Spaced Retrieval and Interleaving Through Questioning

There’s currently a lot of talk about the value of interleaving and spacing retrieval practice for learning, which the fabulous Learning Scientists  have included in their Six Strategies for Effective Learning. I’ve been exploring the use of these strategies in the classroom and one activity I use is a questioning activity at the start of every lesson that involves spaced retrieval and interleaving and has, I think,  been a contributing factor to raising student grades in the last year.

Every A level lesson each week begins with a verbal Q&A session, which lasts no more than ten minutes, and which includes questions on the current topic, and also the other topics we have covered to date. In AS ICT there are 12 theory topics, so by the time we’ve covered 5 topics, for example, the start of lesson questions will span topics 1-5.   The questions bounce around the room in no particular order, and everyone gets one question. Students can opt to pass a question to another member of the class, but only after they have given the question a full 30 seconds thought (I realised I was not giving them long enough to answer before jumping in to help, and now force myself to wait.. and wait… and wait a little longer). If they do choose to pass to a friend, they have to answer the next question.

To ensure that there is reasonable coverage of all topics I plan it out very roughly. The image below shows the planning for the first six topics of AS level ICT. There’s little science to this planning – I fill it in, cross my eyes a little and if it looks like there is an even distribution of colour across the term, it’s good enough.


questioning plan

Starting the lesson this way forces students to recall material that they may have studied some months ago, but there are also some secondary benefits that I hadn’t anticipated when I started using this activity. Firstly, it encourages little and often revision across the year (rather than last minute cramming as the exams approach). My students know that at the start of every lesson there will be questions, and they may get a question on a topic they haven’t studied for months, so they need to remain on familiar terms with all the topics. Secondly, it lets me identify those students who aren’t putting in much/any time outside the lesson. Finally, it quickly establishes a classroom environment where students are not frightened to answer questions – they do it so often that they quickly lose any anxiety they have about making a mistake, and that creates exactly the kind of classroom environment I want – one that is secure and in which it is fine to take a risk.

By the time we get to the exam in June, the material my students studied in September is as fresh as the material they studied in April because they have recalled it again and again and again over a period of time, interleaved with other topics. This Q&A activity is only good for basic recall of knowledge, so it is combined with regular past exam questions from all of the topics studied.

I recently read this interesting piece by David Didau @learningspy, about the link between recall and context, and the possible negative effect on learning of a seating plan, which may tie what a learner knows to their physical location in the room.  The gist is that students’ recall is reliant on contextual cues, and if they sit in the same place in the class for every lesson, they rely on the context cues of that place in the room to recall what they know.  I don’t impose a seating plan for my A level classes, (unless I am given a reason to), but there is an entirely organic one in place (who doesn’t like to sit in ‘their’ seat?), and it made me wonder if this could be limiting my students’ ability to recall their knowledge when they get to the entirely unfamiliar exam hall/workplace setting. I haven’t tried it before, but this year I will mix up the seating arrangements for every questioning activity/quiz and test. It will be interesting to see if this improves results in end of topic tests.