Spaced retrieval in Middle School Science

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Helping Knowledge Stick

The cognitive load placed upon students in content-heavy courses such as Science can easily overwhelm the cognitive capacity of Middle School students. It is incumbent upon us as educators to implement practices that support students in developing their revision skills well before any high-stakes assessment task.

In the past term I have trialled spaced retrieval practice in two of the four weekly science lessons that I have with my Year 8 students in an effort to model the benefits of ongoing revision. 

A 5-minute ‘do-now’ task

At the beginning of each Science lesson, students are tasked with completing (individually) a series of scaffolded 3-4 questions from the previous topic. The questions are constructed utilising the SOLO Taxonomy (see this blog post by @simonatrignano for a great introduction).

Sample Retrieval Card that records 3-4 stepped questions from a previous topic.

Each question is listed as being Uni-Structural (US – one concept/idea), Multi-Structural (MS – two linked concepts/ideas) or Extended-Abstract (EA – applicable beyond the concept) and this meta-language is shared with the students to facilitate their understanding of the different types of questions that exist.

The questions are delivered to the students via their Learning Management System (Go2Learn) which allows me to present the questions as low-stakes (they’re not given ‘marks’ for each question) and to collate data analytics easily.

As a class we review the answers to these questions and students take note of the areas that they find challenging to inform their revision/homework for the week.

Evaluating the data

Without evaluation, the data from the ‘do-now’ activity would be wasted. I collect the data from students and track which question areas (and types) that each student is having difficulty with. This formative assessment enables me to target homework/revision tasks to individual student needs.

Revision as Homework

I avoid setting homework for my Middle School science classes. If there’s important work to be done, I’d prefer it was being done with support nearby. This is not to say, however, that there is no benefit from setting homework for students, it’s just about getting the type of homework right.

Knowing is not enough; we must apply.

Willing is not enough; we must do.


I like to utilise the results of the ‘do-now’ task in lessons to frame upcoming homework tasks. Lagged homework, where students practice skills from previous topics, is a valuable method that supports spaced retrieval practices in class. Based upon identified areas for improvement, students can self-select homework tasks from the Go2Learn LMS to target their practice.

Intermediate results

So far, I have trialled the ‘do-now’ questions and targeted, lagged homework in two gender-specific Year 8 classes (one boys class and one girls class) for an 8-week unit of work (Introductory Cells).

Based upon a pre-test/post-test evaluation, students have on average improved 8-10% above their results in the previous topic (Introductory Chemistry). Whilst their are impacting variables between the two topics, additional qualitative data from students suggests that they have also found the practices that we are embedding beneficial.

“For this unit, I felt much less anxious when it came to the assessment. I felt like I had been revising the whole time so I didn’t need to cram.”


I’m looking forward to comparing the results of the upcoming topic (Introductory Body Systems) to previous results and determining if the benefits of spaced retrieval can be sustained.

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