Do now: starters as retrieval practice

First published on the Reach Free CPD blog on 7 January 2018 and then on the Herts & Bucks TSA blog on 11 January 2018.  

Many schools are using Doug Lemov‘s influential books Practice Perfect and Teach Like a Champion (TLAC) to inform their teaching and learning priorities and CPD programmes. One of the most talked about ideas from TLAC is the ‘do now’ activity, which is essentially a starter that pupils can immediately ‘do’ when they arrive in the classroom. A ‘do now’ also needs absolutely no instruction from the teacher. The idea is that this allows the teacher get on with meeting and greeting, taking the register or getting ready to do more elaborate activities later in the lesson, such as practicals in science. Of course, pupils will need to be able to complete the activity without help, so it will more than likely be based on previous learning. For instance, in maths this could include practice questions based on a topic area recently taught. Other obvious ‘do now’ activities include cryptic cross-words, word-fills, anagrams and short answer questions.

You can also give pupils diagrams that need labelling. In RE, for example, I have got pupils to label the key areas of a Roman Catholic Church, which meant pupils had to recall what was learnt in the previous lesson, whist I did the register and checked homework: see below.

Screen Shot 2018-01-07 at 11.26.41However, although these have worked, we have now started to emphasise the importance of knowledge retrieval practice at The Reach Free School (TRFS) in relation to ‘do now’ activities. This is because knowledge has become such a fundamental component of the new GCSE and A Level specifications. Retrieval practice is essential in combating the ‘forgetting curve’, which is a hypothesis on the decline of memory retention over time. Although many websites and authors discuss the ‘forgetting curve’, ironically many writers and bloggers forget to attribute it to German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus. Nonetheless, Ebbinghaus’ own studies may be questioned by psychologists and scientists today due to his limited methodology. There have, however, been studies replicating his ideas with positive results (see, for example, Murre and Dros, 2015).

Screen Shot 2018-01-07 at 11.40.20

The curve shows how information and knowledge is lost over time, especially when there is no attempt to retain it. This graph, typical of many illustrating the ‘forgetting curve’, highlights the tendency that our memory of newly learned knowledge halves in a matter of days or weeks unless we consciously and pro-actively review the learned material. In response to this, there is another concept we can use, often referred to as the ‘stability and retrievability’ or ‘S/R model’, which refers to the durability of ‘memory’ in the brain and is used as a counterweight to the problems presented by the ‘forgetting curve’. Importantly, it is argued that the memory can be enhanced through ‘regular rehearsal’. This is similar to the ‘spacing effect’, which advocates the idea that memory of learned material or knowledge is enhanced when retrieval is spread out over time, as opposed to trying to retrieve (or revise) everything in a short amount of time.

Subsequently, we have been using ‘do now’ activities that purposely seek to strengthen the durability of our pupils’ memories. We do this by asking questions or eliciting knowledge through a series of questions that focus on recent learning as well as more distant learning. The most straight forward ‘do now’ we use – and one in which our pupils have happily engaged – is to ask 6 knowledge centred questions at the start of the lesson based on previous learning.


The above slide shows three questions on Muslim beliefs about God from the previous lesson and two on Christian concepts learnt three to four weeks before. The last expands on the fifth question.

The method is extremely simple:

  • Questions 1, 2 and 3 should be on last lesson’s work
  • Questions 4 and 5 should be on work from over three weeks ago
  • Question 6 should seek to link different concepts (not necessarily those from Questions 1-5, but this is desirable)

The slide below is a template we gave to staff.

Screen Shot 2018-01-07 at 11.13.38Additionally, you could apply duel-coding, which is a theory of cognition formalised by Allan Paivio. In developing this theory, Paivio (1971; 1986) suggested that there are two ways in which we can retain learned material: verbal associations and visual imagery. Therefore, dual-coding theory contends that visual and verbal information are processed differently in the human brain, which means that this information is organised so that visual and verbal codes can both be used when recalling or retrieving previously learnt material (Sternberg, 2003). However, as a teacher, I am a unsure of the exact neuroscience here and understand some scientists, such as Robert Epstein, are concerned about how we discuss memory and information recall.

Nevertheless, an example of a duel-coding ‘do now!’ starter includes the biology example below, which mixes recently learned knowledge of plant and animal cells with previously learnt material on photosynthesis.

Screen Shot 2018-01-07 at 11.14.23Another example of duel-coding, from RE, comprises mixing knowledge of the layout of an alter (learnt in the previous lesson) with knowledge from three weeks ago on liturgical and non-liturgical worship.

Screen Shot 2018-01-07 at 11.14.34

We hope that regular use of these type of ‘do now’ starters will enhance our pupils’ abilities of knowledge retrieval on the run up to their all important GCSE exams in the summer.


Lemov, D., (2015). Teach like a champion 2.0 : 62 techniques that put students on the path to college. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Murre J.M.J. and Dros J. (2015). ‘Replication and Analysis of Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve’ in  PLOS ONE [Online]. 10(7): e0120644. [Retrived 06.01.18, see: doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0120644].

Paivio, A. (1971). Imagery and Verbal Processes. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Paivio, A. (1986). Mental Representations. New York: Oxford University Press.

Sternberg, R. J. (2006). Cognitive psychology fourth edition. Thomson Wadsworth. pp. 234–36.

Picture credit: Creative Commons via Wikipedia.

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