A Beginner’s Guide to Personalised Learning

Personalised Learning

Why is personalised learning so important?

Ask any group of students the question, “How do you learn best?” and there will always be at least one student who  answers differently to the others. Usually the answers vary a lot. Differentiating the way we deliver content is one of the most significant challenges to teachers today. But it is also the most crucial. The ‘challenge’ is that all students are different. Personalised Learning is THE solution.

Some students prefer problem-solving tasks. Others prefer rote-learning. Others prefer having to teach other students. Some just want to be lectured. So, how can we as teachers with a finite amount of time possibly plan for all of this, for several lessons per day, five days a week?

Easy! Only kidding. It’s never easy. However, I do want to share with you my three top tips for personalised learning which have helped me to cater for my students in a much more successful way.

Personalised Learning Tip 1: Know your students

There are few things more disheartening than spending hours planning a range of activities and producing the resources to go with them, then discovering that the students don’t want to engage with them. Or even worse, that they’ve had negative experiences with them in the past. However, you can plan for this by asking students (at the beginning of a term) how they would like their course to be delivered.

Last year I created a short questionnaire on Google Forms (it took literally five minutes), asking about the types of task my students prefer. Then, I asked which ones helped them make progress, which ones they found most difficult, etc. Finally, I emailed my students the link and received their concise yet detailed and honest feedback by the next day. Now I knew what they wanted and how I could make it work for them.

A further dimension you could explore is to ask students to evaluate their experiences so far and then to rate them. You can read more about how I get my students to rate their learning experiences in my Student Feedback post.

Personalised Learning Tip 2: Share the course outline

Students who know where they are headed and can see the checkpoints along the way will be less likely to “get lost”. They will be able to anticipate points along the way where they know that they may need more support, or conversely where they have existing knowledge. Sharing the course outline has the added advantage that students can begin completing their own Independent Learning, ahead of time on topics of their choosing. They will all naturally take different paths to the same destination.

Personalised Learning Tip 3: Students must respond to feedback

Each time a student responds to feedback in a specific way, they are personalising their own learning. Good marking holds up a mirror to the student’s own performance and provides opportunities and a structure for improvement. You’ve given your students guidance on how to remedy any weaknesses in their performance. It’s now up to them to act on it. Students build more resilience and independence when they take ownership of their learning, rather than relying on a teacher to do it for them. Higher exam results usually follow.

Let me know your thoughts, just drop me a tweet or leave a reply below.
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Reduce Marking Time

reduce marking time

What would you do if you could reduce marking time?

I’ve spent far too much time marking work. So have you. All teachers should reduce marking time. Why? Because when we reduce marking time, we can spend more time doing other things that either make us better teachers or just better people in general. Students automatically benefit from either of those results, as they are then educated by someone who is less tired, more patient and has more life experiences to draw from in lessons, due to all the leisure time they have freed up. Sound good? Then read on…

Since I specialise in essay-based subjects, the marking of each piece is often extremely time-consuming and it can really drain my brain. There’s nothing more soul-destroying than finishing my day teaching, only to glance at my pile of marking and realise that I still have hours to go. This can’t continue. Heavy teacher workload is bad for morale and my marking has in the past been put off for just long enough that when students finally receive the feedback, the work has been forgotten.

Remember I mentioned about the importance of feedback being timely when I wrote about it a few weeks ago? If you missed it, then just click here.

So, after many months of trying out different ways to reduce my workload, without reducing the quality of my teaching,  I’ve settled on a simple solution that works well for me but most importantly, my students.

I’ve managed to reduce marking time by several hours per week!

This post is a simple guide to marking. It won’t increase workload, is easy to implement and the students benefit from it more than so-called ‘traditional’ methods of marking. It can be used instead of comment-based marking, or as a complimentary method (which is how I use it).

I use this method as a complementary method to comment-based marking as there is still a place for that. However, students sometimes need very specific advice. When that is the case, this method may not always be the best fit. I’ll leave that to your professional judgement – you know your students best!

So, what is my magical method? Using a MARKING CODE to reduce marking time.

What is a marking code?

I often end up writing the same or very similar comments over and over again. By using a code to represent the most common comments, I’ve saved myself a lot of time. The codes that I use are pretty generic, but you can tailor them to specific marking criteria. Sometimes, this enables students to make more progress. Again, I’ll leave that up to you!

The marking code is simple. All you do is write an abbreviation of a comment instead of writing the whole comment each time. For example, instead of writing “evaluate the strengths of this argument” you could just write “ev st”. So long as the student understands what your abbreviation means, they will be able to act on it and improve their performance.

