Maximising retention of learning during lockdown

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

When planning for home learning, our priority as teachers must be to embed current knowledge via retrieval practice in the hope of building firm foundations for when schools re-open and education returns to normal. With a focus on her subject of maths, Lesley Goddard advises

Assessment and feedback are what makes teachers worth so much more than text books. The harder a learner is to teach, the more we rely on assessment and feedback to help us out. Unfortunately, some learners are also more likely to have poorer capability to undertake effective distance learning than their peers.

Some learners will have multiple advantages: two or more adults at home who are able to multi-task work and supervision of learning, who will remove distractions from the learner, will be able to give help if needed, and will regularly give encouragement and praise.

Some learners will have many disadvantages: no-one to supervise, perhaps they must supervise their siblings or care for other family members, perhaps they are witnessing or experiencing violence or neglect, perhaps their family cannot afford food, let alone a data top-up, perhaps their efforts will be belittled or ignored, perhaps they have no space to work…

Furthermore, forgetting is a problem for all learners, but happens more quickly for low-attaining learners. Chunk-based theory tells us that the more someone knows, the easier it is for them to attach new learning to this existing learning. Mastery learning tells us that it is harder to build new learning on partially mastered learning and chunk-based theory says that this is due to having less complete mental schema (Gobet, 2005).

Cowan et al (2010) tells us that we have four plus or minus one working memory slots. However, poverty (Farah et al, 2006) and trauma (El-Hage et al, 2006) decrease working memory capacity. Learners with four or five working memory slots will generally find following the intended flow of lessons easier and frequently build new mental schema with less recourse to support. However, learners with three working memory slots often lose “the crucial information that is needed to guide the on-going activity” (Gathercole, 2008). They are therefore less likely to build mental schema.

Learning loss during summer holidays

During normal times, learning loss over the summer holidays happens more for poorer children than for their peers, more for maths than for reading (although reading is affected too), and more for older than for younger learners. Ordinarily between six weeks and 1.8 months of maths learning is lost during the summer holiday (Stewart et al, 2018). A lockdown that lasts until September 2020 will equate to four summer holidays conjoined.

Our aim must be for learners to return from lockdown knowing more rather than less. Therefore, the current order of priority for teachers should be:

  • To make sure current learning is deeply embedded into learners’ memories.
  • To teach to fill learning gaps – i.e. teach what probably has been already taught, learned and forgotten, but focusing more on retention strategies.
  • To teach new and harder material only once we have these firm learning foundations in place.

These priorities hold true for all teaching and learning, but have become much more important now with distance learning, especially for low-attaining learners and learners disadvantaged by poverty and/or trauma.


Schools’ approaches to supporting home education so far seem to include a mixture of off-line home learning activities such as games, puzzles, packs of work or projects, online teaching, with some schools streaming lessons, pre-recorded teaching/learning videos, and online learning resources and activities.

Of course, without assessment, teachers find planning teaching difficult. So, I would like to look at how distance learning will force us to adapt or sometimes even abandon the four common assessment points.

Point 1: Assessment before the lesson

Whatever your approach, this type of assessment has become more important than ever. Potential approaches we can exploit include diagnostic questions (for example, ­the free questions available via or other quizzes to help assess where students are. Other potential resources include Learning by Questions or Timely Practice, which offers a free "bank current maths” learning service (see further information).

Point 2: Assessment during the lesson

Whatever our approach, assessment during “lessons” as we know it will be largely unavailable to us. If our learners are lacking the pre-requisites, or do not understand the instructions, teachers will struggle to know this and will be unable to intervene to “move the lesson on”.

One approach to sidestep this problem is to make use of the flipped classroom. We ask our learners to watch a video and send us questions about it by a given date. We then use “contact time” (whatever this looks like for you) to address those questions, set practice questions and offer help (if required). We can even record and upload ourselves answering those questions.

Although some teachers may find it quickest and simplest to pre-record their own teaching explanations, others may prefer free (Khan Academy, Mr Barton Maths, YouTube) or paid-for (Hegarty, Corbett) options.

One advantage of school closure is that we can invite the learners to the most appropriate teach-learn/pre-recorded sessions for them, without having to plan what the other learners will do in the meantime.

Point 3: Assessment at the end of the lesson

This type of assessment will also be largely unavailable to us. However, Rohrer and Taylor (2006) have demonstrated that practising half the questions within the lesson and half the questions a week later will significantly increase the duration and retention of learning. And so perhaps our focus should currently be on assessment days after the learning has taken place…

Point 4: Assessment days after the lesson

Rather than think of assessment some days after the lesson as a form of judgement on the learner or indeed the lesson, it is more useful to think of this assessment as performing the function of embedding learning. This kind of assessment is often called retrieval practice – the learner must retrieve (from cold rather than after a warm up) the learning from memory and apply it. Usually this is done by asking the learner a question.

