How to Teach and Encourage Independent Study Skills

Independent Study

How to Teach and Encourage Independent Study Skills

This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in September 2019.  You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.

There are some students who have such a broad and deep knowledge of some topics that it is difficult to teach them. This “nice problem” stems from the fact that those students study in their own time, independently of the work we give them as teachers.

It adds up. Students who routinely learn outside of the classroom build up a body of knowledge and make connections between these pieces of knowledge. The effect is that they are better equipped to solve problems and to analyse or evaluate with accuracy and fluency. In studying independently, students effectively multiply the amount of time they spend learning, compared with those who rely solely on classroom teaching.

According to multiple studies (which you can find in Meyer’s 2010 paper) independent learning benefits students in their acquisition of knowledge, the ability to judge accurately their own competency, it builds confidence and it increases engagement. As Meyer suggests, though, these effects are experienced differently by different groups of students, depending upon their individual contexts.

So, the question is, how should we teach independent learning skills so that all students achieve the maximum benefit? Below are some strategies worth considering.

Create the right conditions

Creating the conditions for developing independent learners is vital. Without particular attention being paid to this, you leave it to chance as to whether students will acquire the skills they need. To do this, you need to understand the barriers that well-meaning students have to overcome, in order to be truly independent.

First, there needs to be an environment where independent learning can actually take place. This means that there should be (a) access to information, (b) a lack of distractions and (c) space to make sense of the information in order to learn it.

For many students, this simply means (a) internet access, (b) leave your mobile phone in a different room and (c) have a desk to sit at to write down what you have learnt.

However, there is more to it than that. Access to information is only possible if students know how to search for it. Lack of distractions is not only from electronic devices, it can be social distractions in their lives. And many students do not even have a desk at home.

We might want students to be truly independent, but some will automatically find it easier, due to social factors beyond both their and our control. This is where building a home-school relationship is important. Parents might not always appreciate the impact that the home has on their child’s education, or might not know what to prioritise in order to help their child.

It is not a teacher’s job to tell a parent how to bring up their children, but it can sometimes be helpful to suggest things “that have worked for students in the past” in order to nudge parents towards positive changes they could make.

This is controversial, but my experience has been that parents are grateful to receive such guidance (when it is phrased carefully). Having a good, pre-existing relationship with those parents pays off, as they will more likely trust your advice, rather than see it as an attack on their parenting.

Provide sufficient motivation

Students who are motivated enough to complete independent study do so because they see v­alue in it. This can come down to a number of factors. Perhaps the teacher has explained well how the students stand to benefit from it. Maybe the students themselves have seen first-hand the benefits of doing it. Or there may be other factors such as parenting that could be nudging the students in the right direction. More often than not though, it is a combination.

Ultimately, students need to see that independent study is an essential part of their education, not just an “optional” addition to it.

Unfortunately, many students from disadvantaged backgrounds do not experience these positive influences as often as some of their peers. The disadvantage is then compounded further, as the gap widens between the haves and the have-nots.

Motivating the least advantaged students should, therefore, be where the focus lies for us as teachers. Just as we would scaffold responses to challenging in-class tasks, we should also scaffold our guidance on independent study.

  • Step 1: Break down what it means, what it looks like when done properly and then demonstrate visibly a successful outcome. Getting students to buy into the value of independent learning is crucial, as they will be more likely to pay attention to the next step.
  • Step 2: Give students a brief taste of independent study, followed by positive but meaningful feedback on their efforts. Remember, students will be more motivated to study independently if they have already experienced success with it in the past, no matter how small the success was. Building small-scale independence into your weekly routine with the students will give them a huge edge by the time the stakes are raised, further on in their school careers. At this point, what is being done is less important than the fact that something is being done at all. Building good routines is essential.
    Increase students’ attention span

A major reason why students are sometimes poor at independent study is the lack of time-parameters. How long should independent study take? How long should study sessions last? One way to mitigate this is to teach students to work for short intervals, followed by a short break.

