How to get the most out of calculation SLOP questions.

Recently I’ve seen a lot written and discussed about the number, style, and type of questions posed in SLOP (Shed Loads Of Practice) activities to support students in the right way. Whenever you are making a resource that is supposed to cater for all it inevitably will fail some so it’s important you know your key audience. The evidence from cognitive science suggests that SLOP activities work well at building a schema for a particular item of procedural knowledge, in this case a calculation. The students that are going to benefit most from this are the ones with lower confidence and poorer maths schema.

The more able students will need less repetitions as they will easily notice the deeper structure in common with all calculation questions and this allows them to access exam style questions without a large increase in cognitive load. Middle and lower ability students will need increasingly more practice, over a longer period of time, if they are to master the procedure and be able to successfully apply it in an exam. It is a cruel fact that those at the bottom of the ability spectrum might need a longer time than a GCSE curriculum will allow to truly master these procedures, but that does not mean we should not give them ample time to practice. This could occur in the classroom or at home, if provided they have suitable resources.

When considering the desirable difficulty of the task pitching it for middle ability will give me the most impact. Those with higher ability will proceed faster but still need the practice. They will spend more time on the mixed questions and possibly need extension work, possibly using a ‘goal free’ or ‘problem solving’ task.

I think most now use an “I/ We/You” approach of modelling worked examples to support all students to learn how to approach new problems. This seems to feature heavily in SLOP resources currently shared.

Below is an excerpt of a F=ma sheet:

f=ma slop

You can see it has a faded example approach to reduce the initial cognitive load. I’ve deliberately chosen to have just two laid out side by side to allow students to easily identify their similarities.

I have also followed the advice of Matthew Benyohai and instructed students to substitute then rearrange. This will improve their chances of scoring marks even if they incorrectly rearrange in the exam.

I haven’t used the EVERY model Tom Chillimamp recently covered in his blog, as I was not aware of it a the time I made this, but I think its a really nice way of making the implicit explicit and worth a look. I am going to introduce it into my lessons from tomorrow.

The part I want to discuss in more detail are the practice questions. In my experience of using SLOP approaches this year I have found times when I have used way too many questions and the students develop mastery but the time is not efficient and the students lose motivation and become bored. Conversely, there are other times when I was rushed for time and the students did not get enough practice, resulting in poor performance on that task in a review activity a week later.

The worksheet above is the middle section of the F=ma sheet. There is a previous section focusing on calculating force, and a section to follow on calculating mass. Each follows the same layout:

  • Each question stem is identical; it’s not about finding the value hidden in the question (that’s for the end mixed question section)
  • The questions use a variety of verbs; to illustrate it makes no difference to the process.
  • The first couple of practice questions focus on simple integers with one value changed to demonstrate the relationship between them. This number should be increased if the class struggle mathematically.
  • Next we introduce decimals; so we can check rounding, and ensure students are familiar decimals as acceptable answers.
  • Then decimal values; same as above.
  • Unit conversion comes next. Depending on ability students will need input and examples on the board.
  • Finally standard form practice. Again less able might need support on the board before they start.

The final section of the sheet involves mixed questions. These could be taken directly from exam questions if you liked. They should involve different contexts, each possible way of using the equation, and different amounts of unit conversion and data handling. this is where the students independent practice will come to fruition. Their experience of these questions should put them in a good position to handle any possible type of exam question. I currently aim for 10 of these, with students either completing in class or at home.

As far as designing SLOP for declarative knowledge I would recommend RuthWalker’s blog. It has formed the template of some biology mastery booklets I am currently building in collaboration with Mr Badham. 

I’m interested in your experience of designing SLOP activities and how things work in different schools, so please contact me on twitter with any feedback and suggestions.


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