Priming Research at CHSG
In the Autumn term several CHSG teachers engaged with a research project being organised by the University of Bedfordshire which focused on using ‘priming’ techniques that promote secure, long-term knowledge and understanding.
CHSG teachers are well aware of the notion that learning is an alteration in the long-term memory. Our knowledge rich curriculum requires students to learn and retrieve a lot of information, so when we found out about the project being organised by Dr James Shea we were keen to be involved. Teachers from several departments including English, MFL, Drama and History took part in the research.
Lessons at CHSG start with a ‘Do Now’ task, in which the first thing that students do is to retrieve information they have been taught in previous lessons. These activities give students the chance to exercise their memories and allow teachers to check how secure their students’ learning of previous content is. This is used in all subjects across the school. Priming research suggests that while this is a useful activity, there are also gains to be made by using techniques that ensure that strong memories are formed.
Priming involves revisiting content that has been taught between 3 and 10 days later in another lesson. When this happens, strong memories are formed. It is a bit like having a second dose of a vaccine after a first shot! CHSG teachers attended a training session with university of Buckinghamshire staff which explained how this process happens at a molecular level. In short, when students re-encounter material after the initial activation phase of their learning, when changes in DNA in the hippocampus happen, stronger and longer-lasting learning happens as more genes are expressed.
Reactivation Days (3-10 days later)
When content is re-visited in the re-activation phase, Dr Shea recommended that this should be done in ‘warm;, low-threat activities such as low-stakes or anonymous retrieval tasks such as on mini-whiteboards, goal free activities, direct instruction form the teacher in the form of a short teacher led presentation, discussion work with other students in small groups for a short length of time and using audio-visual stimuli to help students to dual code. CHSG teachers selected strategies appropriate to their subjects, the topic being taught, age and the prior experience of their students to maximise the benefits of warm reactivation.
The guidance on the benefits of warm reactivation led some of our teachers to rethink their Do Now tasks away from retrieval of material that had been covered in the previous lesson to material from lessons from the previous week. It also led to a rethink and adjustment to some of the questions that were asked. For example, a warm-reactivation Do Now exercise in a History lesson was ‘discuss with the person next to you what causes you can remember of the blockade of Berlin in 1948’, rather than ‘list five causes of the blockade of Berlin in 1948’. Importantly, this exercise took place a week after the initial lesson rather than in the subsequent lesson which was before the 3-10 day reactivation window. Another exercise was to present a single image from the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 with students using it as stimulus to engage in ‘free-recall’, where they wrote down absolutely everything they could remember about the topic, again this was done between 3 and 10 days of first learning about the topic.
At the end of term, teachers completed an in-depth questionnaire recording and evaluating the priming activities they had experimented with and their initial thoughts about the impact of priming on their students’ learning. The University of Bedfordshire will use these and returns from over 60 other schools to form an initial picture. Phase 2 of the project will take place over the Spring and Summer terms.