The Pomodoro Technique, created by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s, is a good method to use for this. Students will not be as likely to plough on for too long. Conversely, they will not be put off by the prospect of long and arduous study sessions.

Independent study techniques

Promoting some effective independent study techniques with your students should also help.

Low-stakes quizzes: Low-stakes quizzes are one of the most effective study methods you could use. Simply reading your revision notes will not have anywhere near the same impact on learning as students can fool themselves into thinking they have understood and memorised content when they have not. Students can design quizzes on their own, can pair up with each other, or can access paid or even free quizzes online.

Flash cards: Flash cards are one adaptation of these low-stakes quizzes, with many students turning to online platforms such as Quizlet to create or download topic or even course-specific sets. The best thing about using these low-stakes quizzes is that you can accurately track your progress. You can read more on the research evidence for this method via the Chartered College of Teaching (2019).

Flipped learning: Another independent learning technique students should experience is flipped learning. You can implement this in a simple way. Over the course of a scheme of work, tell students what they will be learning about in the following lesson. Then ask them if they can find out one piece of information about the topic, to bring to the next lesson. Invariably, some will find things out and some will not. Reward those who do and have a conversation with those who did not about why they struggled.

Sometimes these students just need a little guidance on where to look, or what type of thing they should do. Others might just be a little lazy and need to see that there really is value in doing it. One way to get students to see the value of doing it is to get them to highlight the information they gained by independent study in the work they later produce.

This is also a good way for you to see at-a-glance who is and who is not doing it. But whatever happens, each lesson, ask everyone to find out something else for the next topic. It gives them all a chance to start over and either begin doing it, or improve how they do it.

Practice exam papers: Practice papers are vital when preparing for exams such as GCSEs and A levels, where vast amounts of knowledge are tested. Part of the reason why some students underperform in exams is that they are not familiar enough with the exam conditions.

Getting students to attempt whole papers, or even individual sections of papers can be invaluable. It highlights gaps in knowledge (almost immediately) and helps students to understand how much time they should spend on different types of question. Exam boards all have specimen and past paper exams available on their websites.

The cost of independent study

Independent study requires students to spend time that they could otherwise be spending doing directed homework tasks. Or going to the park. Or sleeping. Sometimes, therefore, we should bear in mind that if we focus too much on promoting independent learning, it might end up being to the detriment of other things. For some students, it might be one burden too many. About this, we should be mindful.

That being said, I am yet to find students who have suffered from too much independent study. So, with perhaps the odd exception, we should keep promoting it.

Returning To School After Covid-19: What’s The Plan?

Filling in the Gaps

Do you know where to begin, when schools return?

We’re living through unusual times. Students, parents and teachers alike are trying to navigate the brave new world of education, while at the same time dealing with illness, isolation and new working arrangements. Not only that, the mental toll that this all takes is immeasurable.

But one day, it will end. So what then? Do we just go back to normal? I highly doubt it. As the days go by, a new “normal” seems to be emerging across the country and beyond. Companies who once ran large offices have successfully moved almost entirely online. Household shopping habits, panic-buying aside, have adapted with more and more people opting for online delivery. And schools have begun, finally, to adopt more remote-learning practices, emulating to varying levels those of other countries such as South Korea, China and the US, although in fairness this is much more tailored to university-based rather than school-based courses. Will it become the new normal for schools? Who knows. I suspect we will see more of it when we return to school. Watch this space.

It’s entirely possible, likely even, that schools won’t formally return until September 2020. When that happens, teachers will have a battle on their hands. Students will not all have had equal access to home-learning. Many students have their own laptops, of course. But some have very little in the way of IT facilities in their household beyond, perhaps, a smartphone.

Similarly, some families will have been proactive in pushing their children to make progress through the work set by their teachers. Obviously this will not be the case for all families, with some families being crippled by their health, education, or socio-economic conditions, regardless of their willingness to engage with schoolwork. For some (generally privileged) families, this will be the first time they have experienced anything like hardship. As Emily Maitlis recently mentioned on Newsnight, Covid-19 is not the “great leveller” that some politicians would have you believe. It has hit the least privileged the hardest. However, there are outliers, both positive and negative and we need to be particularly mindful of that, when planning our next steps.

