Spaced Practice in Practice

In my first blog, I mentioned our attempts to use the principles of spaced practice, interleaving and low-stakes testing to help students retain information. This blog offers details on what that looked like in practice.

Firstly, we introduced ten-minute recall sessions at the beginning of every lesson. This meant that we could test students’ knowledge effectively without creating extra workload. However, using some of the principles of spaced practice, these sessions would not necessarily be based on the text being studied in the lesson; they would be based on knowledge taught in the lesson, week, month, term, or even several terms before. So, the beginning of a lesson might involve a recall task focused on Macbeth, then the main body of the lesson would be focused on Jekyll and Hyde. With these ten-minute recall sessions in every lesson, we could have mini revision sessions for every unit, almost every week.

These ten-minute recall sessions would take the form of:

  1. Multiple-choice tests.

We try to construct these tests based on what we’ve read on Daisy Christodoulou’s blog where she outlines the application of Dylan Wiliam’s research in Principled Assessment Design. Questions have 5-6 possible answers and have multiple correct answers, for example this question from a Year 7 test:

Which of the following words are adverbs?

  1. Play
  2. Quickly
  3. Beautifully
  4. Lovely
  5. Gently
  6. Exceptional

Or, this one from a Year 10 test on Macbeth:

Which of the following characters are killed at the hands of Macbeth?

  1. Banquo
  2. King Duncan
  3. Lady Macbeth
  4. Macdonwald
  5. Macduff

Often, like the examples above, these questions lead to interesting discussions to help students better understand more complex concepts. The Year 7 example offers an opportunity to discuss adjectives and adverbs beyond the usual trick of looking for words ending with ‘ly’. In the Year 10 example, this question invites a discussion about character development and the significance of certain deaths in the play.

  1. Filling in the blanks (KOs).

We now have knowledge organisers for every unit we teach, but it is the collection of knowledge organisers we developed for the GCSE poetry anthology that I think has had the most impact. After studying and exploring the poems in detail, students learn the information on the KOs for homework, usually one poem or section at a time. The poems are organised by theme – ‘difficult relationships’, ‘familial relationships, and ‘love’ – to help with recall and comparison. During the ten-minute recall sessions, students are given blank versions of the KOs and they fill in as much as they can remember. They then look at the original KO and add anything they missed in a different coloured pen. By the time our students sat their exams, they could fill in nearly all of a blank KO without looking at the original. By using two different coloured pens the teacher could very easily identify students’ progress and follow up with students who perhaps didn’t have the most effective revision technique. We still looked at the whole poems regularly, but we found that by extracting the key ideas, contexts, themes and quotations, students had a better foundation for understanding the whole poem and in doing so gave them the confidence to go further in their exploration and analysis.

Familial Relationships Knowledge Organiser:Family KO

  1. Filling in the blanks (QT).

Students were also given lists of quotations divided by theme or character and learnt these for homework. During ten-minute recall, they would complete quotation tests where some of the key words in the quotation (the ones that would be most helpful for their essays) would be blanked out. For Macbeth, that might be: Look like ________  but be __________’. In the first few tests only one or two words would be blank. By the time of the exams, students could list up to fifteen quotations per theme or character without any aid.

  1. Quick-fire quotations.

To save photocopying, we would also simply ask students to take a scrap piece of paper and write down as many quotations as they could remember. However, we gave structure to their recall by giving them specific themes or characters they needed to recall quotations for. We would then keep narrowing the focus to give students plenty of opportunity to practise identifying more discerning and judiciously chosen quotations. For example, students would be asked to recall quotations or references said by or about Mr Birling. This would then be narrowed down to asking for specific references or quotations that demonstrated Mr Birling refusing to change his views, or him showing insecurity, or examples of his arrogance, or evidence of his capitalist ideology.  This helped students to recall information quickly but also to consider the relevance and judiciousness of their choices. This also helped students to think more about characterisation or about thematic links between characters and contexts.

  1. Spaced homework

Technically not a ten-minute recall task, but the principle is similar. Whilst we studied Jekyll and Hyde in lessons, students’ homework would be to write essays on Macbeth or An Inspector Calls, or on the occasional Language paper question. Students were then constantly writing responses answering different types of questions on different texts – something they would have to do in the exam. Students then not only constantly revised and practised tasks for all of the units we studied, they also practised having to shift from one type of exam or text to another in a short space of time.


These methods contributed to students writing well-developed, insightful essays using quotations and references that were discerning and judicious to give more interesting responses. This was due, in part, to students being able to quickly recall the knowledge they needed and therefore spend more time constructing a well-crafted argument. We also found that students used these methods when revising independently – no more random highlighting and no more claims that ‘you can’t revise for English’. Instead, they would take extra copies of blank KOs, or create their own fill-in-the-blank quotation tests, or construct their own essay questions based on the themes and ideas from the quick-fire quotation activities.

So, by taking the time to read a couple of blogs and think about the principles in practice:

  • We reduced workload by having tests that we could use to monitor progress without having to do any marking.
  • We saved time by being able to focus on essay practice rather than content in the weeks before the exam, therefore time was better spent in lessons and we reduced the need for extra revision sessions.
  • We saved time in the long term by creating fairly simple but effective resources that could be recycled year after year (or until the specs change again).


6 thoughts on “Spaced Practice in Practice

  1. Hi, this looks really useful, Hattie mentions spaced practice in his book and it has a really effective d value. If I have read this correctly your work focuses on English Literature (AQA?). I was wondering if you had come up with anything innovative for Language and approaches to unseen 19th century (from memory) extracts. As a Headteacher in Blackpool this is something we really need to improve and I wondered what your approaches might have been?


    1. Hi. I’m glad you’ve found the blog useful.
      No, we don’t teach AQA – we teach the Edexcel spec. For the Lang papers we have one sheet that outlines the key advice for each question and students have this in front of them to help with cognitive load when they are working on questions on the paper. They can use this to then self-check what they have written. We also do a lot of paired problems and working through papers together to show the process behind answering questions. We have also done a lot of work on vocabulary acquisition from Year 7 and introduced far more reading at KS3 including C19th extracts, short stories and novels so students are more familiar with the language. Nothing particularly innovative I’m afraid – just constant exposure to two tier vocabulary and high quality, challenging texts taught explicitly from Year 7. If you wanted to talk through some of what we do with you or your Head of English I would be happy to do so. I’m currently working with several HoDs in this way both in my school and across several of our local schools so it would be no trouble. Claire


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