Using research evidence to improve memory at DKA

Dixons Academies Trust hosts Bradford Research School, part of the Research Schools Network. This is a collaboration between the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) and the Institute for Effective Education (IEE) to create a network of schools that will support the use of evidence to improve teaching practice. 

We want what we do at Dixons Kings Academy to be informed by the evidence about what works. In this post, head of MFL Emma Hickey describes how she is using the best available evidence to ensure effective learning.

Like many departments, we realised that the increased demands of the new linear GCSE would pose some challenges. In particular, we knew that the we had to prepare students for learning a greater volume of vocabulary.  Therefore, we set about trying to ensure that our structures were designed to support this.

We were particularly keen on understanding how we could use retrieval practice in our work. Taking a memory test not only assesses what one knows, but also enhances later retention, a phenomenon known as the testing effect. (Roediger and Karpicke, 2005) The process of retrieving information makes it easier for you to retrieve it subsequently.

KNUsing the topics from the GCSE specification, we sorted vocabulary into ‘Knowledge Navigators’, which are our equivalent to Knowledge Organisers. For the full benefits of retrieval practice, we know that students must already have learnt the information, so we practice vocabulary in lessons via listening, speaking, reading and writing activities. At this point, we also teach memorisation strategies e.g. carne = meat (carnivores eat meat), counting the letters to aid with spelling, look say cover write check, self-testing. We place the vocabulary on Memrise to help students self-test. Memrise is a website and app which is designed with some of the principles of retrieval practice in mind – they call it ‘choreographed testing’. We then test this vocabulary once a week. Initially, we wait a week and test the assigned vocabulary from the previous week. Following this, we distribute the previous words learnt, to ensure that the students are continually being asked to retrieve the vocabulary from their memory.

The organised and systematic approach to vocabulary is having clear benefits, most of which we can see in the results of our regular vocabulary tests. We can also monitor learning stats on Memrise, and they show us that students are spending an increasing amount of time on self-quizzing and are answering a higher percentage correctly.

We intend to roll out this approach to Key Stage 3 and this should help ensure that vocabulary is learnt earlier, retrieved more often and finds itself embedded in long term memory. We hope that students will understand that these regular low stakes quiz are a learning strategy rather than an assessment tool.

At present, our quizzes focus on one type of question- those that require recall. We are exploring how to adapt these strategies for learning sentence structures and verb forms. We are also exploring how best to use other strategies to aid retrieval e.g. flashcards.


Roediger H and Karpicke J (2005) ‘Test-Enhanced Learning: Taking Memory Tests Improves Long-Term Retention’ Psychological Science  17(3): 249-255.

Hartwig M and Dunlosky J (2012) ‘Study strategies of college students: Are self-testing and scheduling related to achievement?’ Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 19(1):126-34

Agarwel et al (2013) ‘How to Use Retrieval Practice to Improve Learning’ Institution of Education Sciences

Pashler et al (2007) ‘Organizing Instruction and Study to Improve Student Learning’ Institution of Education Sciences


Data Days at Dixons Kings

How do you ‘close gaps’? It’s a question to which everybody in education would love the answer. Gender gaps, gaps between cohorts, the gap between where a student should be and where they currently are. There are no magic bullets, but at Dixons Kings Academy, we try to close these massive gaps by concentrating on the very specific things students don’t know, and the very specific things they can’t do. One way we do this is by using Data Days to create intervention plans.

Data Days

Data Day BookWe have three ‘Data Days’ throughout the year. Inspired by the book ‘Driven by Data’ by Paul Bambrick-Santoyo, these are days where students don’t come in and teachers look through their class data, considering  how they can address any particular problems, and then creating plans and resources to do so. The days give busy teachers time. It’s a big task so the least they can be given is a day.

Bambrick-Santoyo suggests looking at your class data with ‘global’ questions, which look at the wider class picture:

  • How well did the class do as a whole?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses? Where do we need to work the most?
  • How did the class do on old versus new standards? Are they forgetting or improving on old material?
  • How were the results in the different types of question type (multiple choice vs open ended; reading versus writing?)
  • Who are the strong and weak students?

