Why knowing keywords is essential for learning

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Since I started teaching, I have always given my GCSE students lists of keywords. This was initially because the spec that I’ve taught, includes a keyword definition questions, totalling 10% of the marks. Students needed to know (ideally the exam board) definitions to answer the simple questions at the start. It would have been foolish for me not to get them to learn them. Over the years, I’ve begun to realise that learning these key words means much more than answering these questions in the exam.

Whenever I’ve taught in one teaching room I’ve had a special shelf for these sheets. Students know where they are and come in to collect when they need them. There is a list for every topic (some might call these a knowledge organiser), all colour coded. At any time my students could help themselves to another sheet. However, at the start of my career, I didn’t do anything with them; I just expected them to learn them.

A few years later, I started all GCSE lessons with a quick quiz at the start of the lesson, mainly due to timing (I saw them once a fortnight) I needed to get them back into the topic but I also wanted to test them on some of the key terms.

This evolved into keyword tests every fortnight, based on the keywords from the current topic. I set this as ‘perma-homework’; it’s a permanent homework alongside other set homework. This lead to this poster going up in my room:

Students needed to understand that learning the keywords wasn’t just for the test on a Tuesday but were for long term learning. They seemed to gradually understand this. Unexpectedly they asked for more tests. This was at the same time I was reading about spacing and interleaving. So the alternate test became a random selection from previous topics. This meant that students were having to recall keywords from previous topics but didn’t know which ones. One week they ‘know’ which words they’ll be asked as it’s the current topic and on the second week they don’t. I publicly take in their scores on a spreadsheet on the whiteboard. They don’t seem to mind. I’ve not had any complaints yet. With the current topic they are in a challenge with themselves as they must always improve their score (except if full marks) to show me they’ve learnt their ‘target word’ identified from the last test. If they don’t improve, I help them learn their focus word at a break time.

In recent years I’ve also spent time explaining to student how and why they need to learn them using the usual research references. I’m lucky enough to be able to issue students with index cards and it is strongly recommended to create a set of cards per topic.

Why learning keywords is important

  1. They can answer the keyword questions

  2. They know what questions are referencing when keywords are used. For example,if they know the keyword ‘crucifixion’ and there is a question asking to evaluate ‘The crucifixion is the most important event for Christians’, they will know what event it’s referencing,

  3. It reduces the need for working memory. They can access their long term memory of the definition of crucifixion and then work on evaluating if it’s the most important event, accessing other keywords in long term memory such as incarnation or resurrection.

  4. It gives students confidence as they can do 1-3

I make students learn keywords before they study the topic. They are learning the definition without understanding them. However as we go through the topic, the keywords are then used, explained and put into context. They’ve already learnt the definition and then they attach an understanding and can link these to other keywords. I think this is better than waiting for us to learn and understand them before memorising them.

This strategy was proved to be useful for a few students in their end of year test in July. I asked the question ‘Give the roles of two angels in Islam’. I knew they could answer and get half marks using Jibril but we hadn’t studied any other angels in detail. Several students clearly drew on their keyword knowledge and answered with Mika’il and wrote the definition above. They had clearly learnt the definition and could use it to their advantage to get marks even though we haven’t studied Mika’il in class yet. This is confirmation for me that despite the time they take and the tests being ‘boring’ they are essential to student learning. I believe that every teacher in every subject should consider carefully how they can use keywords to support wider learning.

From their point of view, every year, I ask students about different aspects of their learning. These answers are representative of answers every year.

Things to consider…..

  • How are you using keywords with your students?
  • What words do they need to know?
  • How are you ensuring they learn them?
  • How do you know if they’ve learnt them long term?
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