“Your brain is like a forest”: being transparent with pupils about ‘desirable difficulties’ in learning information

It’s revision season in our school. We have some excellent resources on ‘active revision strategies’, and we’ve taken the principles of a ‘knowledge-rich curriculum’ seriously. I personally have learnt a lot from Christodoulou’s excellent  book ‘Seven Myths About Education‘ (2014).

Yet what we are perhaps lacking in is enough transparency about the importance of struggling when revising for closed-book examination.  ‘Transparency’ is a key component of ‘Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning‘ by Brown, Roediger and Mcdaniel.

A recent whole-school focus on ‘Growth Mindset‘ has served as a first stage in creating this kind of transparency. Yet I wanted to talk to my pupils more about the perils of “illusions of knowing” – the biggest illusion being that re-reading information means learning it. Retrieval practice, on the other hand, has been shown to be much more effective.

How did I explain the importance of testing over reading? Using the techniques described by a Biology Professor called Mary Wenderoth, as outlined by ‘Make It Stick’, along with a little creative picture-editing. Here it is (you can also download this as a PowerPoint on the Resources page):

make it stick 1 make it stick 2 make it stick 3 Make it stick 4

The pictures made a few Year 8 students crack up with laughter, yet I enjoyed more success with Year 12. Perhaps they would have agreed to do anything, however, considering how close we were to the exam – even put a pair of pants on their head and stick two pencils up their nose…

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