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(Trying to apply) Spacing in a Content Heavy Subject

October 16, 2016


I wrote a post a few months ago on applying the principles of Spacing  with my Maths class (Sutton Trust highlights spacing as a practice which has good evidence of improving attainment) . This is a follow up blog but this one focuses on what I am trying to do with my Year 10 Science classes. This is a different proposition  as it is a content heavy course with a big exam at the end of Year 10. I am very conscious that some content is going to be a challenge for pupils to understand in the first instance, let alone remember 8 months later in their 1 hour 45 minute GCSE exam.

Perhaps it is worth pointing out the minor tweaks I have made to my routine. This blog from 2014 clarifies what I did then and I have made a few changes since. A few years ago I employed RAG123 marking (from more see this or this by @ListerKev). For whatever reason this has slipped from being my regular practice. Having read this excellent blog on Exit Tickets from @HarryFletcherWood, I realised that I missed seeing the regular output of my students and that I was in danger of being so focused on spacing the learning that I would “take my eye off the ball” in terms of their conceptual understanding on a lesson by lesson basis. I’ve read some super blogs (try this by @EdScientists- guest blogging for the Learning Scientists) on memory having a storage strength and a retrieval strength and I didn’t want to focus only on increasing retrieval strength at the expense of the pupils storing incorrect knowledge in the first place. This by @KrisBoulton (from @ManYanaEd’s prompting) has really helped my thinking here.

Where do I start? Being part of a brilliant department helps. The content for the year has already been split into 8 topics with resources ready prepared. These 8 topics are fairly similar in length. This has helped with my planning on how I could use spacing .

Over the past few years I used one of these for each and every lesson to share learning intentions:


I decided that I would have learning intentions that spanned two or three lessons rather than have one for each lesson. In broad terms, each topic would have 2 distinct learning intention documents and I would design an exit ticket for each of these, so 16 in total. These would (as far as possible) probe pupils understanding of the concepts encountered over the last few lessons. Pupils and I would also RAG123 the tickets.

Learning intentions:


Exit Ticket:


Completed Exit Ticket:


exit 2.png


exit 3.png

So far the exit tickets have taken about 5 minutes to look through for a class of 24. The feedback they give me is invaluable and at the start of the next lesson we can put right some common misconceptions. This means we only move on when the class are secure in their conceptual understanding. These exit tickets have been an eye opener and the few minutes to check through (receive feedback) and the few minutes used in the next lesson (to give whole class feedback) is time well spent.

So how can I space the content in the curriculum? @MissDCox writes here about her work in this area. I did consider looking at ripping apart the 8 topics and truly  interleaving the content. My issue was that I felt that each topic needed to be taught as a block because otherwise my pupils would struggle to knit the knowledge together into a coherent schema for each topic.

So what else could I do? My plan now was to ensure that once the topic was complete we returned to it later in the year. However, finding the time wouldn’t be easy in a content filled course. When planning each topic I worked out that they roughly cover 9 hours of work. I decided to knock this down to 8 hours. This meant keeping some resources, including some exam questions up my sleeve. The “extra hour”can then be used as a “Spacing Lesson” some time later in the year. These spacing lessons would not be characterised by a reteaching of the topic. Instead they would focus on retrieval via multiple choice quizzes and by the use of some of the resources and exam questions that I had taken out at the time of the original teaching. It is very likely that a “Spacing lesson” could cover 2 previously covered topics.

My other change this year has been to create “Lag and Retrieve” homeworks. These are given about 3 weeks after finishing a topic. I got this idea from @joe__kirby and the type of homework set at Michaeala (and an ideas shared with me by @wendymaria100). I set the first “Lag and Retrieve” homework last week and pupils were told:

  • They should take no more than 20 minutes.
  • They are to be done from memory. Looking in books is banned.It is not about using any sources other than your brain.
  • As long as they have tried to retrieve there would be no consequences if they were not able to retrieve particularly successfully.
  • These homeworks would not be marked but we would look at some examples under a visualizer in the next lesson and pupils would make annotations and changes if they had failed to recall or had recalled  incorrectly.

This post by @AceThatTest gives a great explanation about the importance of retrieving and correcting errors.

This is a blank homework. I have added a few hints in each box just in case retrieval strength is so low that they are unable to put pen to paper.

lag homework.png

And some examples of completed (and annotated) homeworks:








I love what this pupil called the homework:


I think these homeworks are a good example of a desirable difficulty. We had been studying evolution in the lesson when these were given out. Pupils would have found an evolution homework easier than trying to recall knowledge that they were forgetting. However, the long term gain in learning should be worth it.

These homeworks would be the first revisit of the topic with the spacing lesson happening at a later date.My plan looks like this:


SL stands for Spacing Lesson

Every year I try to get through the curriculum and leave a few weeks for revision. However, this year I plan to do all of the revision during the year. I nodded a lot at this tweet about @MissDCox’s  #TLT16 session:


As well as this plan I am going to continue to start all lessons with 3 questions (1 from last week, last month, last term) and to use any “dead” time at the end of lessons to have adhoc retrieval questions on a mix of any previously covered topic.

I hope this is a success and that the hard work of pupils is rewarded in their exam. Watch this space.

Final thought- With so much emphasis on memory I need to remember these wise words from @Andyphilipday:

“Students as memory sticks. Fill them up. Check it’s stored. And then access the whole lot at some unspecified date in the future.
Except they’re not. Memory sticks. They need to be motivated, to see a point, to know what it’s for along the way. That’s what so much of our job is – persuading and showing what they can do with this accumulating awareness of the world.”

Feedback welcome…….


From → SOLO, Spacing, Teaching

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