Then these are followed up with ‘dig-in’ questions:

  • Bombed questions- did students all choose the same wrong answer? Why, or why not?
  • Break down the standards. Did students do similarly on every question within the standard or were some questions harder? Why?
  • Sort data by students’ scores: are there questions that separate proficient and non-proficient students?
  • Look horizontally by student: are there any anomalies occurring with certain students.

Intervention planning

Once we have drilled down to exactly what to focus on, we spend the rest of the data day intervention planning. These plans need to start from the gaps, not from the students. If we start from the students, then we end up with a massive gap to close and then try to throw things at the gap, ultimately changing very little. By starting with specific things, the gaps can actually be closed.

Data DayOur intervention planning starts with the gap to be closed, then the student(s) it affects, then exactly what will be done. Nothing vague. Precise gaps, specific interventions. As you can see, the interventions include different tasks, reteaching, working with other adults etc. There is no guarantee that this closes every gap for good, but at least it is a focussed plan. There are a couple of students on that plan who are not underachieving according to their grade, but have some basic issues that need fixing- these might not be our focus if we started just from the grade. On data day, every teacher produces one of these per class for the following three weeks, but now that these have been happening for a while, it is not unusual for interventions to continue.

The quality of the interventions will often depend on the quality of the assessments – without useful data based on meaningful assessments your intervention plans will be flimsy at best.

Even if data days didn’t exist, the process could still be followed: design effective assessments, ask questions of the data, plan and carry out specific interventions on specific gaps.


Making Students Think Deeply at DKA

One thing you will notice in classrooms at Dixons Kings is the way that students are made to think deeply. This is seen in the depth of challenge in work set and the way that all students are supported to reach these ambitious points. It’s seen in the high expectations of behaviour which create the conditions for hard work and deep thought. And it’s also seen in the skilful way that our teachers question students. Here are three ways that our teachers ensure that all students think – and think deeply – with their skilful questioning.

No Hands Up

Hands UpChildren raising their hands is one of the universal images of learning in school. But it can actually be counterproductive. First of all, certain students can dominate the classroom discussion. When this happens, it can make it easier for some students to ‘hide’ and if this is happening then they are definitely not thinking deeply about the material being taught. Secondly, teachers can get a skewed understanding of what students know, because they will generally call on the students who do know to answer. Or it will be keen students who offer wrong answers which may not necessarily be representative of the class.

By insisting on No Hands Up, we are insisting that all students are ready to answer a question. If any student can be asked a question, regardless of whether their hand is raised, then there is more of a likelihood that they will do the thinking. A period of wait time between the asking of the question and answering helps give that little bit of extra thinking time. Because our teachers know their students well, questioning can then be targeted appropriately. It doesn’t always mean that students know the answer, but it does help to ensure that they think.

No Opt Out

Of course, students might then say “I don’t know” and we are ready for that. There are different reasons for this response and each requires a different response from the teacher. If “I don’t know” is actually an admission from the student that they didn’t think about the question or they weren’t listening, then they will be ‘rewarded’ with further questions to ensure that they then do think about this. Fortunately, at Dixons Kings we see increasingly few examples of this – probably because students realise that thinking about the question and being ready is probably less work than the follow up questions! The No Hands Up policy also obviously helps with this too.

We call this strategy ‘No Opt Out’, and it’s taken from Teach Like a Champion by Doug Lemov. It isn’t just about those who don’t try – it’s helpful for those who genuinely don’t know the answer too. The routine and systematic nature of this helps it to be less threatening for students who may feel embarrassed if they don’t know an answer. In fact, it’s really positive because it ends up with students knowing the correct answer.

Mini Whiteboards

And of course the regular use of Mini Whiteboards also helps us to ensure that every student is thinking. It’s visible and students are accountable for their thinking. When teachers use MWBs, they see every answer from every student. They can extend the thinking of those who ‘get it’ and can support those who are struggling.

Teachers are not mind readers and we can’t always know exactly what is going on in our students’ heads. But by building certain habits into our questioning, we can be fairly sure that they are thinking.


