At a recent presentation on the 5-year curriculum, I suggested to teachers that, to create space for teaching in depth, we are removing repeated content. That is, basic concepts in our Year 7 and 8 topics simply re-pasted into Year 9 or 10. Instead, later topics will review prior knowledge before moving on. One teacher was horrified: “but I have to re-teach topics – students don’t remember what they learned in earlier years.”
It’s true, students do need to remember what they learned for a long time – GCSE is like a marathon.
But what is the best way to win? Many teachers adopt a ‘coverage’ strategy – teach everything fairly quickly first time, knowing you’ll have another opportunity to re-teach it later. Unfortunately, stopping when students have only learned superficially goes against what we know about memory.
Here is a ‘forgetting curve’ for those learners who, because the focus was on coverage, grasped barely 50% of the learning outcomes. The time intervals on the graph could be years. Suppose you return to the material a year later, the graph shows that learner has retained so little you really do need to re-teach the topic. In fact you might also need to do lots of cramming before the exam to minimise the time before they forget. Not to mention the fact that this students could well lose motivation after all their poor performances. There is a better way.
Now imagine that you taught topics more in depth. There will be more students who reach what we might call a mastery level – learning 80%+ of the learning outcomes. As the graph below shows, they have still retained 50% of the material after a year of forgetting. Most important, it won’t take them long to get back to a mastery level again. In other words, all they need to do is a review, not re-teaching. Not to mention the fact that they’re likely to be confident and motivated.
So if you’re running a learning marathon, it pays to go slow at the beginning and making sure students understand the material as well as possible. You’ll save more time later, when you don’t have to re-teach and who knows, students might enjoy not having to repeat things either.