The Knowledge Retention Conundrum

--Originally published at Mrs. Gibbs Flips Algebra 1


While it's always been an issue and something I deal with as a teacher of middle school students (who - in the words of one of my interviewers years ago - wake up in a new world every morning), lately I have found myself particularly frustrated by it. Confused, even.

It doesn't seem to matter if we covered a topic last week, last month, or last semester. It doesn't seem to matter if it's something we spent a good deal of time with or how successful they were when we covered it (solving equations). It doesn't seem to matter if it's something we've been on for months, step away for a lesson or two, and return to (graphing linear equations). Sometimes it doesn't matter if we were working on it yesterday.

I find myself saying things such as, "We've covered this!" "You knew how to do this _____ long ago!" "You learned this in ______ grade!" All in an increasingly exasperated tone and more often than I would like.

Before the end of the first semester, I was determined to figure out a plan for spiral review for the start of the second semester.

I have NEVER been happy with the times I have tried to incorporate spiral review. Most of the time the process has involved students being given a few minutes to work a few problems. There is a handful of students in each class who will sit through the time allotted and not attempt anything, waiting for me to work the problems. After the designated time, I work the problems, and those who sat there for five minutes copy what I write, learning very little.

I found an eighth-grade spiral review product I liked and tweaked it some for my classes. Students have four problems to work, four days a week.

When I first started, I told students, "This is review material. You know how to do this. Look things up you don't remember. I'm not working the problems for you. Try SOMEthing." My goal was to check their work at the end of the week, highlight mistakes, and then work through problem areas together.

This was met with a little success in my Algebra 1 classes, but my Pre-Algebra classes were really struggling with the work. And checking all the papers of all my classes every week proved to not be my best plan.

So, I softened my approach a bit. I walk around and answer questions as students work. At the end of the allotted time, I ask for questions and will work a problem or two (but I seldom work all of them). Problems through the week are similar with a few included from previous weeks (hence the spiral, LOL), and students are seeing things over and over.

This week I had the idea of giving a "quiz" with a few problems similar to the ones students had been working to see how they are doing with the concepts we are reviewing.

I am seeing some progress.

Concepts that I would not have thought students would lose - like determining how many solutions an equation has - have been reviewed and strengthened.

Students are coming up with strategies that might not be the process I taught them the first time, but the "new" strategies are ones they understand and, therefore, will have a better chance of remembering.

I am learning - and am surprised by - how many times students must be exposed to material before it "sticks."

Rather than continuing to be frustrated, I am trying to figure out what I need to do to ensure students REALLY learn concepts for the long haul.

During this same process, I am in the middle of solving systems of equations with my Algebra 1 students, and I have seen that students need spiral review within a unit on top of the spiral review they need for topics from throughout the year.

And then I'm hit with the constant amidst all the variables of my day: I have 50 minutes a class period. My students need spiral review from older topics, spiral review from current topics, introduction to and practice with new material all within those 50 minutes.


Flipped lessons help. Self-pacing helps.

But it still feels very overwhelming. Insurmountable, at times.

I don't have it all figured out, yet. But the wheels are turning, and I will continue to work on keeping topics in front of students until we don't feel like we're starting over every time a concept reappears.



  • I teach a college algebra class in a community college and I have implemented a spiraling approach (adapted from colleagues). Every week, there are formative assessments which include current problems and problems from anytime before. We also have a formal assessment each week which also includes both types of problems. Students are allowed to asked for review on anything since the start of the semester. I make up a problem, put it on the board and walk around to encourage their work. Once they have attempted it, we work it together at the board. There are some topics which I feel that we are revisiting EVERY class, but I am hoping that eventually it will stick.

    • Thanks for sharing what you do in your class! I am beginning to see that students seeing things over and over and over again is actually beneficial; it will eventually click the more they are exposed!

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