The key takeaway from a year in teaching

It would be an understatement to say that I’ve learned a little from my first year as a full-time teacher. There have been so many lessons that I’ve taken on board to develop my pedagogy that, if I were to list them all here, you’d be sat reading all day (and if you’re hoping to do that, why not check out any of my other education-related posts?).

If I had to summarise my main takeaway from teaching – the one thing that has strengthened my skills as a practitioner the most – it would be spaced repetition. What follows is what I’ve learned, why it’s important, and how it can help with your learning, too.

What I’ve learned

Have you ever noticed that students struggle to remember what you are sure you’ve already taught them? How that piece of content you spoke about 6 months ago is no longer at the forefront of their brains?

There’s a reason for that.

Studies show that there is an inevitable forgetting curve that occurs with any piece of learning. If students fail to revisit this content, it’s unlikely that they’ll do well in remembering it if you question them after a few weeks or months in a last-ditch effort to help them revise before an assessment.

Why spaced repetition is important

Here’s where spaced repetition comes in to save the day. The idea is that new content should be revisited as soon as possible. This forces learners to actively recall what they had already learned. It’s forcing them to work hard.

Ideally, you’d teach them something new at the start of the week before repeating that content a few days later. In my subject – History – that’s not always possible due to timetabling. As a result, you should aim to revisit content as early as possible – in your next lesson, for example. Then, pose similar questions or tasks to your students a few weeks later, then a month later, and finally 6 months later.

You can then start to do what we call interleaving – introducing old content to students in later lessons. For instance, if my Year 11s are studying Elizabethan England, I might throw a question about America in the 1920s towards them, since we learned about that in the previous year.

In this way, learners are being constantly reminded of what they know, and they’re being forced to work hard to remember. I like to go a step further and explain why they’re doing spaced repetition (we call this ‘sharing the Big Picture’), since it’s one of the most effective ways to revise. If students know why they’re learning something, they’re more likely to remember it in the future because they know that their learning had purpose.

How it can help YOU, too

It is pretty much within our job descriptions: teachers need to know a lot. They should be highly specialised subject experts, and they should be constantly working to improve the depth of their knowledge. This is important because it strengthens the quality of our explanation if we are really crystal clear on the course content.

However, as a trainee or a newly qualified teacher, that kind of depth of knowledge is really challenging to take on – and to do it confidently. But these study techniques aren’t just for students; I still use them to remind myself of what I already know. It worked well when I was at University, and it still hasn’t let me down.

Your own spaced repetition needn’t be time-consuming. I used the summer before my first year as an NQT/ECT to pick up some suitable subject knowledge by making notes on a revision guide and re-read those notes before teaching. Planning out my lessons, and making sure that they’re as good as they can be, is also a great way to remind myself of what I already know and to strengthen my knowledge.

Spaced repetition is a low effort, high reward gambit that will do wonders to accelerate knowledge in your head, and in your students’.

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