Why knowing keywords is essential for learning


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?

20 ways to widen the ‘gap’ in your classroom 



  1. Make homework optional
  2. Create resources for different levels/grades of students
  3. Only teach certain groups of students the tough stuff
  4. Take under achieving students out of one subject to catch up with other subjects
  5. Allow absence without any action
  6. Don’t make students catch up with work when absent
  7. Make judgments/decisions using student data/hearsay, before you’ve met them & seen what they can do
  8. Treat PP/LAC students differently (marking their books first won’t close a gap)
  9. Think that an SEN student cannot learn the same and in the same way as non-SEN (in the majority of cases)
  10. Don’t check students’ work regularly and hold them to account for incomplete/unsatisfactory standard or work/presentation
  11. Use marks/grades/levels on student work
  12. Talk about attainment instead of improvement
  13. Leave a piece of work unimproved by the student
  14. Tell them they’re weak/lesser/in a bottom set
  15. Assume they know how and what to learn
  16. Assume that if you’ve said something once, it’s enough
  17. Have discussions about groups of children instead of individuals
  18. Don’t follow through things you say you will do with students
  19. Don’t follow school systems with a student/s because they’re a ‘special case’
  20. Don’t ever contact home or involve them in the student’s learning.

Are we wasting time on lesson plenaries?


I’ll be honest. Most of my lessons end with ‘that’s all we’ve got time for, pack away’. But a call for plenaries that show progress on a teacher forum got me thinking.

Are we wasting time on lesson plenaries?

In the days of lesson observation and the demand for teachers to show ‘progress’ every 20 minutes, plenaries were perfect. You could start the lesson with an activity that showed they knew nothing about the topic, teach them and then at the end get them to do the same activity. Usefully, but possibly predictably, their responses would change so the assumption is that they’ve made progress. The problem with this is that whilst they could do that in the time frame given, if you gave them the same task a couple of weeks later, they wouldn’t have a clue. They were a temporary measure and without any sort of strategic spacing  in consequent lessons/weeks, that lesson might as well have been a write off.

Having looked at some of the research on memory and learning, I believe that the use of time in lesson should come down to two things: learning new stuff and repeating already learnt stuff to support long term retention. Everything else isn’t needed. So can the plenary fit that model?

Firstly, it could be part of the first time to get students to recall their learning from that lesson. Here it might be the 1st/2nd recall:


After that lesson, the next time you teach them, you need to get them to recall the previous learning. For most it will be a matter of days between lessons. If more than that, a homework might be appropriate for being the 1/2/6 days recall.

In my opinion the best, quickest, shortest way of recalling prior learning is a quick 1-10 at the start of the lesson. After several lessons this will need to include content from the last lesson and then previous lessons with increasing gaps.  The plenary of the lesson can then be the recap of that lesson. However a plenary doesn’t always need to be a separate part of the lesson at the end. The way I teach I am constantly making links and embedding that I naturally repeat the content throughout the lesson. I tend to talk quite a lot then apply it through a video clip. There is a natural repetition which is why I don’t plan plenaries.

So, I don’t necessarily think that plenaries are a waste of time. They have a function in long term learning. However I do think the days of using plenaries to ‘prove’ progress in lessons needs to be scrapped. If you really want to try to see progress during a lesson observation, doing a 1-10 starter which includes content from months ago is a better indicator, otherwise we’re just playing a silly game of ‘pretend they’ve learnt stuff’ when we all know it doesn’t really work like that.

Staggered marking and feedback 


My year 9s have just done their end of year exam. In RS this means the same set of questions skills repeated for religions and themes. They’ve done three sets of these so they are marked on 1/2/4/5/12 mark questions, 3 times.

I got them to write their answers to each set on a different piece of paper. So Christianity on one, Islam and another and theme B on the final piece.

Instead of marking all of their papers I have marked them one by one. So I marked all their Christianity papers in one go and then did my usual whole class feedback on particular points of knowledge or common errors, whilst reminding them of the requirements of each question. They then ‘green pen’ their work which means they improve their initial work taking on the feedback I’ve given to the class and where they’d missed marks on their own work.

Between that lesson and the next I marked the Islam section and then did the same. I have to finish marking their Theme B and will do the same.

