This article first appeared in the Summer 2021 Edition of HWRK Magazine. You can read this article here. This article contains affiliate links.
With so many edu-books released this year, where should you begin? Here are three of the most impactful that I’ve read this year.
A new teaching book seems to be released every other week at the moment. Maybe that’s just because of all the free time teachers suddenly had during lockdown, since the schools were shut?
I still have no idea how some teachers find the time to write so much and so well. But with limited time to be able to devour all of these new books, where should you start? Here are three that I seriously recommend, both for the short-term impact in your classroom tomorrow, but also for the way in which they will help you to develop as a teacher over the long term.
If, like me, you want your students to be able to remember more of the curriculum that you teach, then this is an absolute must-read. Kate Jones has written extensively on the theme of retrieval practice (this being the sequel to her first book, Retrieval Practice: Research and Resources for Every Classroom). The book itself strikes a careful balance between what educational research can tell us and also what it can’t, alongside real-world examples from the classroom practice of teachers. This is where some pedagogical books go wrong, but where Retrieval Practice 2 excels. From the outset, the educational research is presented with clarity, for novices, but with further references for those who want to dive in even further. If retrieval practice is something you intend to focus on in your department or in your school, then there really is no better author that I would trust, to guide you along the way.
Feedback is often misunderstood, conflated with marking and overly laborious. Michael Chiles aims to put an end to this in The Feedback Pendulum, which is his follow-up book to the also excellent C.R.A.F.T. of Assessment. In The Feedback Pendulum, Chiles takes us through not just how we could assess better, but also the wider issues that are sometimes overlooked. One such issue that Chiles deals with masterfully is the culture of assessment within schools and individual classrooms. Using Chiles’ advice, Middle and Senior Leaders can identify underlying problems across the school and with other stakeholders such as parents, that undermine attempts at effective assessment. Feedback is a highly complex concept and to do it well, you need to understand the nuances of it. This book is just that. Nuanced, practical and will stand the test of time.
Haili Hughes has created an exceptionally useful guide to mentoring, in her book Mentoring In Schools. In fact, when I read it, I felt as though I was being mentored by Haili herself. The chapters are designed to fit with the Teachers’ Standards and so this gem of a book can be read from cover to cover (as I did), or you can dip in and out of the parts that are most relevant to you at the time, as a Mentor. What Haili does particularly well is to include not just her own extensive experience, but also that of others, including a wide range of voices. Those voices do not just offer insight, but they offer a breadth of practical strategies and questions to ponder. Reading this book will make you a better Mentor, that’s for certain. But it will probably make you a better teacher in general too, as many of the strategies discussed and the issues raised are as important for teaching pupils as they are for mentoring new teachers.
I don’t know about you, but even my most resilient students often struggle with revision, especially for GCSE and A-Level exams, where the stakes are high and the content is complex. Using textbooks is an excellent start in helping them develop their knowledge, but as you know, having more interactive resources like revision videos can be of even greater benefit to students, regardless of their ability.
Do you think your students would benefit from interactive revision videos, with built-in quizzes, to help consolidate and extend their learning? If so then I have a FANTASTIC resource for you to share with them.
Study Rocket is a new website where students can sign up for sets of revision videos, created by expert teachers and animated by professionals.
Revision videos are available for all subjects studied at GCSE and A Level and are tailored to specific exam boards, so you only pay for what you really need.
The videos contain summaries of key topics required by each exam board, followed by self-marking quiz questions to help students assess their knowledge of those topics. By giving the students the opportunity for immediate automated feedback on their revision, you reduce teacher workload – no more marking!!
I know that many of my students struggle to revise using notes and books, so I will be recommending Study Rocket to them to help with all of their GCSE and A Level subjects. As you know, a variety of revision resources is much more likely to lead to success than textbooks and notes on their own!
Many courses are already available on the website, with the remaining ones coming online soon.
Not only that, but right now there is a huge 30% discount available for anyone who pre-orders courses which haven’t come online yet. Get in there quickly before the videos go online! Just register your interest by entering your email address on the website, so that you are notified when the videos for your chosen course come online.
If you have any questions about Study Rocket then please reply and I’ll get back to you!
P.S. For more tips on how to build resilient learners, click here.
In all my years of teaching, I’ve rarely come across students who were naturally ‘good’ at presenting. In theory, student presentations should demonstrate knowledge of their chosen topic. But too often the breadth of knowledge or depth of understanding fails to show what was supposed to have been learnt. In this post, I’ve put together some of the tips I’ve given to my students so that they can show a greater level of knowledge and understanding and thus raise their level of attainment.