DKSR Kings Beats: Student Radio Station

We asked the student controller of our school radio station to write this month’s blog and here it is:

At Dixons Kings Academy, we have our own student-run radio station, DKSR Kings Beats. While the job may seem quite simple to those on the outside—how hard can it be for a bunch of kids to choose songs and play them off a computer?—in reality, it takes a lot of diligence from all those involved.

What We Do

dkrs2The most noticeable thing we do is our daily morning show (aptly called ‘The Breakfast Show’), which is broadcast live to all the staff and students from 7:10am. It features a wide selection of music, hand-picked by the staff and students of the school, amongst various other segments such as ‘Cheer-Up Tunes’, in which a staff member details the songs that make their day that little bit brighter. This show is the current main focus of the radio station.

As we move into the future, we want to start creating podcasts, whether they be subject-specific or just for fun for DJs who may not have enough confidence to present live yet. For instance, the Spanish department do a ‘Radio Internacional’ podcast, in which students write and record their own shows in Spanish, covering different aspects of Spanish culture, life, music etc. This would present opportunities for subject teachers to push students’ understanding of a subject and allow students to do wider reading around their best subjects, which can only be beneficial for their futures, both in exams and life in general.

Job Roles

A radio station needs a variety of people in order to thrive and achieve its potential. We’ve narrowed it down to four categories: talent, technicians, marketing, and news.

Each job needs a different type of person: for example, our technicians need to be able—or willing to learn—to use different pieces of specialised software and equipment, while DJs can get away with not knowing the difference between an Ethernet port and a USB port. Students who like to have a little nosy into school news and enjoy a bit of English would be perfectly at home in the news team. Creative students can help take photos, make posters, or even manage the radio’s social media account.

There’s a job for virtually any student interested in joining the radio station team—all we ask for in return is enthusiasm and commitment to the job.

Skills Development

Apart from the skills specific roles hone in on, being involved in a group project like this develops some general skills that are useful for anyone, in or out of school. Teamwork is key, along with time-management, organisation and communication; we can’t have a DJ sat behind a microphone at 7:10am without a technician there to get the broadcasting happen, neither can we have a DJ scouring their mind for a song thirty seconds before we go live, nor an awkwardly quiet Twitter feed. All of its aspects link in together, and I think members of the radio station can take a lot away from observing and understanding how each branch of the radio station relates to one another.

Personal Development


Being the radio station controller has opened up a myriad of opportunities for me: speaking in front of my peers in assemblies, writing letters to be distributed to students, chasing down members of staff for quick meetings… While a lot of these tasks may sound trivial to most people in the world of work, to me—a student who has not yet been subjected to the throes of the adult world—these develop crucial skills that will undoubtedly creep into my life at some point or another, and so it would be best to get accustomed to them sooner rather than later.

Overall, I believe opportunities like these are greatly beneficial for helping students to reach and showcase their potential, as well as diversifying a student’s set of skills. Projects like a school radio station can open these opportunities to students and increase their understanding of the jobs available to them after school.


Lineup at Dixons Kings Academy

Every morning at Dixons Kings Academy starts with Lineup. Year groups gather together at 8 am, lining up in straight lines ready to start the day. They hear a short speech on the focus of the day, before walking to lessons in silence. It’s one of the most important parts of the day, where we set the tone for everything that follows. So why does it play such a huge role in our school culture?


ValuesOur Monday Lineup focuses on Integrity, Tuesday on Diligence and Wednesday on Civility. We want our values to be brought to life with stories and role models. That way we take them from being abstract concepts to acts and habits. So, in a typical week, we might hear of the integrity shown by Sojourner Truth, the diligence demonstrated by Amelia Earheart and the civility shown by Octavia Hill. Not only do these lineup speeches provide concrete examples of our values, but they broaden the general knowledge of students.