There will be knowledge gaps. Chasms in some cases. So, when students return to school, teachers will need to spend far more time ensuring that missed milestones are hit, essential knowledge is covered and that each of your students can access what they need.

We’ve always done this, of course, but this challenge will be far greater, as entire topics may have to be retaught to groups within your classes. Below is something I will be doing to help diagnose the weak points that each of my students may have, on their return. It’s a work-in-progress and I’d love feedback on how you might improve the model, so please leave a comment on this article or tweet me @guruteaching and let me know what you think.

The 4-Step Plan for September

Step 1 – Assess Students’ Confidence

Using a Google Form (or something similar), I will create a list of topics that would normally have been covered and ask students to rate their confidence on each one. I’ll just be using a scale of 1-4:

  1. “I expect to perform extremely well on this area when assessed”
  2. “I expect to perform quite well on this area when assessed”
  3. “I’m not sure how well I will perform on this area when assessed”
  4. “I expect to perform poorly on this area when assessed”

I’ll then send this out to students, using Google Classroom. If you don’t use Google Classroom, you could just share the link via email, Class Charts, Class Dojo, or whatever platform you normally use.

N.B. It might be useful to send this out to students in July and then again in September, just to see how the summer break has affected students. This might be a bit of an ask though!

Once I have the responses, I can begin to prioritise which topics might require more teacher-input than others. Now I should point out that just because my students are “confident” in a topic, it doesn’t mean that they will definitely perform well when assessed. The two do tend to be loosely linked though, and in the absence of robust assessment data, I find that “confidence” is a useful starting point.

Step 2 – Teach the Essentials

We need to make sure that students cover the breadth and depth of their courses that they normally would. This is important for fulfilling National Curriculum and exam board commitments, but also because students have an entitlement to this information irrespective of our statutory duties. The problem we will face in September is that we will have an increased volume of content to cover in a short space of time. I’m working at the moment on identifying the most useful* pieces of each topic, such that if not everything can be covered adequately, at least students will still have a good chance of attaining well in their GCSE, A Level, or end of year examinations.

*By most useful, I mean pieces of knowledge that may be useful in a number of different assessment topics, rather than just in one topic. This could include specific principles, quotes, scholars, or broad themes and will differ depending on the course or subject.

Step 3 – Assess and Analyse

Assessments need to be particularly thorough. Standard mock papers won’t suffice, as they cover only a small proportion of what should have been learnt. Instead, I’ll be giving my students a series of short-answer questions to determine what they know and what they don’t, covering the breadth of the whole course. The questions won’t necessarily need to be in the style of the exam that students are preparing for, it might depend on what I (or you) want to draw from the students.

Some questions might even be multiple-choice Google Form quizzes that I can use to quickly ascertain where strengths and weaknesses lie, with next to no workload generated on the marking end. I can also keep these quizzes to be used by future cohorts.

Managing workload is going to be an even greater challenge than usual in the upcoming autumn term. September to December is always busy, but with the potential for Covid-19 to re-emerge after the summer (according to some experts), we need to be especially mindful of looking after ourselves and our colleagues as much as possible.

Step 4 – Personalisation and Filling in the Gaps

Ideally, the results from the assessment will be uniform across the class, with my students performing similarly well on some topics and similarly less well on others. But it’s more likely that students’ results will be less homogenous than usual. I will be ensuring that students keep a record in the front of their exercise books of their performance in different topics. This will help them to see at-a-glance how well they are performing. It will also, hopefully, provide parents and carers with some form of feedback on their child’s progress in between termly reports and progress evenings.

To personalise the learning, I will be compiling a list of go-to resources, with accompanying self-marked (Google Form) quizzes, so that students can independently fill in the gaps in their knowledge. Students will be asked to continue to update their assessment tracking sheets, to reflect the progress they make on their weaker areas. I expect that monitoring this personalisation system is going to be quite time-consuming at first, but as gaps are filled and students’ strengths and weaknesses become more uniform, the effort required should (hopefully) reduce.