This means:

  • It spread my marking out over more days but each section was fresh in my head as I fed back as I’d only marked that one section.
  • We could focus directly on 5 questions, instead of 15.
  • Their green pen work was more targeted as there was less to do in thirds.
  • My feedback was repeated three times. This links into the research of repetition and retrieval to aid long term memory.
  • Although I was required to determine a grade using marks it has stopped them ‘just’ looking at the ticks (I refuse to write marks!). The purpose is to improve their work not to see what they got. Delayed grades are the lesser of two evils.

I’ve looked at various research about feedback timing. Most compares ‘instant’ versus delayed. By definition these sort of test feedback couldn’t be instant so it would be interesting to know if there is any research that just deals with different lengths of delayed feedback. This is taking a week and I genuinely feel it is working better than if I’d done it all at once.

I am lucky to have the luxury of time with this group, but if I didn’t , would the time spent on delayed, staggered feedback be better than all at once delayed feedback?

 ‘United we stand, divided we fall.’ – Consistency in schools


I once visited a school on a leadership course where the Head told the delegates “When we interview, we directly ask teachers if they will comply with our clear but firm expectations & rules. If they have any doubts we won’t offer them the job”. This included students walking in silence in the corridors and all staff eating lunch with students, amongst many other unusual (for me) practices.

I thought this was a really interesting strategy. The Head was ensuring that he only employed people that were committing to being consistent with the school’s ethos. Some might think this is overly controlling but I can see there is real truth in the phrase ‘United we stand, divided we fall’. I have seen that success in schools can be down to this. Not necessarily how the school does things but that there is unity across staff and students in the application of the strategies/rules.

So if it’s as simple as that, why don’t all schools just ensure consistency?

It’s tough.

Teachers are individuals. When teachers get into their classrooms, they are usually the boss of their space and are mainly autonomous in what they do. That autonomy leads to people creating their own rules and expectations. It’s as though a whole school becomes a set of mini-schools where the personalities and preferences of a teacher take precedence over the whole school.

Teachers don’t like being told what to do. That autonomy means that when others tell them what they should be doing, one reaction might be to ignore it. Compliance seems a strong term. But it is compliance, to set and agreed principles that create consistency. Some teachers dislike compliance and counter it with being treated as a professional. This is a false dichotomy. Teachers can be treated as professionals and be expected to fulfil their part in a whole school system.

Leaders don’t hold teachers to account. As a leader, this is a huge challenge; possibly the biggest challenge of school leadership. I’ve seen this over and over and in the worst case scenarios leaders are scared or ill-equipped to have professional conversations with staff. Leaders say things like ‘Well, that’s just so and so, that’s the way they do it’ or ‘they’ve done it that way for years, they’ll never change’. In other cases friendships and relationships have got in the way of tough conversations. Or there is a hope that the teacher will leave the school so the ‘problem’ disappears and so isn’t worth dealing with.

Fairness is essential. If one member of staff doesn’t do something, the same conversation should happen if another person doesn’t. No leader should be sacred of a member of staff. This is equally true within the leadership team. If staff see a leader not fulfilling the process that they’ve been told to follow, it can lead to staff feeling that it’s one rule for one and another for another.

Most leaders will know the theory, but in practice there have been horrific situations which lead to accusations of bullying, competency procedures and sadly people ‘losing’ their jobs. This needs to be shared and discussed much more in leadership and with new leaders. In my career I remember those few leaders that have done this well but sadly this can be overridden by those that have done it very, very badly.

Teachers don’t agree with what they’ve been asked to do. There are many policies and rules that a school can choose to adopt.  Some may be controversial. Some may seem nonsensical. Either way, if you listen in the staffroom teachers will be pointing out which policies or processes they don’t agree with. If there isn’t a channel for staff to share or air their concerns about these, they may just do it their own way.

Good teachers ‘carry’ those that don’t comply. I’ve blogged about his before here. It’s really easy for leaders to shift their focus.  Focus on those that do, so those that don’t seem like a minority. This may seem a great strategy until those that ‘do’ start to become burdened unfairly. They get more, those that don’t, get nothing.

Lack of clarity of what they want from staff. So far, we’ve assumed that leaders have made very clear what they expect. Expecting staff to be ‘professional’ isn’t enough. They need to have clear expectations and processes so they know what they should be doing.

Leaders have the big picture without the practical processes. Strategic thinking is great. It gives the overall plan of what we’re doing and why. However, if it lacks the practicalities of how things will be done, it just remains susceptible to individual interpretation, leading to inconsistency.

It is also useful to include the ‘why’ we are doing this. The logic or research behind it is important. If the ‘why’ is illogical or unreasonable, it may lead to staff questioning its value and then not doing it.

