How do you teach History so that students remember it?

Across all subjects, depth and breadth of content at KS4 has increased. Students are simply required to remember and apply more knowledge to secure good grades in their GCSEs. For many schools, the answer to this has been simple: allocate more time to subjects by increasing KS4 from two years to three years. The motive behind this also follows a straightforward premise: more time spent studying the subject means that students can cover more content and thus make more progress.

In my mind, this premise, in itself, is utter rubbish!

I should clarify, this blog is not to refute the principle of allocating three years to KS4. Rather it is to argue that this ‘silver bullet’ will not alone improve students’ learning for a number of reasons:

  • First, should students not be given the opportunity to re-visit prior learning, they are likely to forget content regardless of how long you commit to GCSE. The Forgetting Curve has been cited regularly in recent literature, but it perhaps Nick Rose’s analysis that highlights the importance of forgetting. Indeed, accounting for the fact that students will forget concepts means that you can provide them with opportunities to re-learn, therefore making the content ‘stickier‘. A three year GCSE provides for this, but only if teachers plan effectively; should students study the Cold War at the beginning of Year 9, even if a large amount of time is spent on this topic, should they not systematically revisit it, by the time exams commence at the end of Year 11, students will have forgotten the majority of concepts, thus creating the same problems of a two year GCSE.


  • Second, and this is controversial, teaching practices are often inefficient. I often here teachers (understandably) complain at the level of content in the new qualifications; they state that it is simply impossible to teach this much information. I disagree. However, I am not surprised that many teachers think this way. Over the last decade, activity-led teaching has created inefficient practice. Teachers that are used to spending vast amounts of time on role plays, card sorts, and carousel activities unsurprisingly find it difficult to get through the required content as these tasks do not focus on subject knowledge but rather engagement in the activity, thus compromising opportunity for clear explanation and individual practice. Therefore, simply adding on another year of inefficient teaching continue to stifle progress. I’m not saying forgo these activities, but just be mindful of their opportunity costs.


In preparation for the new three year KS4, today our History department created a curriculum that focused on spaced-practice and retrieval. It is important to note that we chose to re-assess our understanding of curriculum models to move away from the idea of ‘coverage’ and towards a ‘narrative‘ (Christine Counsell talks at length about this in her recent blog). This mainly built on ensuring links between KS3 and KS4 to ensure that students learned content for both the purpose of understanding the concept in itself, and also to enable further understanding of subsequent concepts. For example, in Year 7, pupils master understanding of the terms ‘vestments’, ‘vernacular’ and ‘Puritan’ to plant the roots in preparation for studying Elizabeth’s Religious Settlement at GCSE.

Furthermore, we developed strategies to promote retrieval through three formats: in lessons, in assessment, and in revision.

What does spaced-practice look like in lessons?

All topics have a knowledge organiser. These have been blogged about consistently in recent years, however they should not be used as a ‘panacea’. Rather, as Michael Taylor advocates, they are ‘tools’ for teachers. We use knowledge organisers as a basis for what students are expected to know; but they are used in all lessons, every lessons. When students enter the class the Do-Now is always: ‘Revise and self-quiz the following aspect of your knowledge organiser’. At GCSE this will be on a topic previously studied. For example, figure 1 shows how a Cold War topic is used in a ‘Do Now’ in a completely separate unit. We purposefully mix-up the content that we test so that it does not follow any chronological or thematic pattern; this furthers retrieval practice by challenging students to recall knowledge out of context, thus simulating cognitive pressures in exams.

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Figure 1: An example of a ‘Do Now’ from the Early Elizabethan England SOW.

Modelling the habit of using their knowledge organiser is essential as many students found it easy to ‘opt out’ without clear guidance. We used the method advocated by Oasis Southbank in their revision strategy of ‘Look, Cover, Write, Check‘. Students complete this independently for the first five minutes of the lesson prior to the teacher verbally quizzing. Once embedded, this is a calm and meaningful routine that sets the tone for the remainder of the lesson. 

What does spaced-practice look like in assessment?

Our History curriculum include a variety of different low-stake assessments, and lots of them! First we use Recap Tests, as shown below. These include multiple choice questions, chronological order quizzes and one extended answer to apply knowledge learned. This form of assessment draws on all topics that have been studied in order to promote retrieval. Furthermore, students also complete ‘mini-mock’ questions. These are completed without any teacher support or scaffolding and will be on any content studied within each sub-topic. By removing scaffolding students are forced to try to remember and apply evidence that they have learned; it tests how students perceive knowledge, and how they can make the content that they know relevant to the question.

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Figure 2: An example of a Recap Quiz. One of these is completed after each sub-topic at GCSE.

What does spaced-practice look like in revision?

‘Nothing New, Just Review’ is not a novel idea. Rather it has been mentioned in blogs by Ben Newmark among others. However, in our new curriculum, we have sought to upscale this to interweave revision lessons into each term. For example, In the final term of American West, we revisit the topic previously to embed concepts that support the content being taught. These lessons simply start with 10 quiz questions, followed by an overview of the topic and key concepts within it, and ending with 5 questions from the quiz that was used at the start and 5 new questions. Consistently, all but a few see their scores increase dramatically demonstrating marginal gains which further motivate students to complete independent revision.

What next?

One of the key questions in spaced-practice is when is the best time to re-visit and assess topics that have been studied. Indeed, is a model of teach A, teach B, teach C; test A, B, and C better than a model of teach A, test A; teach B, test B, teach C, test C? While these strategies appear to be the most common, research suggests that they are not the most effective. Rather cumulative assessment appears to have most positive impact on retrieval. For example, to constantly revise content, teachers should teach A, test A, teach B, test A and B, teach C, test A, B and C. Indeed, in David Didau’s blog he notes that the model of study, test, test, test produces the most effective results. However, this is easier said than done.





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