Final Thoughts

My plan for September (or earlier) isn’t set in stone and may have to be adapted depending on the situation we find ourselves in when we return to school. Not only that, but we will also have a myriad of other non-academic issues to address, which in many ways are far more important. Relatively few of us will get through the next few months unscathed, but if we keep supporting each other with ideas and by sharing resources, we will all edge closer to where we need to be, wherever that is.

Stay safe.

Andy

You can also find me on Twitter @guruteaching. Say hi!

Four Ideas for Applying Rosenshine’s Principles

Rosenshine's Principles of Instruction

Four Ideas for Applying Rosenshine’s Principles

This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in September 2019.  You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.

In recent months, Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction have caused an uproar, it seems. Research-interested teachers have brought Rosenshine into the vernacular and sparked a fierce debate.

Many in the staffroom will look at these 10 principles and will tell you, “but, we have always done it that way”. But the truth is, we have not. This lack of self-reflection is a problem and a major one at that. For many teachers, the principles laid out by Rosenshine (2012) are a departure from what, in some quarters, is labelled as “progressive” – rather than “traditional” – teaching.

Progressive teaching methods have sought to minimise teacher-talk and allow students to discover knowledge, as opposed to the knowledge being “taught” to the students more directly. The progressive methodology has its place, of course, but when adopted as the main pedagogical approach of choice it is hugely flawed, as Rosenshine’s evidence suggests.

While some students flourish in the freedom granted by this discovery learning, many flounder, unable to direct themselves to the required end. The gap between them widens each lesson and they get left behind.

Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction (first published in American Educator in 2012 and available as a free pdf download – see further information) set out 10 key findings, which, if incorporated into our practice, would substantially increase the quality of teaching and learning, improving outcomes for all students, rather than focusing solely on specific groups to the potential detriment of others.

The principles can be viewed as more traditional than progressive in nature. However, more importantly, they are crucial elements of excellent teaching – no matter what style you prefer.

Below, I have laid out some practical suggestions to accompany Rosenshine’s Principles. But first, let us look at these 10 principles:

  1. Begin the lesson with a review of previous learning.
  2. Present new material in small steps.
  3. Ask a large number of questions (and to all students).
  4. Provide models and worked examples.
  5. Practise using the new material.
  6. Check for understanding frequently and correct errors.
  7. Obtain a high success rate.
  8. Provide scaffolds for difficult tasks.
  9. Independent practice.
  10. Monthly and weekly reviews.

Of course, many of these principles, on first glance, appear obvious. After all, you would be hard pushed to find many teachers who did not use examples or questioning in their daily practice (principle 3).

Some are less obvious though (or at least are less frequently used), such as the students obtaining a high success rate to balance the building of confidence with setting meaningful challenge. According to Rosenshine, this success rate should be at around 80 per cent (principle 7).

But despite the research seeming so blindingly obvious, it is largely ignored, forgotten, or replaced by something more “artificial” when it comes to the planning of lessons, appraisal systems and teacher training programmes.

If, as a profession, we are to take ourselves seriously as “research-informed”, then we really should reflect upon how we can incorporate principles such as Rosenshine’s into our education system as a whole, not just ad hoc in individual classrooms.

So, how can this be done? Here are four suggestions – we should use Rosenshine’s Principles:

  1. In the planning of lessons across the curriculum.
  2. As the criteria for (most) lesson observations.
  3. To address (most) whole-school priorities.
  4. To set meaningful targets for CPD and appraisal.

1. In the planning of lessons

There is no “best” way to deliver a lesson, so I am very wary of anyone who claims to have the one true formula for success. That being said, there are some things which have been proven time and again to be of benefit for students.
Rosenshine’s evidence shows that lessons should begin with the recall of previous learning – not just of recently learned information, but also of information that was learned much earlier.

