How we learn – a change of approach to teaching academic PE

How we learn

I have read a great deal in 2014, but no one book has had more impact on changing my teaching practice then ‘How we learn’ by Benedict Carey. Carey is a health and science writer, currently for the New York times, who has an interest in the burgeoning field of how we learn and how the memory works. In the book, he expertly shares research on these topics, in a way that is both accessible and engaging, describing how to implement some effective strategies. A lot is common sense and is probably old news to many teachers, however the research he shares has been widely known for decades is relatively new to me.

In previous posts I have explained about my approach to teaching A-Level PE and the failures of my pupils in the past that I have belatedly taken responsibility for. This year I sought out advice from experienced and successful teachers within my school, successful departments with regards to examination results and attended school CPD that has helped to shape my approach this year.

My usual style of teaching AS Physical Education theory would be:

Screen Shot 2014-12-28 at 16.54.07

This is the way I have always taught both GCSE and A-Level PE classes, since I started teaching. A logical approach to teaching topics then testing them, working my way consequentially through the syllabus. After completing the delivery of the syllabus content, I would then prepare for the final examination with a series of mock papers. Recapping model answers that we had previously gone through. It was reasonably successful as most students achieved their MTG and was in many ways similar to how I was taught at school. Looking at the table above I can clearly see an issue that hasn’t come to mind before in my teaching career. If I teach health, exercise and nutrition in the first two weeks of September, then test it, follow it up with extra support and then not touch it again till April or May the following year, have I assisted my students in learning this topic? Quite clearly the answer is no, unless the students themselves take responsibility for it. This therefore means that they will need to relearn a number of topics. Two years ago a pupil of mine failed to answer a 6 mark question on SAQ Training. It was a topic we looked at right at the beginning of the year and he didn’t get a single mark for it. When the grade boundary of an A to an E in that paper was 12 raw marks, that is a considerable problem and one I could have potentially avoided with a few tweaks to my approach.

After reading the book and listening to the advice of colleagues from the Maths, Science and Economics Departments of my school (the most successful departments in terms of academic results and value added) my approach now looks like this:

Screen Shot 2014-12-28 at 16.54.20

Key Changes

The changes to my approach are based on two pieces of research that Carey talks about; New Theory of Disuse by Robert and Elizabeth Bjork and Test Enhanced Learning by Roediger and Karpicke.

Forgetting is not just a process of memory decay but also an active one of filtering memories. As we are constantly bombarded with information, it helps to block distracting information. Any memory we have has two strengths; storage and retrieval. Storage strength is how well something is learnt. Storage strength can increase, but never decrease. So why then can we not remember everything, especially as the potential storage space in our brains is vast? That is because it isn’t always accessible. The Retrieval strength is how well a memory or piece of information comes to mind. Without study or reinforcement, retrieval strength drops off quickly. However it seems that forgetting can be a friend to memory.

The harder we have to work at retrieving a memory, the greater the retrieval and storage strength. Bjork calls this principle ‘desirable difficulty’. Therefore forgetting is critical to the learning of new skills (brain isn’t full of useless information) and to the preservation of old ones (continued retrieval makes stronger storage). Using memory changes memory. This is a key principle to emerge from cognitive science currently and what a number of techniques Carey suggests are based upon.

Lesson Starters

I used to start every lesson with the learning objectives for the lesson and a introductory starter task for those objectives. Every lesson now starts with a test of some kind. This is usually on the previous lesson, but more often on the whole topic we are covering. These take the form of different types of retrieval practice – question and answer of facts, quizzes, multiple choice tests, one word tests, short answer tests, recitation of concepts or definitions. I try to bring an element of competition into this, keeping scores, as my students enjoy this. It also helps me see who is keeping up to date with their learning and who may require some extra support or guidance.


At the start of each new topic I give my class a multiple choice pretest. Guessing wrongly can increase a person’s likelihood of nailing that question, or a related one, on a later test. We immediately go through the answers afterwards and they write them up in full to go with their test. I encourage them to refer back to those questions when we finally cover the topic in class. The act of guessing engages the mind in a different and more demanding way. This may be another example of Bjorks desirable difficulty or it maybe eliminating the illusion of fluency.

What is fluency? This is where the illusion that certain facts or figures are easy to remember right now, they’ll remain that way for the future. If it is easy to call a fact to mind, then there is a smaller increase in learning that fact. The pre-test helps me form an approach on the topic. It highlights prior knowledge of my students, something that I didn’t have before, and allows me to adapt my teaching methods and the pace I travel through that topic. It has made me become much more thoughtful about my approach to teaching new content.


Before I would test the topic after I had finished teaching it. I then wouldn’t touch upon it till the the series of mock papers I gave before study leave. Now my end of topic tests have two sections. Section A focuses on the section I have just delivered. Section B has a variety of questions from previous topics. I also give these tests, not right at the end of the topic I have delivered, but once I have completed the next topic. This is to prevent fluency, that studying and testing a new concept right after you learn it, doesn’t strengthen the memory.

