Rote learning defined as trying to learn something by repeating over and over has, in recent years, fallen out of fashion with western educationalists. However, I believe that fundamentally, repetition can underpin learning.
There has been a multitude of studies on memory recall, most famously by Hermann Ebbinghaus, a German psychologist pioneering the experimental study of memory. Ebbinghaus (1913) concluded that frequent repetitions were necessary to both (a) get to the point where content could be reproduced from memory, and (b) prevent forgetting of the content once it had been learned. See The Forgetting Curve (below).
Ebbinghaus’ research states that learnt material exponentially decays to around 20% within a week. In the context of a lesson, this means that pupils will only retain a fifth of the core information week on week. Very alarming, but there is a saving grace within the research.
Ebbinghaus comments on the value of spaced repetition. Here information was repeated at spaced intervals until the information became habitual. This approach has considerable implications when considering revision for tests and examinations.
So how might these research findings be used in the classroom?
With the research in mind, I have embedded into my lessons a 5 to 10-minute slot where I conduct a ‘zip test’. Generally, I have done this at the start of a lesson, but the same technique can be utilised throughout the lesson. The important aspect is that it is conducted in every lesson.
On a typical day, the pupils are greeted at the door, they prepare for the lesson and then turn to the backs of their books ready for their zip test. A typical test is only ten questions long and the questions are very similar each day, so marks are easily attained.
- Please state the conservation of energy. Energy cannot be….
- Which two energy types are generally wasted?
- Efficiency must be between which two numbers?
- Which colour t-shirt should you wear on a hot summer day?
The answers are then read out or elicited from the class. The zip test is self-assessed, as the aim here is not only to use spaced repetition to reinforce prior knowledge but to build the pupil’s confidence in the subject. At the beginning of the lesson was with an ‘I can actually do this’ feeling.
It’s also worth mentioning that I’ve encountered professionals who don’t believe this has any part in a lesson, stating reasons such as, ‘it’s not engaging enough’, ‘where’s the differentiation?’, ‘How can you measure progress?’
Anecdotally, this has yielded massive changes within my own classroom. No control groups or statistical analysis yet, but it works for me and, importantly, for my pupils.
Pran Patel @MrPatelsawesome is a lead practitioner with a recent NPQSL in leading whole school coaching, multi placement PGCE project lead but first and foremost a classroom teacher in an inner London academy. Read his blog at teacheristblog.wordpress.com