This helps to build and strengthen the schema of knowledge in the student’s mind, enabling new information to be understood, stick more easily and for longer.

New information should also be given in small doses, ideally with time given to practise recalling and using that information, under the guidance of the teacher. This helps the students to take in the new knowledge and synthesise it with their prior knowledge.

Live, worked examples (not pre-prepared model-answers) should be demonstrated by the teacher, who models how the information should be presented, applied, analysed, evaluated, etc.

This has the benefit of giving the students a visible idea of what knowledge and skills they should be able to replicate or create on their own.

It also shows to the students what the “journey” to the answer looks like, helping them to tackle challenges one step at a time, building resilience.

Questions should be asked frequently and to all students throughout the lesson. This can be a huge challenge, so do not feel guilty if you do not get around all 30 of your students in one lesson. However, aiming to get around your class on a regular basis will achieve two things. First, it provides opportunities to assess and give feedback to each student. Second, it instils in the students the idea that there is no opt-out; students cannot just refuse to pay attention, because everyone will be expected to answer at some point in the lesson.

Finally, give students the opportunity to practise on their own – a challenge that determines whether the knowledge has been learned or not.

Where the challenge appears too great, students could still be given scaffolds to help guide their responses or to help them recall information. This could be in the form of a help-sheet, sentence starters, or perhaps even an “in-between task” which helps to further strengthen their knowledge before they then attempt the independent task. But expectations must remain high – students cannot opt-out of a challenge.

2. Lesson observations

In lesson observations where the focus is on pedagogy (rather than, say, behaviour management), the observer and the observed should begin by considering whether adopting Rosenshine’s Principles into the lesson might have improved it.

This will not always be the case, of course. But by using what research tells us about what works well, we can begin lesson observation feedback from a more objective standpoint, rather than relying on the observer’s subjective preferred style of teaching as “the answer”.

A follow-up observation could then focus on one of Rosenshine’s Principles that had been agreed as a point for future development. The use of Rosenshine’s Principles to develop rather than to assess teaching would be of particular benefit to trainee teachers and NQTs, although even seasoned veterans would find it useful too.

I should note that some leaders might at this point be tempted to take each of the 10 principles and create a tick-box observation sheet, with which they could “judge” lessons. This should be avoided. Rosenshine himself even phrased his findings to avoid categorising teaching as “good” or “bad”. Plus, by creating a blunt instrument in the form of tick-box criteria, teachers, being human, invariably (through a sense of self-defence) find ways to tick the boxes, to the detriment of the lesson that they might otherwise have taught. The principles are a means to an end, not the end in themselves.

3. Whole-school priorities

Whole-school priorities often focus on specific groups, such as underperforming boys or Pupil Premium students. However, while advantageous to the groups identified, the remaining students can be (unintentionally) ignored as a consequence. By concentrating whole-school priorities on Rosenshine’s Principles – for example, the widespread adoption of quizzes at the beginning of the lesson or on teacher-guided practice tasks – all students stand to benefit.

4. CPD and Appraisal

Appraisal, performance management and CPD get a pretty bad reputation (and often deservedly). This does not have to be the case. In the all-too-frequent stories where meaningless or unattainable targets are set, the result is predictable: teaching does not improve and students lose out.

Why not, then, base your CPD, appraisal and performance management targets on developing better practice according to Rosenshine’s Principles? Teaching will improve and students will learn more. What else should we focus on but that?

A useful way to implement this might be for small groups of teachers to focus on a particular principle and to feedback to their group once they have trialled their ideas. The best practice can then be collated and shared across the whole staff, so that this professional development benefits all teaching staff and not just a few individuals.

Conclusion

The research is clear and shows us what works. School leaders at all levels now need to weave these findings into their own operating systems. It might involve reflecting upon some of the more “progressive” approaches that those same leaders have sold to their staff (often having been sold themselves). It might even be a little embarrassing and a tad uncomfortable for some. But, it is vital if we are to make the most difference to our students. And, when we do this, no-one will be left behind.

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