The art of retrieval practice is in the timing – we do not want the learner to have forgotten – as then they will not be able to remember. Instead we want the learner's brain to have to work to recall – the memory will be then strengthened and it will last for longer before being forgotten.

By increasing the intervals between practice, the learner can recall better and for longer each time. However, to ensure that mistakes are not learned we should make sure the learner gets feedback when they make errors. Giving feedback is obviously more challenging with remote teaching. For some learners, it may be almost impossible to do effectively.

Much retrieval practice in schools is still inadvertent. End-of-unit and end-of-term tests are high-stakes, summative assessments. These can and should be missed out during school closure. Instead we should use well-timed retrieval practice to embed learning. For low, middle and high-attaining learners the suggested wait between teaching and first practice is 1 to 3 days, 7 to 10 days and 14 days respectively (for more on retrieval practice including links to research, see Goddard, 2020a).

Where internet assessment and feedback are possible and the learner's attainment within the class is close – increasing retrieval interval practice is relatively easy to achieve. You could create a set of practice questions within a Word document. As each set of questions is practised, record the date, change the colour of the font to show assessment (red, orange, green) of each question, and move the document into a folder dated for the day or week when another practice should occur.

Disadvantaged learners

For disadvantaged and low-attaining learners, teaching in a more “smaller working memory friendly way” pays significant learning dividends (Goddard, 2020b) and will partially mitigate against less ideal distance learning situations. It requires the teacher to:

  • Use pre-assessment information to ensure they hold back from teaching new learning until pre-requisites are mastered.
  • Teach less on a topic at a time – use a more tightly spiralled scheme of learning.
  • Use retrieval practice and feedback where necessary to embed learning.

No internet access

Every school will have learners without internet access. In an ideal world, we will be supplying these learners with hardware to help them get online. However, we might also consider:

  • Splitting and reforming classes by willingness and ability to engage with online learning.
  • Making use of the BBC Bitesize education programming from April 20.
  • Whether we can practically use the postal service to send out and receive resources/work. For example, the SMILE resources (from STEM Learning), are particularly effective without much teacher input.

When the teacher cannot assess what the learner can and cannot do (the pre-requisites), the teacher cannot provide suitable teaching or practice resources.

Many learners will not have the determination to search through a mass of practice to find work which they can access. Many low-attaining learners despair when expected to do so. This in turn may lead to arguments with parents/carers. With a scatter gun approach, we can expect little learning "to stick".

Instead we must make very clear what activities “must” be done and which “may” be done. Set less work which “must” be done, but spend time ensuring that the work is suitable for the learner, and then offer extras such as projects and puzzles which “may” be done.

Of course, we do not want to encourage parents/carers to leave the house merely to return school work. However, a weekly return of completed work combined with shopping or daily exercise could make all the difference.


Factoring in retrieval practice to remote education activities will help you to maintain firm foundations for when learning hopefully continues back in school in September. This must be our priority: extending the durability of current learning, with the icing on the cake being new learning.

  • Lesley Goddard co-developed Timely Practice after 25 years as maths teacher. Timely Practice's aim is to eliminate forgetting in order to support the attainment of low-attaining maths learners. Visit

Further information

  • BBC Bitesize:
  • Corbett Maths:
  • Cowan et al: Seven-year-olds allocate attention like adults unless working memory is overloaded, Dev Sc. January 2010.
  • Eedi:
  • El-Hage et al: Trauma-related deficits in working memory, Cognitive Neuropsychiatry 11, February 2006.
  • Farah et al: Childhood poverty: Specific associations with neurocognitive development, Brain Research, 2006.
  • Gathercole 2008: Working memory in the classroom, Presidents’ Award Lecture, The British Psychological Society Annual Conference, May 2008:
  • Gobet: Chunking models of expertise: Implications for education, Applied Cognitive Psychology 19, 2005.
  • Goddard: Well respected research, Timely Practice, April 2020a:
  • Goddard: Beginning timely practice to teach, March 2020b:
  • Hegarty Maths:
  • Khan Academy:
  • Learning by Questions:
  • Mr Barton Maths:
  • Rohrer & Taylor: The effects of overlearning and distributed practice on the retention of mathematics knowledge, Applied Cognitive Psychology 20, 2006.
  • STEM Learning: SMILE resources:
  • Stewart, Watson & Campbell: The cost of school holidays for children from low income families, Childhood, Vol 25, 2018.


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