To help my students understand the codes I’ve written on their work, I have created a code sheet which they can stick into their books and folders, to refer to when responding to feedback. This sheet contains the most common codes I use. When I’ve used codes that aren’t on the sheet, as they are very specific to the task completed, I plan a “responding to feedback” activity in lesson time, where I explain the new codes and give students the opportunity to respond to the feedback there and then.

My marking code

My students have found my codes to be just as useful as having longer comments written down. However, in some cases, my codes have actually been better any comment I could have written. This is because my students are forced to think for themselves about what would improve their work, rather than having me literally spell it out for them. A further consequence of this is is that my students have also become far more independent and self-aware. In turn, this has led to them being able to produce much better quality work later in the course, as they are able to anticipate the codes that I might mark their work with. They have become better writers and are able to self-edit as they go along.

Codes I use to reduce marking time

Sp – Spelling error

Gr – Grammatical error

P – Create new paragraph

Exp – Explain this further

Eg – Add an example

Sch – Add a scholar’s view

Ev St – Evaluate the strengths of this argument

Ev W – Evaluate the weaknesses of this argument

Comp – Compare this with an alternative viewpoint

WR – Show evidence of wider reading

Con – Make connections with other elements of the course

Conc – Add a conclusion

How will this decrease my existing workload?

Use these codes to reduce marking time INSTEAD of writing comments or long-winded feedback paragraphs. That way, you will spend less time putting pen to paper. If you think that students might not fully understand your codes, then spend five minutes in a follow-up lesson to help them understand. That five minutes in a lesson is far shorter than the extra thirty minutes you might have spent, essentially writing the exact some things down in full sentences. Better still, each time you use the codes, students will become more and more familiar with them. Consequently, you will spend less and less time in lessons going through feedback.

Now over to you

I’ve already used the codes to reduce marking time and improve my workload. Will you do the same? Perhaps you have an even better system? Either way, I’d love to know your thoughts. As usual drop me a tweet or leave a comment!

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Improving Knowledge Retrieval

improving knowledge retrieval

Is improving knowledge retrieval possible? Yes!

Watching my students’ faces as I explain to them that they will be sitting a test in a fortnight is something to behold.  I often witness a whole range of emotions, from annoyance, to despair, to completely blank and unreadable expressions. It’s never a good look! So, a priority I’ve been working on for the past few months is improving knowledge retrieval, so that when a test is announced, my students can deal with it in a much more positive way.

I’m not a magician or have super-powers though!

I’m using a tried and tested method for improving knowledge retrieval by my students. They tell me that their greatest fear is that they will forget the information they need in order to perform well in the test. So, I’m teaching them a simple tactic for knowledge retrieval. Now, my students react to news of upcoming tests much more positively. They view them as a way to demonstrate their successes, rather than as a log of their failures.

How do teachers test students’ memory in the classroom?

Typically, teachers give little thought to the amount of time spent between the learning and the testing. We often test students’ memories either straight after teaching them, or months or even years later, if they are studying a two or even three-year long course.

This is a problem, but one with a simple and highly practical solution. Not only that, it won’t add to the ever-increasing teacher workload problem.

I’ve discussed this with a number of colleagues in different schools and they have all had the same experience with their students, regardless of the type of school or the nature of the individual students. More research is needed in this area. Fortunately, teachers and educational psychologists are beginning to pay attention to this issue and develop strategies for improving knowledge retrieval.

The research on improving knowledge retrieval

Recently, I read a post by the Learning Scientists, who have explored one solution to the issue of knowledge retrieval. They call it Spaced Retrieval Practice. I’ll leave it to you to read their blog post on it, but I’ll summarise their research here.

We often deliver content to students, then test their memorisation of that content too soon. Students haven’t had enough time to forget the information. Therefore, when they remember it, we as teachers praise their efforts. We shouldn’t! Remembering something that you’ve just been told is a pretty low bar to clear. By allowing students a little longer to forget some of their knowledge, we test their ability to bring back to their memory the information that has temporarily disappeared. This is what will improve their grades when they sit the test at the end of the course.

The Memory Muscle

I describe memory like it’s a muscle. You need to exercise it in order for it to grow stronger. The more stress you put the muscle under, the stronger it will grow. Similarly, the skill of being able to recall information is improved when a little stress is applied each time. The stress, in this case, is the length of time between the teaching and the recall. Practising knowledge retrieval regularly not only aids students in being able to recall the information, but it also helps them assess more accurately just how strong their memory is. Ultimately, over the long term, students will make more progress.

The results are in…

  1. Students remember more information because they have practised retrieval
  2. Students then become more confident and so worry less about upcoming tests
  3. The lack of anxiety about the test then enables them to REMEMBER EVEN MORE!

When you use knowledge retrieval practice effectively, you create a virtuous circle. Now it’s time to share this information more widely so that all teachers and students can benefit from it. Please SHARE this blog post with as many teachers as you can!

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