techniques can you use to practice it?

Replacing worked examples with models:

For declarative knowledge a model answer can be a powerful discussion tool. Look at the worksheet below:

  • How would you use this worksheet in class?
  • How would you monitor the quality of students’ work as they begin to practice?
  • What other topics might benefit from an approach like this?

Other examples of practice work on declarative knowledge:

In each of the worksheets, pay careful attention to the way in which the questions are repeated and altered slightly to force students to think. Remember that the key point is that the students have to select the appropriate solving strategy from memory. In particular, look at how different topics are introduced and interleaved throughout the questions and the careful phasing of massed and interleaved practice.


Choose a topic you are due to teach which is heavy in declarative content. Prepare a section of a booklet for that content featuring:

  • Model example
  • Faded practice
  • Independent massed practice
  • Interleaved practice

9. Final activity

In order to obtain your certificate and finish this module, you will need to apply what you have learned in order to prepare a resource. The resource should be used to accompany a significant amount of learning, so not just half an hour in one lesson, more like at least half a unit. It should account for all of the ideas above, starting with examples/models, moving on to guided practice, slowly fading that guidance until students begin independent massed practice then move on to independent interleaved practice.

Please email your resource to We will obviously not publish it without your permission, but if you would be willing for it to be published then let us know in your email and we will happily add it to this site’s resources section. Please also be aware that though we have a high standard for publication, our dedicated resources team commit to helping you improve your work to the point at which we can publish it, so if you want specific feedback do just let us know.

If you have any feedback for us, you can submit it anonymously here.

Module: Retrieval Practice

Welcome to the professional learning module on retrieval practice. We hope you find it helpful and informative, and send us any feedback you might have. For the full list of the modules and explanation of how they work, please see here.

This module has been reviewed by Pooja Agarwal

This course will outline the history of retrieval practice, the theory behind it and its application in the classroom. At the end of the course we will ask you to complete a short written task, so you may want to take notes as you progress through the course. You can use this optional virtual notepad to help you engage with the texts.

  1. What is retrieval practice?

Read this study by cognitive scientists Roediger and Karpicke. Questions which you can use to frame your thinking about the study:

  • Why did the researchers complete two different experiments? What conclusions could the second experiment offer that the first one could not?
  • What is an “educationally relevant” context, and why is it important to conduct studies on “educationally relevant” materials?
  • Participants in the majority “study” conditions outperformed participants in the majority “test” conditions in the short term, but not in the long term. What ramifications does that have in the classroom?
  • Is student cramming effective? If it is effective in the short term, how can we convince students that it is not in the long term?
  • In the conclusion, the researchers cite studies from the Bjorks about long and short term difficulties. Summarise those findings and explain how they relate to retrieval practice.

2. How do students practise?

Most students do not tend to use effective learning strategies. Read the introduction to this study on the topic by Dunlosky et al. Also read the closing remarks from page 44 until the end. It is recommended that you study the section on retrieval practice in detail, and choose two others to study similarly. 

Questions which you can use to frame your thinking about the study:

  • Out of the list of 10 strategies, which ones do you think your students use the most outside of class?
  • Out of the list of 10 strategies, which ones do you think you use most in your day to day practice?
  • Draw a sketch graph with effect along the x-axis and ease of student implementation on the y-axis. The “goldilocks zone” would be high effect and high ease. Map each of the ten strategies on your graph.
  • Which ones are in the teacher’s control? How could teachers change what they do in order to make high effect strategies easier to use? (section 7 below will provide more ideas on this)
  • Out of the two strategies you chose to read further, what surprised you the most?
  • Under which, if any, circumstances is that strategy most effective?
  • Should teachers ever use strategies that we know are less effective?

3. Spacing

Research shows that spacing retrieval over time increases its power. Efrat Furst has written a description of the evidence behind this and potential mechanisms to explain its effect here, and you should start by reading that. Read this blog by teacher Damian Benney looking at how he researched how large the spacing gaps in-between sessions of retrieval should be. Questions which you can use to frame your thinking about the blog:

  • To what extent are teachers in control of the size of the retrieval gap?
  • What are the advantages of using a routinized system like Benney’s to map all instances of retrieval across a year?
  • What are the disadvantages of the above?
  • “Lagging” homeworks and assessments are vital in implementing spacing. Which opportunities could you take to better embed spacing in your teaching?

4. Feedback

How should teachers give feedback after retrieval practice? Read the section relating to feedback in this large research summary by Roediger and Karpicke. Questions which you can use to frame your thinking about the blog:

  • For what kinds of task is feedback most appropriate?
  • In the absence of feedback, can learning still occur?
  • What are the dangers of not giving feedback?
  • When should feedback take place?

5. Anxiety

Exams are high-stakes environments that can impair our students’ performance. This study designed an experiment to establish whether or not retrieval practice protected participants from the impairments of a high-stakes assessment. Questions which you can use to frame your thinking about the blog:

  • Outline the design of the experiment and the four groups within the study
  • How was stress induced in the participants?
  • To what extent is that stress similar to the stress involved in high-stakes assessments?
  • How could these findings affect your practice as well as your recommendations to students?

6. Transfer

Transfer is the “holy grail” of education: giving students the ability to apply their knowledge to unfamiliar situations. Read Steven Pan and Pooja Agarwal’s booklet on the topic. Questions which you can use to frame your thinking about the blog:

  • Give an example of near transfer in the science classroom. In the past, how have you prepared students for such situations?
  • Give an example of far transfer in the science classroom. In the past, how have you prepared students for such situations?
  • How can retrieval practice be used to promote transfer?
  • Which approaches are less effective for promoting transfer?
  • What modifications can you make to your practice in order to better prepare your students for transfer?

7. In the classroom

Download a copy of the retrieval roulette for your specialism. See also this list of resources of teachers applying retrieval in their classrooms. At the bottom of the page are a number of resources you can use to promote and increase the amount of retrieval practice your students engage in.

Round-up and takehomes

  • Retrieval practice is the most effective method to increase your students’ ability to use information in future
  • Retrieval opportunities should be spread out over time
  • Students should always receive specific and precise feedback following retrieval
  • There are a number of ways to embed retrieval practice into your lessons, and there are many resources available to support you with this
  • Encouraging your students to do retrieval practice is not enough. You must provide them with clear and simple routes to doing so

8. End of module task

As with all modules, there is a task at the end. This task should serve not only to consolidate the work you have done throughout the module, but is also a way for other teachers to see how you have applied and used the things you have learnt. We would like to publish your task when you are finished, but if you would rather that we didn’t then please just let us know when you submit it.

Please choose a task from the below and send it to

  • Retrieval overview: write a blog or poster to be used by other teachers to quickly learn more about retrieval practice
  • Student resource: write a document aimed at students and parents to promote retrieval practice by the suggestion of some simple resources and routines
  • Teacher resource: design a resource for teachers to use when implementing retrieval in their classroom
  • What I’ve done: write a blog article about your experiences of retrieval practice and how you have implemented it in your classroom
  • Pushing it further: what kinds of topics have you used retrieval practice for? In which circumstances have you had more or less relative success? Write a blog outlining your findings.

If you have any feedback for the CogSciSci team on this course or anything else on the site, please use this form to submit it anonymously.