Behaviour norms

Like all successful schools, we have the highest standards of behaviour, but it takes everyone in the school to keep standards high. Tom Bennett, the foremost authority on school behaviour and culture, states in his review of behaviour in schools that one of the key priorities for schools is to “create a culture – usefully defined as ‘the way we do things around here’ – that is understood and subscribed to by the whole school community.” When you have 350 students attentively listening in silence to a staff member then it is a striking reminder of how we treat everyone with respect. By insisting on full uniform, straight lines and tracking, we are also reinforcing how we do things. When students en masse walk to lessons silently, we are saying that everyone is ready to learn in a calm and purposeful manner. Often, at the start of a term, lineups will focus on reminding students of our classroom routines.


It’s very important to us that we develop a culture where we appreciate each other. You can see this in the increasingly epic appreciations bulletin that is sent out each week. On Friday, we celebrate the achievements of students and staff in Lineup, and it’s a lovely way to end the week. Interestingly, this also links to the previous idea of norms, because we are reinforcing the idea that the norm here is that students are exceptional, they are resilient, they are hardworking and we are proud of them.


Every Thursday has a literacy focus. This can take lots of different shapes. One week we may have the school librarian Mr Nixon reading his poetry and another we may hear an extract from a teacher or student’s favourite novel. We want to surround students with rich experiences of literature. Lineups also help students to focus on listening skills and it obviously helps them to hear confident, articulate teachers speak on subjects they are passionate about.

There are of course other, more logical reasons that make line-up useful: we can share key messages, make announcements for extra-curricular activities, it’s easier to find students etc. However, it’s the reasons stated above that make this so important.


DKA shared routines

The school culture at Dixons Kings is designed to make it as easy as possible for teachers to teach. One of the most important ways that this school culture is established is with a focus on consistency and shared routines.

Every class teacher in every school has their own routines, whether it is how to enter the classroom or handing out books. That’s often fine for the individual teacher, but can be quite confusing for students. Students who attend 6 lessons in a day may be faced with 6 different sets of classroom routines. There is inconsistency. And where there is inconsistency, there isn’t clarity of expectations. In some classrooms with less established routines, or with teachers who are new to the school or the profession, lessons are less effective because the structure is not there or they must repeatedly reinforce their own particular expectations.

At Dixons Kings, we start every day with the same clear routine. We start lessons with the same clear routine. In any circumstance where we think there is an opportunity for an efficient, effective routine, we will take it.

Let’s look at one crucial routine which demonstrates the value of this approach. In every classroom at DKA, there are Mini Whiteboards which we feel are a low-tech way of making sure that we can check for understanding. However, most teachers know from experience that they can be an absolute nuisance if not handled correctly! Knowing that we would be using them routinely, we looked at the issues that might arise, and created a routine. After students write answers, the teacher says “3…2…1…Show me!”, the students hold the boards up with two hands and the teacher then asks them to track one person (look at them and listen attentively). The automation allows the teacher to focus only on the quality of answers and what they might do with them. See this post for more of the pedagogy around Mini Whiteboards.

The routine isn’t an accident. We have scripted language to be efficient and consistent. Two hands means the board doesn’t wobble and the students don’t fidget. Tracking means that the students are listening carefully and ready for follow up questions. Our routines are always open to change e.g. we used to have pens in plastic wallets for students but these went missing or ran out so we now have this as part of students’ essential equipment. By making this sequence simple and consistent across the school, it is very easy to use mini whiteboards. Each classroom uses them in exactly the same way and teachers can easily use them when and if they want them. We practise regularly to ensure these routines are embedded.

There’s a natural inclination to see this kind of scripted routine as robotic, but we see it more as automation, in the way that automation of using pedals allows drivers to put their main focus on the road. We want the bulk of the effort and the hard thinking to go into the lesson content not classroom management.

Whole cohort teaching is supported by school routines

Other places we have looked to secure this kind of consistency is with bringing the class back to silence (“OK class…track this way…3-2-1…thanks”), classroom exits and corridor expectations, learning modes (clear expectations for whole class, individual, pair and group work), lunchtime routines for family dining as well as many more.

As we return from the summer break, very little time will be wasted as new and returning staff and students can quickly get used to these routines.


Extended Writing

The following is a write-up of the CPD session on extended writing 20/9/16:

In many subjects across the curriculum, students are required to write at length. While the writing itself may not be assessed (although SPAG is marked in English Literature, Geography, History and Religious Studies), without effective writing, students cannot communicate effectively what they know in the subject. It can be a significant barrier for some of our students. Some controlled assessments require essays of 1000+ words and even shorter 6 or 12 mark questions in subject are demanding due to time pressures of exams.

By far the most important thing when thinking about extended writing is knowledge. There is no chance of writing of any quality when material is not known. American educator E.D. Hirsch, states the following:

‘Higher-order thinking is knowledge-based: The almost universal feature of reliable higher-order thinking about any subject or problem is the possession of a broad, well-integrated base of background knowledge relevant to the subject.’

So, make sure that students have the knowledge required. For subjects where the writing is merely the means of communicating what they know, students have to know things. Otherwise writing may happen, but it won’t be particularly good.

That said, there are certain practices that can enhance the quality of writing. Here, we will focus on three. Like most effective strategies they are simple: model, practise and support.


This includes two distinct elements:

Models: Students need to see examples of great extended writing.

Modelling: Students need to see an expert (you) creating writing and articulate thinking about the process.

Without models, students have no idea what quality looks like. Without modelling, they have no idea how to get there.

Models can take various forms. Teachers can create them; students can create them- or their work can be used; exam boards will have them in standardisation materials; you may even find real world examples which you can use.

AOS 1We have had much success at DKA with ‘Artful Sentences’. Sentences are the simplest models and students with a command of effective sentence-building tend to produce the best writing. You can read the blog post on these here, and borrow a copy of Teach Like a Champion 2.0 if you’d like to read more.

You also need to model the processes involved in writing. This will often be heavily entwined with answering exam questions. Metacognition is something which has been shown to have real benefits, with the Sutton Trust stating in their research reports that “The evidence indicates that teaching these strategies can be particularly effective for low achieving and older pupils.”

bugsLive modelling is incredibly effective. You can use a board and pen, but we have visualisers and department iPads to support this. Recently, the idea of the ‘Walking Talking Mock’ has been developed. (Read a blog on this here.) It can take a variety of forms but in essence is a teacher talking through what they are thinking as they answer exam questions. Modelling explicitly how to answer exam questions (whether they require writing at length or not) is one of the most effective things that we can do. The Geography department use the mnemonic BUGS!


The curriculum feels ever squeezed, and there is so much to cram in that sometimes we don’t practice writing enough. Writing at length is not something that students, or indeed adults, do regularly, so they need to practise. This means practising with exam timings to avoid complacency and increase urgency, practising planning and it also means the teacher stepping away and letting them do it without interruption.







There’s a difficult balance to be had with the support of extended writing. Too little support and students will find it difficult to even get started, let alone finished; too much support and answers become a little too formulaic and the most able students don’t write with enough flair. There is some merit in mnemonics as starting points, and one which has been successful in R.E. and Science is the PEEL structure. The examples shown are for R.E. and this structure allows students to score highly on questions that account for about 50% of the marks available.

icebergIn English, we have explored Iceberg paragraphs, which are built around a topic sentence.

While these two methods are distinct, they do have some overlap. Both require a clear point to be introduced, then evidence to support it, this evidence to be explored, and the question to be answered. For students who might struggle to build an Iceberg paragraph, saying something like “start with a point, just like you do when you use PEEL” has been useful.

Individual subjects must never be forced to use a mnemonic or approach that does not work for them, but over the next cycle we would like to explore further what works well with extended writing, to share what has been successful and see where we can find common ground. For example, are there sentence structures that we can use across the school which will support all of our subjects? Is there an extended writing slide that we could develop that would support all subjects in extended writing?

If you have any successful approaches, please let us know, and present them in the Teachmeet on 28/11.

Further reading

More on Walking Talking Mocks:http://www.kristianstill.co.uk/wordpress/2015/05/02/walking-talking-mocks-worthwhile/

Shared writing- modelling mastery: https://huntingenglish.wordpress.com/2013/03/19/shared-writing-modelling-mastery/

5 things every new secondary teacher needs to know about writing: http://www.learningspy.co.uk/writing/5-things-every-new-secondary-teacher-know-writing/