Thinking deeply about retrieval: context

My lessons always start with the same routine: students walk in, get their books, planners and equipment out, and then they begin work on the Do Now that is displayed on the board. But what follows depends on what questions I have displayed for students to work on.

Let’s take the example of a class learning about photosynthesis and who have previously covered Ecology, Cells, Respiration and Digestion. Here are two sets of Do Now questions:

Do Now Set #1Do Now Set #2
1. What is the function of the mitochondria?1. What is the function of chloroplasts?
2. State a difference between quantitative sampling and transect sampling.2. What are abiotic factors? Give two examples
3. Why do some plants have thorns?3. Why do some plants have long roots?
4. State the function of the small intestine4. How can we test for the products of starch breakdown?
5. Give one difference between aerobic and anaerobic respiration5. Is respiration endothermic or exothermic? Explain.
6. What are the products of anaerobic respiration in plants?6. Give one importance of respiration

The second set of Do Now questions is superior to the first in getting my students prepared to learn about photosynthesis.

While both sets of Do Nows have questions from previously taught content, in the second set, they are all desgined to help students activate important knowledge relevant to the learning sequence we are about to begin.

Let’s look at this more closely.

Do Now Set #1Do Now Set #2
1. What is the function of the mitochondria? 1. What is the function of chloroplasts?

Although both questions are similar in that they are asking students to state the function of a sub-cellular structure, one has a greater and clearer link to the current lesson.

While there may be benefit to having a question on the function of mitochondria (as they are found in both animal and plant cells), this is the start of the Photosynthesis learning sequence, so I want the focus to be on chloroplasts (which is the site of photosynthesis).

Do Now Set #1Do Now Set #2
2. State a difference between quantitative sampling and transect sampling.2. What are abiotic factors? Give two examples

Abiotic factors are non-living factors that can affect organisms. Examples include soil pH and light intensity, both of which have an impact on plant growth.

By activating this knowledge, I can get students to think about factors that can allow plants to survive better, leading them on to thinking about the importance of photosynthesis for plants.

Do Now Set #1Do Now Set #2
3. Why do some plants have thorns? 3. Why do some plants have long roots?

In this case, both questions are about plants. As long as we have a question about plants, that should be sufficient, right?

I have made this mistake so many times in the past. If the answer does not link in with the current learning, and then students don’t get it right, we run the risk of focusing our students’ thinking on something that is still important but not immediately relevant.

Retrieval for retrieval’s sake can cause more problems than it solves. It can cause students’ working memories to be overloaded and make it harder for them to consider the current learning sequence.

Coming back to Question 3, the second one gets students thinking about what plants need to survive, which is an important component of the photosynthesis equation.

Do Now Set #1Do Now Set #2
4. State the function of the small intestine 4. How can we test for the products of starch breakdown?

While both questions are from the Digestion topic, the second one reminds students about starch, that starch is broken down to sugars and that to test for sugars you need to use Benedict’s reagent. All of this becomes relevant a little later in the learning sequence as students learn about glucose made in photosynthesis being converted to starch for storage.

Once again, it is better to choose a questions that sets the focus of the lesson and allows the new learning to be put in context of previous learning.

Do Now Set #1Do Now Set #2
5. Give one difference between aerobic and anaerobic respiration 5. Is respiration endothermic or exothermic? Explain.

Instead of focusing on the differences between aerobic and anaerobic respiration, it is more useful to get students thinking about flow of energy in respiration. When we go through the photosynthesis equation, we will be discussing the flow of energy again and so this fact being activated means students can compare the two processes.

Do Now Set #1Do Now Set #2
6. What are the products of anaerobic respiration in plants? 6. Give one importance of respiration

I think this question can fall into the same trap as earlier. A question about plants is surely better than one that isn’t specific to plants. I’d disagree. I think asking about the importance of respiration is important to contrast respiration with photosynthesis, getting students to think about how both processes allow plants to survive.

But what if you don’t get the chance to retrieve questions that cannot be easily connected to the current topic? I used to think it was fine to add in a question that wasn’t linked to the current learning at all but after finding my low prior attaining groups struggle to focus on one thing instead of 2 or 3 different topics covered all at once, I’ve changed my mind.

Now I incorporate those questions in independent practice after students have practised their current learning and I also set them for homework. When reviewing homework, if I find that students have clearly forgotten something, I make time in a future lesson to cover that bit and reteach it.

Having the context in place for Do Now retrieval questions means that I am helping my students build their schemas and I am guiding them in accurately interpreting the connections between their knowledge.

Pupils don’t learn what you teach; they learn their interpretation of what you teach. For pupils lacking in knowledge of a topic, this means they can totally miss the meaning you want them to make from a text/example/demonstration/explanation unless you explicitly tell them what to focus on.

Schemas determine what we learn by Sarah Cottingham, 2022

This, to me, is the key. And I think the Do Now is the best time to set the tone, focus and context for the lesson.

One thought on “Thinking deeply about retrieval: context

Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Website Built with WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: