The Learning Linguist spends two days with the Learning Scientists, and here’s what I learned.

Last week I was lucky enough to be able to attend a two day conference with the Learning Scientists in Bedford, organised by Stuart Lock and Advantage Schools. It was a fantastic couple of days and I’ve taken loads away from it. I’ve just been typing up my notes into something that makes sense, but this post is just going to be a brief overview of my key takeaways. Everything in this blog has come from things I saw or heard over the course of the conference. I can provide references if needed, just give me a chance to go over my notes.


If it’s worth teaching, it’s worth remembering.

The course was based on the findings of cognitive science over the last 100 years, which the Learning Scientists have boiled down into six strategies.

Flexible guiding principles – not hard and fast rules.

The strategies that were discussed were:

  • Retrieval practice
  • Interleaving
  • Spacing
  • Elaboration
  • Dual coding
  • Concrete examples

One of the most surprising things we saw was research showing how much, or how little, these strategies are ever mentioned in teacher training textbooks. In fact, some of the strategies aren’t mentioned at all, despite all the evidence supporting them!


Spaced Practice

You don’t get the benefits of repeated studying unless it is spaced out.

Study -> Restudy————>Test 🙁
Study ———>Restudy————>Test 🙂

Space length can vary and the spacing can be throughout a lesson, a week, a term, a year or longer.

The optimum space? Just long enough for students to have started to forget, but not to have forgotten it all.

This doesn’t just work with simple learning such as vocabulary but also with more complex knowledge such as motor skills, learning a musical instrument etc.

Things that are easier, the type of thing that students might say they like or think to be effective don’t usually turn out to be the things that help!

We can implement spacing in a variety of ways. I intend to integrate it into my planning by setting lag homework, homework with content from the previous topics. I am also going to slot in spaced lessons which re-study previously learned content later in the term. This could delay finishing teaching all of the course, but should mean that students are better prepared.


Interleaved practice

The idea with interleaving is to jumble up the order in which things are studied. This is linked to spaced practice but isn’t the same.

Interleaving is the process of switching the order of related topics in order to encourage students to make links between them.

Interleaving must be between linked topics. Interleaving unrelated subjects, whilst creating a spacing effect, will not have the same benefits.

Students who study in an interleaved manner will find that during their study sessions they do not perform as well as the students who practiced each topic in massed blocks. However, on the final test(taken after a day gap), those who interleaved will do better.

Students must have sufficient understanding so that interleaving doesn’t confuse them. You could, for example, teach the preterite tense and the imperfect tense separately and then put problems requiring both tenses on one sheet.

These strategies are most effective when the students are struggling. The effortful process that requires thought is where the learning occurs.

We discussed that the learning won’t be as ‘visible’ when these strategies are being used as progress won’t seem as fast. In the long term this will be more effective learning and it is important that all involved (teacher, SLT, students, parents) are aware of this.


Retrieval Practice

Otherwise known as the testing effect (but is now moving away to distance from negative connotations…).

The act of bringing knowledge to mind produces learning in itself.

Anything which requires students to bring knowledge to mind without looking at their notes is strengthening their knowledge.

This can be done as a ‘brain dump’, with prompts to help students structure what they are thinking about and with multiple choice questions – amongst other things. The key with the multiple choice questions is that all answers must be plausible so that students need to think about the answers.

The key is that this must all be done from memory

Students don’t necessarily know what is good for their learning! In one study students predicted that rereading the same text 3 times was going to be more effective than testing themselves 3 times before a week delay and then a test. They were wrong. It was much more effective for students to test themselves. The act of trying to remember had helped to strengthen the learning.

Warning: the making of flashcards is not the effective part! How they are used is really important. Students should not just look at a card and think ‘Yep, I know that one’ and carry on to read the answer. They must explain the answer before checking.

If you have tried to retrieve knowledge, your next exposure to it will be easier.

Once again, it’s difficult but it’s good! Would you prefer the difficulty now or in the exam?


Elaboration

The way we process information affects our ability to remember it later. So, focusing surface details like the way something looks or the number of letters a word has is unlikely to help. However, engaging with the meaning of a word means you are much more likely to remember it later on.

Elaborative interrogation is about students asking themselves why and how in relation to the content they are learning and then answering them. Some examples in Spanish might be:

  • Why does the verb end in ‘o’?
  • How would the meaning change if the ‘o’ was changed to ‘é’?
  • Why does the adjective end in ‘as’?

Encouraging self-explaination like the above will encourage learning. The explaination is the important part, so if students can’t come up with good questions themselves then you can supply them. Students can elaborate alone or together.


Concrete examples

The abstract is always harder to remember, so give multiple concrete examples of abstract ideas. Students will tend to remember the surface details rather than the main ideas that your example was intended to convey. These details are called seductive details and the novice will fall for these rather than the elements of the example that an expert would understand. Make sure you use different types of examples so that students can’t make links that are nothing to do with what you want them to learn.

We aren’t trying to trick them into learning – hit them over the head with it! Tell them what they need to know, because it’s important.

Make the links between the examples really clear, explain them and make sure students understand before moving back to the abstract concept you want them to understand.


Dual Coding

Combining images with text can help all students to learn. But, any images must show the same factual information as the text and vice versa, they mustn’t add any details. When using visuals, slow down the delivery so that students have time to take it all in.

Everyone benefits from coupling visuals with text, it’s nothing to do with learning styles.

You could work up to students being able to reproduce your images from memory, or turning visual into verbal and the reverse.


My top takeaways:

o Increase the gaps between study and re-study. But instead of rereading, retrieve and quiz.
o Make more links and contrasts between topics and encourage students to do so.
o Use visuals where possible alongside other representations.
o Ask why and how about everything.
o Try to use multiple concrete examples and move back to the abstract.
o Don’t trust your gut instinct! These strategies will feel harder and less effective in the short term, but it will be better in the long term.

I hope this blog can be of use to anyone that didn’t get to attend, or that also attended and wanted to clarify their thoughts. I’m currently thinking about how to apply these principles to year 11 now that we have nearly finished the course and want to work out how to revise all the content before the exams. Any advice on how you’re doing this, especially language teachers, would be appreciated. I’m also starting to think about what we can do in Key Stage Three so that they have solid grammatical knowledge at the end of year 9, allowing us to revise and build upon this at GCSE. That’s going to take a bit more thought yet though!

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