Three powerful steps to deeper understanding and better recall. Specify; check; apply.

This post is based on my observations of teachers over the last few months and the common areas for development that emerge in feedback discussions.  It is also informed by the ideas of Rosenshine and Shimamura around effective teaching for understanding and recall.  My aim is to try to describe highly actionable strategies for putting the principles into practice.

Underpinning these ideas is the concept of schema: that we teach consciously (and ultimately automatically) thinking about the process of building each of our students’ schema, building knowledge that is secure, deep, well organised, retrievable with some fluency and can be applied to new contexts.

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The Goal:  To begin with I think an important mindset is that, when we’re teaching new knowledge, we want all students to know all of it.  We’re not just throwing stuff into the room and hoping it lands.  ‘Making it stick’ isn’t something you hope for; it’s something you plan for and drive through.  And ‘know’ means – recall, use, apply, explain – also known as “understand”.

Fundamental factors:  If everyone is going to know all the knowledge under consideration, then:

  • it needs to be clear what the knowledge under consideration is:  Do you know it? Well, that depends on what ‘it’ is!  It needs to be specified.
  • everyone needs to be involved (you’d think this was obvious but often isn’t the case)
  • students need to be able to check their own understanding as much you need to check it – because they’re the ones doing the learning.
  • checking needs to come before practising – to avoid practising things that aren’t sound.
  • students will need independent practice which means ‘doing it myself without help’

 With those factors in mind, here are three powerful steps for teaching better.  Note: If you’re teaching well, you may tell yourself that you do these things already. My suggestion is that you can still teach even better by doing these things even more.  It’s not about doing them or not doing them, it’s the intensity and sustained focus that matters.

Step One: Specify the knowledge even more precisely:

  • Link the focus area to a big picture: This is where we are in the bigger scheme of things – spell it out. Look back, sideways, ahead to locate where we are on the journey, signposting the hinterland beyond and giving the specific material relevance in the context of the whole domain.
  • Details:  This is what you should know/understand/be able to do/explain – exactly precisely: Not headings but the actual knowledge underneath them.  This is where good textbooks, booklets, knowledge organisers etc come in.
  • Before a lesson: generate precise learning intentions, not tasks.  What exactly do you want students to know by the end of lesson sequence?  Form learning intentions around the actual knowledge and understanding.
  • After a lesson: recap and consolidate.  Now you’ve explored and explained it, solidify the goals: This what we’ve covered; this is what you should now know, be able to explain, be able to do..  Not left to chance, not left vague – but spelt out in detail.

Example:  After a lesson discussing the BBC Bitesize video about Trial by Ordeal in History, rather than letting them leave the class with all the great ideas left hanging in the ether, lock down the key points that everyone should have as a basis for subsequent learning. Something like this – either written live during the lesson or produced in advance:

Step Two: Check for understanding even more, in more varied ways: 

For you: As teacher, you need to  check students have understood what you think you’ve taught them so that you get feedback about how well you’ve explained things in order to respond accordingly: push on, go back, fill in some gaps…?  Here are my two top-tips:

 1.Ask questions as mini-dialogues or exchanges:  Use Cold Call questioning, selecting students to respond to a whole-class question but, for each student, engage in a short exchange:

  • John: What was the example of….?  Why did they use that method?  Was the the only example?
  • Sinead:  Is John correct? What was the reason for..?  Can you think of an even more important reason?

2. Ask students to run through/reflect back:  After explaining, get multiple students to share their understanding, linking ideas together, looking to explore the relevant area of their schema:

  • John, based on what I’ve said and what you know,  explain it back to me:  Books closed, what was trial by ordeal – explain in some detail?
  • Sinead, you heard John… let me check with you.. without notes, what’s your understanding of trial by ordeal.
  • Ibrahim, which of those answers was best?  Let’s see if you can consolidate for an even more complete answer.

For them: If students are to learn the detail of the required knowledge they will need to be able to engage in retrieval practice, generating memory of the information and evaluating whether it is correct, secure, complete, linked to other areas.  Students need to check their own understanding.  There are multiple ways of doing this:

1. Mental rehearsal :  At a basic level, simply get students to do their own closed book self-evaluation of their knowledge, elaborating, making links, checking back to see how well they did.

2. Test themselves:  Use a more standard quiz format, give students questions that allow them to test themselves before they then look up the answers or, where appropriate, diagrams to label and then test their recall, avoiding the problem of self-delusion through familiarity.

3. Test a friend:  (A personal favourite): With students in pairs, one student asks the other questions based on a text or knowledge organiser focusing on why and how questions. They need to answer from memory, not by looking things up.  The questioner must have the information so they can see if their partner is correct; at the same time they are consolidating their own knowledge. Then they swap.

4. Explain to a friend/teach it:  Rather than answering questions, one student simply articulates their own understanding to a partner; both then check the explanation for correctness and completeness and take turns on different elements.

All of this can be done with everyone in a class simultaneously, massively increasing the ratio of student engagement with knowledge checking. Crucially, students need resources to support them eg blank or partial notes to line up against a complete set for checking:

Step Three: Apply the knowledge in more ways. 

It’s rarely, if ever, the ultimate goal to simply recall a set of information.  Even though this is an important, necessary platform stage that shouldn’t be cut short, students will need to test themselves further by applying the knowledge; using it to explain related questions and to tackle new problems.  Deep recall and understanding come from expanding the scope of schema and the interconnections between them.  There are several ways to extend this:

1. More examples:This starts with the teacher using multiple worked examples at the exposition phase.  Once basic ideas are secure, then introduce more worked examples at a deeper level.  This doesn’t only apply to numerical maths or science problems: worked examples includes modelled writing, fully written geography answers, phrases in Spanish.. etc.  Increasing students’ exposure to the ways in which knowledge can be applied and tested in an important part of the process.

2. More independent practice: Students need to be able to do things by themselves, repeatedly to gain confidence and fluency.  Obviously.  But how much time is given? How early can we withdraw all the supports and scaffolds?  This is where differentiation takes form – not in the content, the knowledge goals, but in the stage of practice students reach.  Varying the nature of practice so that knowledge is pulled around is important – balanced against the importance of building fluency through unaided repetition and consolidation.

3. More synoptic practice: Students need practice linking ideas – bringing in knowledge from different areas into the same space and working out how they all connect. This can be modelled but then students need the opportunity to try to make the connections independently.  More complexity can be added as confidence and fluency grow.   In the Trial by Ordeal example this is where the tasks are constructed about the bigger themes linking one time period to another, drawing parallels, making contrasts, looking for logical causal links.  This is also the path towards the harder GCSE questions like these:


In Summary: 

  • Step One: Specify the knowledge even more precisely:
  • Step Two: Check for understanding even more, in more varied ways: 
  • Step Three: Apply the knowledge in more ways. 

Specify, Check, Apply


  1. Good stuff, as always, Tom.

    I would add, explicitly, in step one, Before the lesson: Identify the tasks that will elicit evidence of understanding and identify specific misunderstandings.
    (But then you would expect me to say that 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

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