Research School Network: Every day in teaching is most definitely different! Phil Balmond’s online teaching review, part 1: Trying to activate and review student prior learning remotely.

Every day in teaching is most definitely different!

Phil Balmond’s online teaching review, part 1: Trying to activate and review student prior learning remotely.

by HISP Research School
on the

Welcome to part one of a four-part blog on my experience of remote teaching (also the first time that I have blogged in anyway, outside of an Iceland school trip blog!)

In my context it was easier for me be in a live Teams meeting with students. The school approach was and remains, that we teach our students to the timetable that they would follow in school. That is a 4‑lesson day, with adjustments to timings so that lessons are 60 minutes long rather than the normal 75 minutes. So, all that you read below is in reference to live teaching in Teams meetings!

It is important to say that there is no difference in whether lessons were live or if they are a form of a‑synchronous learning (Ensuring the elements of effective teaching are present – for example clear explanations, scaffolding and feedback – is more important than how or when they are provided. There was no clear difference between teaching in real time (“synchronous teaching”) and alternatives (“asynchronous teaching”). [i]

Part 1 How have I activated students prior learning

Some of the aspects that make good teaching, supporting students to retain and retrieve knowledge, using models to support understanding, using structured feedback to move on students’ thinking, helping students to direct their own learning are aspects that I have been attempting to do via remote learning[ii]. In this blog I will talk about how I have tried to support students with retention and retrieval of knowledge and touch on the feedback aspect via remote learning.

In the first 2 weeks before Easter I was very much relying on what we as a science department already had in place with our schemes of work. I had a dual screen setup and on one screen I was sharing the ppt slides from the lessons that we would have been using in school and on the other I had the chat from the meeting and the list of students in attendance.

When I wanted to feedback on student activation of prior learning, I would provide answers over microphone and/​or students would feedback answers in the chat aspect of the live Teams meeting. I could also use Hue HD pro webcam to share my written work as I modelled answers to questions/​processes for problem solving.

After Easter I discovered Microsoft Whiteboard which has been a fantastic tool for teaching. It allows you to paste in PowerPoint slides, PDF files and Word documents, zoom in and out on aspects and annotate over everything using a graphics tablet. Whiteboard has really helped me to build activities that active student knowledge and with providing feedback to students.

Our lessons in science already have built in forms of knowledge retrieval, helping to prompt students to think about what they have learnt previously, which as the EEF describe, is an important metacognitive strategy[iii]

Some examples of activation of prior knowledge that take place both in the classroom but also via remote teaching:

Imagery from previous lessons in the ecology topic. When in school the students in class would recall key terms or ideas and write this on a mini whiteboard. In live lessons they have been writing terms/​ideas in the chat and I have annotated over them

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Here students from a year 7 class have been given some images at the start the Sound topic. They have provided some key words in the chat, which we then went on to define in the lesson (I only started teaching this class after Easter, during remote teaching, which was very interesting!!)

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Here a year 9 class are working through the first topic that we teach in GCSE physics, Energy, at the start of each lesson I share the same slide, via whiteboard and we recall each week key ideas from the lessons, again the students share this via chat/​microphone and I annotate over the slide on MS Whiteboard.


Here are two examples of unpicking the first part of a lesson and identifying terminology that I know the students need to understand. Again, questions were posed over the microphone and students respond. I annotate as they respond.

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Here the Year 10 are recalling definitions of terms that they encountered earlier on in the year; they provided corrections to each other and replaced the term value with magnitude themselves 😊

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The science department from the very start of remote learning, were highly professional and we were all concerned about how we were engaging ALL students and feeding back to them as well, as we knew that if we didn’t provide feedback then the students would become disengaged with their learning (as they would do in school as well). The above strategies are excellent for knowledge activation. In a classroom it is easy to circulate and see how students are completing them (either they are discussing or using MWB or making notes in their books). Remote learning however removes that ability.

So, my colleagues and I started using MS Forms. They have done so in many ways, some more expertly than myself, for example they have been using rubrics, something that I have yet to attempt!

I have been using Forms for self-marked quizzes and teacher marked quizzes.


have created open answer quizzes such as this one on Half-Life.
Forms provides me with the ability to quickly see which questions the class found most challenging. I can set these to be completed in the first 5 – 10 minutes of a lesson and depending on the structure of that lesson, provide immediate feedback, feedback towards the end of the hour or feedback in the flowing lesson.

Feedback on the most challenging questions from the Form in MS Whiteboard:

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Multiple-choice self-marking forms in the first part of the lesson provide a very visual representation of how the class is doing. Again, this allows you to see exactly what knowledge or skills that you need to review or model with the class. The use of the snipping tool allows you to paste this into MS Whiteboard and unpick the more challenging questions and guide students on how to solve them.

What will translate back into the classroom.

I have learnt that there are some excellent resources available for free, from some superb teachers. During lockdown I have used our own excellent departmental resources, I have also found excellent resources from CogSciSci[iv] and Dr Edmunds[v]. I have used some of these resources in other ways as I will detail in subsequent blogs; How I have explain key ideas in science remotely” and Giving students time to practise during remote learning”.

Using Forms can prove an effective tool for feedback. As with all feedback, this go both ways, feedback to the students but also feedback to the teacher so that they can then chart a way forward for their particular classes and students.

Well constructed questions in Forms provided this facility, in a fairly low stakes way, because we can feedback on whole class aspects so students are not concerned about being highlight. With this in mind our science department have created multiple choice questions on for every topic that we teach. These resources will allow all teachers to use these to activate prior knowledge but also receive feedback on their classes, whether that is during the academic year of teaching them or if they have a new group where they can check their understanding of previous years of studying. We will need to reflect on these based on the advice from the effortful educator[vi].

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I have also had the chance to read Retrieval Practice by Kate Jones [vii] and from that we have created a retrieval placemat. This will be trialled in lessons when we return to the classroom with a view to changing the culture of what happens in lessons at the start whilst students come from into the room, as they can arrive in a staggered way for the first few minutes. We do not want to start a main teacher derived knowledge retrieval activity because those arriving later will miss out on thinking time. The aim is for the students to be doing one or two of the activities independently of the teacher, whilst the teacher greets students at the door. Once all students are in the classroom the teacher will then use focused knowledge retrieval activity based on their focus for the lesson and/​or for interleaving purposes.

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