In Search of Lost Time: How science departments are adapting to the new specifications

by Paul Mallaband

When speaking to science departments about teaching the new GCSE specifications, I always hear the same question: “where do we find the time?”. Not only has the volume of content to deliver increased, but exams now place a greater emphasis on testing knowledge application. Without changing the status quo of the course delivery, departments will increasingly find that time for consolidation and practising application will simply run out.

Statistically, determined grade boundaries may prevent pupils’ grades falling off a precipice, however departments that effectively adapt their strategies in response to these new challenges will undoubtedly perform better against the national picture. But which strategies work and how can they be introduced with minimal impact on teacher workload?

Finding the time

Analysis by AQA and Edexcel from their 2017 year 10 exam series showed that knowledge application was the area in which pupils struggled the most. This means that while retention and recall are a prerequisite to the application of knowledge – and must therefore form the core of any science curriculum – application is the harder skill.

Science departments must consider how they can ensure enough classroom time is spent on applying learning to new situations. Unfortunately, the burdens on teaching time that already exist mean the acquisition, recall and retention of knowledge must increasingly take place outside of the classroom.

Flipped learning is a well-established and effective approach to making this shift, and its benefits to science teaching are now more important than ever. Students learn concepts through homework set prior to the lesson, so that the classroom can become a place for exploring ideas, deepening knowledge and practising application.

This method can also be applied to mathematical and practical skills. Why not use rearranging and substituting into physics equations as the homework precursor to a lesson on solving worded problems or interpreting graphs? Likewise, structured homework exercises on forming methods for the required practicals allow lessons to be spent on collecting and analysing data, or indeed evaluating the quality of a method, as may be expected of pupils in the exams.

Making the time count

Delivering the new content-rich curriculum is not just about finding more time; it’s also about making sure the time used is not wasted in the long run. Due to the inner workings of memory retention, research increasingly shows the inadequacy of the standard cycle of {teach, revise, test} blocks.

A useful visual for understanding the cause of this “wasted teaching” is the forgetting curve (shown on the right). This demonstrates that when we acquire a new piece of knowledge, the amount we remember degrades over time. This much is not a surprise, but what is less obvious is the highly time-sensitive effect of interrupting this process. By revisiting material quickly and regularly, not only is memory “topped up”, but the rate of forgetting is decreased.

Redesigning schemes of work with an interleaved approach should therefore be a consideration for all science departments. This works by splitting ten lesson blocks into three smaller and spaced sections/topics, so that concepts are revisited and built upon over time. Of course, this approach has its drawbacks, as it relies on serious planning and effort to change the curriculum design.

It can also "feel" to both pupils and teachers like less progress is being made as there will be a little forgetting between each section of a unit, and therefore concepts will need revisiting before they can be built on.  Still, the evidence is clear: whilst performance immediately after a block is better when interleaving is not used, there is a dramatic reduction in relative performance in the long run (See the results below)

Another great way of avoiding wasted teaching is to implement a purposeful low-stakes testing system. When used strategically, this can be both an extremely effective way of engaging pupils with learning from previous lessons, and a method for targeting intervention. By regularly testing pupils on all of their learning so far, perhaps in a 5-minute starter, mid lesson interruption or weekly pop quiz, retention rates can improve dramatically. The knowledge that their memory could be tested at any point encourages pupils to revise more regularly and revisit previous topics, thus reducing their forgetting rate.

This also helps ensure a secure foundational knowledge, so new learning can be accelerated. For example, a lesson spent on teaching pupils how to calculate theoretical yield may no longer need to start with a recap on calculating RFM. Instead, the teacher can be safe in the knowledge that pupils have already been tested on this skill a number of times.

Find out what's new in Doddle!

At Doddle, we have a team of editors continually working on new Science resources. We’re determined to help teachers all over the country tackle the new GCSEs, freeing up your time to teach.

Our latest resources include practical quizzes for the required practicals, and mini quizzes covering ‘Maths for Science’. You can find a full list of all new resources in Science in our What's New Guide.

Formerly a science teacher in the North West, I now work as Doddle Product Owner. I collaborate with schools to develop our innovative teaching and learning solutions, which make learning fun whilst improving knowledge retention and tackling teacher workload. I also work as an Education Adviser, helping schools address their unique challenges and priorities, enabling me to interact with a vast network of professionals passionate about education.

– Paul Mallaband