Consistency requires consistency over time. If you have a transient staff, including leaders, it can be really difficult to embed consistency. If a teacher arrives and the ethos is strong and embeded there is more chance that staff will follow it. Where there is no precedent or continuous changes, it is easier for teachers to do their own thing. This is one of the biggest challenges as a leader in a challenging school context.

The processes are too complicated. If a teacher has to fill out a triplicate form and deliver one to a head of year’s office, one to the tutor’s tray and then email a version to a line manager, there is a good chance they’re not going to have the time or inclination to complete it. The time spent on the process may outweigh the value They see in completing the process. Leaders need to think of the value of any process over the time cost.

Teachers don’t feel supported. Even if they do complete the triplicate paperwork , if nothing happens, even a discussion or a response, a teacher will feel that they are isolated. Efficient & appropriate communication in schools can be lacking. Leaders need a process to follow to ensure that teachers feel supported. If a teacher has an incident in their class, who will check they’re ok? Who will ask them the next day if they’re ok? Sometimes we assume these things happen but we’re all so busy that no-one does it. It needs listening, planning and organisation to support staff.

In the initial anecdote, the Head teacher’s strategy of checking compliance from day one was a clever way to ensure that his school continued in a manner that he deemed was necessary for students to be successful.  But if all schools did this would they end up without teachers? Are all teachers willing to ‘sign up to’ a system where the expectations are clearly on them to fulfill and comply with?

How can leaders best ensure consistency within schools without it being a dictatorship? Does it have to come at the expense of autonomy in the classroom? Should it account for teacher personalities? How can accountability be effective without being personal or based on relationships? Should compliance to school policies be assessed?

One of the teacher standards is “Teachers must have proper and professional regard for the ethos, policies and practices of the school in which they teach” how is this upheld?

In my eyes, it’s schools that nail consistency, that have the highest chance of being successful. It’s the challenge of leadership of how to do this with humanity and professionalism.

 “But my weak students struggle with it” – Why the new GCSEs are needed


Since the start of the new GCSE specifications, I’ve heard this several times. My view on this isn’t a popular one.

They ‘should’ struggle.

Whether we like it or not, GCSEs are essentially a ranking of all the students that take that exam in that year. We can argue for a long time whether this is fair or whether it’s the purpose of education but the longer we spend on this, the less time we spend on giving our students the best support and opportunity to achieve their best.

Here are some grade boundaries for Religious Studies GCSE:

img_2041-1There are three marks between an A and an A* and seven between each of the ‘good GCSE’ grades. You’d hope that those would differentiate between students e.g a good student, an excellent student and an exceptional student. They don’t. Those marks could be achieved from many things that aren’t good subject knowledge.

Students in legacy specifications are also tested on their own opinions. How is that testing if they are a good religious studies student?

None of these really tell me that one candidate is more skilled in religious studies than another. In fact, if a student understands and applies the ‘rules’ of the exam, they can achieve a ‘C’ with little knowledge of religions. When my boss asks me what grades students will achieve I can tell him about the quality of their writing but I explain that the difference between the grades and the margins for error in marking make it almost impossible.

There are, and will be students who get surprise results, not because they worked hard or know any more religious teachings but on the day, gave their opinion with reasons whilst those who studied hard may have had a wobble and forgotten something ,yet they come out with the same grade.

The current system isn’t fair.

So, to the new GCSE. It mainly tests knowledge and evaluation. There are not any specific marks for their own opinion (although some teachers are still using it as part of evaluation). A student has to have studied and learnt a lot about religions to answer the questions. They need to be able to plan and show the higher skill of evaluation to get the top marks. This is where the differentiation begins. Students will be ranked according to their religious knowledge and skills. Evaluation is difficult. It’s supposed to be. Low attaining students WILL struggle with it. They’re supposed to.



Don’t confuse what I’m saying with high expectations. I’m not saying that initial starting points defines a students’ final attainment. I’m not. It’s my job as a teacher to stretch and challenge all students to do the maximum they achieve at the time. They can all achieve a 9. But the reality is they won’t. And that’s not a bad thing. It’s reality. We all want the best for our students but is it really good if all students achieve a 9? What does that tell anyone?

These GCSE reforms were really important, especially for RS. It was becoming silly. We need to accept that challenge is a good thing and will help us become ‘equal’ to other subjects instead of being the subject that can be done on one lesson a week. Times are changing.

It’s my job from now on to develop my students to out-do any data and excel in the study of religions. Bring it on!

“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.