Why you should add more SLOP to your science lessons — and how to do it

If you have been roaming through the education blogosphere or edutwitter you will have started to notice an increase in the reference of SLOP.

What is SLOP?

SLOP stands for ‘Shed Loads of Practice’. The term SLOP was coined by Adam Boxer and Ruth Walker in the early stages in the formation of CogSciSci, a group of teachers and academics interested in the applications of cognitive science in science education. It has quite literally been the best CPD I have ever received.

SLOP aims to take advantage of the principles of cognitive science to enable students to develop mastery of a topic. Over the last 50 years cognitive science has shown us some key findings about the way a novice becomes an expert:

  1. When investigating expertise, the one common factor is a large amount of practice.
  2. Novices need a large amount of guidance and examples to understand a concept.
  3. That practice is most effective when blocked together early on.
  4. As proficiency increases, the practice is more effective if spaced out into regular small chunks.
  5. Learning happens away from the classroom and over time. What teachers witness is performance and this is, frustratingly, poorly linked to learning.

If you are interested in learning about these principles in more detail and exploring the studies that lead to them, I would recommend CogSciSci’s free CPD module, which contains a self study guide that will take you through a detailed rationale behind everything in this blog.

SLOP in practice

One of the biggest criticisms we receive from teachers about SLOP is “it’s just a long worksheet”. In some ways they are correct; at the heart of SLOP is the principal of extended practice. A typical resource for a GCSE topic used by my department could have over 200 questions. The effectiveness of SLOP, though, is down to how those questions are written and arranged. This is something I definitely was never taught in my PGCE or in any training after.

The type, sequence and style of questions depend on the type of knowledge we are trying to impart; is it procedural or declarative?

Procedural knowledge

Procedural knowledge is knowledge of processes. It’s about taking a starting point and the learning is then the series of steps learners follow to generate the correct solution. In science, calculations are the main sets of procedural knowledge.

When writing SLOP for procedural knowledge:

  1. Begin with a full worked example so the students can see both how to complete the work and how to lay it out.
  2. Create at least one faded example; a partially completed example that they need to complete.
  3. The first few questions they answer should be stylistically identical, but contain different numbers. This helps the students gain a feeling for how the numbers relate to each other, without increasing the cognitive load. These should build to use decimals and have decimals as answers. They should use large and small numbers to illustrate the acceptable ranges that the student might encounter.
  4. Then it is time to change the language and begin to embed the calculation into a more complex context.
  5. Only after that is it time to move onto the next re-arrangement of the equation.
  6. Once all versions of the equation are covered in a similar way, then a series of varied questions can be asked to make the students practise identifying which re-arrangement of the equation to use.
This example shows the worked example, faded example and the stylistically identical questions.

One of the advantages of writing booklets for SLOP is the ability to interleave questions. This means putting questions on relevant previously learnt material within the current content. By doing this we are enabling the students to participate in spaced practice of that content and also making the links between the ideas explicit. This forms a stronger schema and improves the students’ understanding of the interrelated concepts. The main outcome of this is the students are much better at applying their knowledge to unfamiliar contexts.

Declarative knowledge

Declarative knowledge is the knowledge of facts. Science is full of facts. Getting students to know them and how they relate to each other is a large part of science education. They are not procedural, so the practice needs to follow a different approach. The information needs to be arranged by an expert. Novices find it hard to arrange information correctly, so this is best demonstrated by the teacher. Graphic organisers, like flow charts or Venn diagrams are great for organising information.

Simple comprehension questions focus the student’s attention on the key aspects of the topic and their relationship to each other.

Literacy support in the form of because, but, so and refutation texts make students aware of how ideas interact and shows them how to build successful sentences. More can be found here.

Finally, long answer questions using literacy scaffolds make students put the ideas together in a comprehensive way. Model answers to similar questions can be used here to support students.

Final thoughts

Writing SLOP resources takes time at first, but it is time well spent. From a teacher workload perspective you save a huge amount of time in the long run. Each resource is used multiple times a year and will only need to be modified slightly between years. From a teaching perspective, it’s a great way of ensuring your students get the best explanations, activities and benefit from the best questions. From a Head of Department’s point of view, it’s the perfect tool to ensure all students are receiving the best expert explanations from your department, no matter which class they are in. Most importantly, from a student perspective, their confidence is built on many small steps. Success is a key factor in student motivation, so SLOP resources can greatly increase students’ motivation and independence.

Why not try to find a small area of a topic to try and build a SLOP resource?

Comment below with any thoughts, questions or advice. Have you used SLOP resources already? Do you have SLOP resources you want to share? What are some of the best topics to SLOP? Do you have any concerns about writing a SLOP resource?

Photo of Adam Robbins

Adam Robbins is a Head of Science at a large coastal comprehensive. He has spent 17 years teaching across the range of ages and abilities and has a passion for evidence-informed teaching techniques, particularly cognitive science. Robbins currently serves as CogSciSci’s resources editor where he curates the resources section of the blog and supports teachers in developing resources in line with the principles of CogSci.

Further reading

Dom Shibli provides an introduction to cognitive science in this blog post.

Helen Skelton looks at revision strategies drawing on cognitive science in this blog post.

The CogSciSci website is run by a grassroots group of teachers and other education professionals and provides ideas and resources for using cognitive science principles in science teaching.

Developed by cognitive science and subject experts, the Oxford Revise Science revision guides established the three-step method for revision success: Knowledge, Retrieval and Practice.

UK Schools save 50% on Oxford Revise Science revision guides for KS3, GCSE and A Level students.