“But we need to finish the course” – What if we plan NOT to complete the specification?


On Saturday, at #SASFE17 Matt Pinkett tweeted this from session two with some sixth formers:


I had planned to suggest something similar in session 3 so they beat me to it.

Teachers seem to be very concerned about ‘finishing’ a course. Understandably, they want to be sure they’ve covered everything that could possibly come up in an exam with the students to give them the best possible chance. Even if this means racing through content on a lesson by lesson basis and doing this until the last lesson before the exam; if they’ve covered it, then they know it.

But we know this isn’t true. Just because you’ve explained something or dedicated a lesson to it doesn’t mean that a) they understood it or b) they will remember it in 2/3 years time. Instead of quantity of learning, should we look at the quality of learning?

In my session at #SASFE17 I shared a model, based on cognitive science that might be an alternative to the model above.

I used a very unscientific method to share my hypothesis. I suggested the following:



If we rush through content without considering what students have learnt or using any methods to help students to remember long-term, they might only remember 50% of the content.

However, if we spend time using strategies that cognitive science suggests helps with long-term memory (spacing, interleaving, recall, testing etc) this might mean that we don’t have enough time to fully complete covering the content of the course. I propose that this might not be disastrous as it sounds.

Here we can see that only 75% of the course was covered and if it was all then remembered over the long-term, they will ‘know’ more than if everything was rushed through without any embedding (only 50%).


Of course none of these numbers are accurate but I use the illustration to show that using strategies for learning that may take more time might not be at the cost of learning.

Let’s assume that my hypothesis is correct. What does this mean for teachers?

They need to decide which aspects of their specification are core concepts that are essential for understanding the most of the specification. Are there key theories that are the essential basics of the subject, through which, lots of other concepts connect?

For example, in GCSE RS, if students understand the meaning of the crucifixion of Jesus it also helps understand salvation, incarnation and resurrection.

Might this change the order and the detail in which teachers teach content? Are there some topics that would be best taught early on so that the planned recall throughout the rest of the course can embed them fully?

It will mean that the time that we have with students in class and what we set for HW/prep is key. We need to consider what methods we will use to help with spacing and recall. We need to plan this all carefully and well ahead of time.

Do we need to differentiate between classes and/or students on what will be missed out? Might students that are working towards level 3-5 at GCSE have a different ‘core’ selected to those working towards 7-9?

Finally, do we tell students if we don’t plan to cover the specification? How might this be framed? Do we tell them from day 1 what it is that won’t be covered so they have 2 years to work on it themselves?

Teachers are scared not to cover the full specification, but if hours are limited and not enough to cover all content, the logical solution might be stop trying to squeeze it all in and think strategically about the time available.



6 thoughts on ““But we need to finish the course” – What if we plan NOT to complete the specification?

  1. An interesting idea, I would like to have the confidence to dictate which areas didn’t need to be covered in my (very content heavy) specification but I’d feel awful if I didn’t teach it and it came up…

  2. Are there some topics that would be best taught early on so that the planned recall throughout the rest of the course can embed them fully?

    Of course. This is why Maths teachers traditionally start with Algebra. Although it is (often) the hardest, you set it up so that you can use the material repeatedly through the year.

    We have a specific plan at our school to return repeatedly to Algebra through the year with our Year 12s, not just “finishing” the topic and never referring to it again until the finals.

  3. Not sure if I agree. When students ask me if they needn’t revise a topic or two in order to focus on those they are more comfortable with, I always advise against it. With OCR A-level, there is only a choice of 2 questions from 3 at AS and 3 from 4 at A-level, rather than the old 2 from 4 at both.

    I respect and agree with what you say about quality of learning, but if I missed a sub-topic or two out and they came up (we’re told that we should expect questions on any part of the syllabus) I couldn’t look my students in the face. We’re stuck between a rock and a hard place!

    Adding to that, OCR has done virtually NOTHING to help teachers plan for the new courses at A-level and GCSE, despite their promises when touting for business.

    There should be a mass revolt by teachers and students towards those who direct and support these ridiculous changes. They are killing Religious Studies and I know I’m not the only HoD worried about the numbers who are opting for the subject at GCSE and A-level.

  4. Pingback: Educational Reader’s Digest | Friday 19th May – Friday 26th May – Douglas Wise

  5. Pingback: Why we need to structure learning for students | missdcoxblog

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