Low stakes testing has a body of research behind it as an effective learning tool. Many teachers feel we over test children, and I am one of them, but this means we are blinded to testing as a learning activity. I don’t want to debate the current state or aims of our education system. I want to ensure that my students are best prepared for these final examinations, considering how important they can be on their future opportunities. It does seem better learning can occur through testing. A test is not only a measurement tool, it can potentially alter what we remember and changes how we organise knowledge in our minds.

Homework – the spacing effect

Spacing or distributed learning is a retention technique. Basically it is studying little and often, something I’m trying to encourage over cramming. (Cramming is effective it seems for passing exams, but not so good for long term memory. This isn’t beneficial for pupils who move from GCSE to AS or AS to A2.)  It works for dates, facts and figures. For AS PE, which is factually rich in content, this would seem an effective method. There does need to be more research whether it is effective for comprehension and analysis as well.

Before I would set these types of homework; making notes, rereading notes, highlighting, making a study guide, answering questions with help from text book or even producing chapter outlines from a book. All of these supposedly give the illusion of fluency, which is one of the main culprits for underperformance in exams.

Most of my homework is now set around Quizlet, something my students this year introduced to me. It is an online flash card and study aid. I have set up a AS PE class set and all students have the ability to create ‘flash cards’. Homework is usually set around students having to create a minimum of 20 questions about they topic we are learning about in class. The focus is around definitions, concepts and processes. Over the last term they have built a huge bank of these questions that they then use regularly to prepare for the tests. There have been a few issues in repetition of questions asked, which I’m trying to find a solution to.

As PE teachers we also have access to the incredible resource that James Simms has created at My PE Exam. He has recorded a video for every section of the syllabus, with a system for pupils and teachers to check learning and progress. I use it a support study aid. If students are struggling to understand a new concept, I ask them to watch the video at home, answer questions and then bring those questions to me in a session out of lesson time. I have found this a very time saving and productive method so far.

Students Feedback so Far

I have been honest to my students about my approach this year, how it is new for me and the reasoning behind it. In the final lesson of last term I asked them for some verbal feedback on what they thought:

  • The regular testing helps me decided whether I’m confused, don’t understand or just haven’t learnt a topic.
  • Haven’t done well on pre-tests. Find it demoralising and don’t see much point in it.
  • No different in approach to certain other subjects like chemistry and science.
  • Pace of lessons is very quick, not much time in lessons to look at things deeply.
  • Enjoy using Quizlet as part of homework and preparation for lessons and tests.
  • Think the regular tests of information in previous topics will be beneficial in the long term.
  • Still getting use to the ’15 minutes self testing a day’ approach to homework rather than fewer and larger projects they have in other subjects.

My initial thoughts

I’m not keen on this approach. I am going through content a lot quicker than I would usually do and I worry there is an unhealthy focus on testing. I’m trying to support my students with regular sessions outside of lesson time, with the topics focused around the areas they have under performed in in the tests. On the flip side it is making all the students much more responsible to find me and ask for help about those areas, which only my ‘top’ students used to do.

The fast pace also means I’m not enjoying teaching. In the past I would collapse lessons and follow the class interests further through books or films that weren’t part of the syllabus. I know from previous feedback that students really enjoyed this, and so did I, feeding their curiosity and enthusiasm. On reflection this may have been a cause of their poor results within the examination.

I think the simple tweak in my testing is very good. I’m regularly getting data on prior knowledge and understanding of previous topics taught, which I have never had before. This means I am able to constantly pick up misunderstandings throughout the year, rather than fight fires just before the final exam.

The change in homework again means I’m not opening up areas beyond the syllabus and adding depth to my teaching. However Quizlet is bringing the students together, in an electronic sense, outside of class to talk and test each other on my subject. I am hoping that this will have a positive impact come the examination in June.

I have discussed my approach with our Head of Economics and he has been very supportive in helping me implement these changes. In the last 5 years he has been keeping records of multiple choice tests he frequently provides to his A-Level students. The student feedback he was receiving when they had done poorly on an essay, was that they didn’t know how to write and structure an Economics essay. His response was always to those who had done poorly was that it was their content that was poor. He showed me the direct correlation between economics subject knowledge from these multiple choice tests and their final examination grades. ‘In subjects that are factual and content driven, then subject knowledge is key for success’ and it is with that advice I have implemented the changes in my A-Level teaching.

In Carey’s words ‘they are all small alterations, alterations in how we study or practice that we can apply individually, in our lives, right now. The hardest part in doing so may be trusting that they work.’ That is what I am doing and I hope my trust hasn’t been misplaced.

Further Reading:

Re-reading isn’t the same as revision by @davidfawcett A number of excellent strategies for revision that are also in the book.

Bjork Learning and Forgetting Lab some videos of Robert Bjork explaining his thoughts on desirable difficulties and memory.

Multiple Choice Questions by @HuntingEnglish a review of the use of multiple choice questions and a collection of other blogs on the subject

Testing and Assessment by @learningspy comprehensive review of whether assessment is for performance or actually for learning

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