Interleaving, Distributed Practice & The New Spec Writing Paper
‘Interleaving refers to the practice of spending some time learning one thing and then pausing to concentrate on learning a second thing before having quite mastered that first thing, and then returning to the first thing, and then moving onto a third thing, and then returning to the second thing, and so forth.’ 1
When I was an NQT and RQT I used to adopt the blocked practice schedule of teaching French with my Year 11s and leaving time from about March before the exams to revise with the class. So, the schedule used to be a simplified version of something like this,
Obviously the issue that the students’ learning was supposed to fit into nice, chunky modules while all along assuming that allof the students would understand allof the grammar and retain all of the language before taking an end of module test which tested only that topic’s content before moving on to the next blocked topic was almost like a macrocosm of the 20 minute window of progress in lessons and progress fitting in nice one hour lesson chunks where students have the sense of a warm, fuzzy cognitive ease and an engendered fluency illusion. It didn’t allow anything to be really embedded of course and certainly not to beat The Forgetting Curve.2 What the students could retrieve in lessons being a poor indicator for what they could achieve in the final exam.
The issues with this as a learning schedule for the students are obvious and nothing new in Edublogosphere I would imagine. The reason why I’m mentioning it here now is just to show that the impact it had on my revision with the students was disastrous and how it is informing what I am doing this year in terms of preparation for the Year 10s who will be faced with potentially troublesome linear exams. This quote from a very interesting blog from Dawn Cox sums up the issues as to not building in forgetting time well in my view,
‘…we need to forget following the text book from the beginning to the end, and start planning for learning, not for teacher comfort or convenience.’ 3
Dawn Cox on the same blog refers to an innovative way of incorporating planning a curriculum around deliberate recall.
Thanks to this innovative approach I have used this to replicate how I am going to apply what I believe will be a very difficult skill for the students to master when they come to do their final exams in languages; the one-off writing exams. The plan is to do the following with the Year 10 students and use the mocks at the end of Year 10 to review, The idea is that when the first topic of Me, my family and friends has been covered I will be introducing low stakes, free recall tests on practising writing on this topic alongside free recall tests on the topic of Home, town, neighbourhood and region as we progress through this next topic.
As the My Studies topic goes on I will test retrieval through getting the students to complete low-stakes, free recall writing tasks on the My Studies topic alongside free recall writing tasks on the previous two topics and the same with the Free-time activities topic. Then to allow for more effortful retrieval through inducing some forgetting by leaving the first two topics when into ‘Spring a’ but continuing with the tests on the My Studies and Free-time activities while introducing more low-stakes’ tests as part of practising on the Social issues (Healthy/Unhealthy Living) and Life at school/college topics.
By ‘Spring b’ the idea would be that as the Travel and tourism topic starts up, in the normal, humdrum of class teaching (and as part of homework) there would be low stakes’ free recall tests on; Me, my family and friends, Home town, neighbourhood and region, Social issues (Healthy/Unhealthy Living), Life at School, Customs and festivals in Spanish-speaking countries/communities.
All of the tests will come from the practice pack (please let me know if you would like these) which the students will have access to. For instance one of the sample assessment material AQA questions for the writing paper is:
‘Tu amigo español te ha preguntado sobre tu tiempo libre.
Escríbele sobre tus intereses y actividades.
Escribe aproximadamente 40 palabras en español.’ So, one of the practice writing tasks to be used alongside this task when in the topic of Free Time will be:
‘Tu amigo español te ha preguntado sobre tu escuela.
Escríbele sobre tu escuela y tus asignaturas.
• planes para el futuro
Escribe aproximadamente 40 palabras en español.’
While wary of my cognitive bias I think that preparing the students through adopting some of these Desirable Difficulties by varying the conditions of practice particularly in preparation ahead of a one-off writing exam should help towards promoting students’ self-efficacy (see the epic Gianfranco Conti blog4 on that).
1 James M. Lang, (2016) Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons From the Science of Learning, San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, loc 1246.