Why are student presentations so important?
Recently on Twitter, there has been a huge increase in the number of teachers arguing over whether the teacher or the students should be in control over the learning that takes place. I freely admit to having mixed views on this, despite identifying primarily as a “Trad”. (You can read an excellent article on the distinction between Traditional and Progressive teaching by @teacherhead (Tom Sherrington) here.) In my opinion, the teacher should be the one who teaches. After all, we’ve studied educational theory, have greater experience of what constitutes excellent answers and we are experts in our own subject areas. Not that students can’t contribute themselves of course!
Ultimately though, it is the primary responsibility of the teacher to ensure that students learn. If teachers can pass on that torch to students, then that is a fantastic achievement. However, to place the onus of learning primarily on our students could be disastrous. Too often, they simply aren’t equipped with the skills required to bear that responsibility.
However, at some point, students have to be able to take ownership of their learning to some degree. That way, they develop their skills in learning how to learn, which is an excellent life skill. Not only that, but it is a natural way for students to stretch themselves and demonstrate a greater degree of independent learning. An excellent method to enable this is for students is to research, learn and present to the rest of the class.
What are student presentations for?
I use student presentations in three different ways:
Summative assessment at the end of a unit
Formative assessment in order to plan next steps for the class or for individuals
Using student presentations to demonstrate the extent of understanding, as opposed to an exam, can be very beneficial. Firstly, the students get to show everything that they know, rather than being constrained by a specific exam question, as they would get in an essay. There are some excellent advantages to this.
Firstly, the students will demonstrate all of the areas that they are knowledgeable about. This is beneficial for the student, as they get to show off what they have made progress on throughout the course. In addition, they will always have learnt something, even if only a little. This has the benefit of allowing even those who have learnt only a little to feel as though they can contribute meaningfully to the lesson.
Secondly, presentations allow for the practice and demonstration of skills beyond being able to read and write. Some students feel much more comfortable presenting their ideas verbally than they do via a written format. In my experience, this is even more pronounced in students whose written skills are significantly hampered by poor spelling, punctuation and grammar. Low levels of literacy can sometimes hide a depth of understanding of subject content.
Thirdly, when students present to the class, the teacher can assess the standard of response without having to mark a pile of books, essays or portfolios. This can also be a huge advantage, particularly for teachers who, by the nature of their subject areas or Key Stages, can be swamped with the amount of written feedback they are expected to give. Presentations can and should still be assessed, rather than just listened to, but the feedback can be written or checked off a list as the presenter speaks, thus reducing workload and avoids the need to take marking home.
I often give students the opportunity to present, as opposed to writing an essay, part way through a unit. This is to see what standard their knowledge and understanding is at before I continue teaching the remainder of the course. As a teacher, it allows me to plan much for effectively, making sure that my lessons are more relevant to the needs of the class.
When my students present well, they highlight to me not only what I have taught well, but also the extent to which I have challenged them. In contrast, when students do not present well, it can be a sign that I have not explained concepts to them in a clear enough way, or that they need additional support regarding specific topic areas. Either way, my teaching and their learning both improve in the immediate aftermath.
As I’ve written about in the past, Flipped Learning is an excellent way to develop independence in our students. Student presentations which follow the Flipped Learning principle of independent research, prior to the lesson, are invaluable. It’s an opportunity to demonstrate maturity and a willingness to stretch themselves beyond the classroom. It also allows for lower-order skills such as information gathering to be undertaken, where the presence of an expert is not needed as often. In the lesson that follows, more time can be given over to higher-order skills of analysis and evaluation. Here, the presence of an expert is often much more necessary.
Who benefits most from student presentations?
Obviously, the students who have learnt and prepared the material will make progress in their level of knowledge and understanding. But do other students benefit from watching students presentations?
It depends. (And this is where you as the teacher come in.)
The evidence that students learn well from others is not conclusive. However, this is not necessarily because presentations are a ‘bad’ way to teach. Rather, the quality or the nature of student presentations, as opposed to teacher presentations, may be found wanting. Having observed students present in my classes and in other subjects too, I’ve compiled a number of tips that I now give to my students, each time they present to their peers, to help to ensure maximal quality.
What students should avoid when presenting
Students often rely too much on the written word and this often impacts negatively on what they present visually to the class. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen a PowerPoint slide covered in text. Not only is this difficult to read, in terms of the size of the font used, but it also distracts the audience from listening to the presenter.
Another reason why students shouldn’t place much text on their slides (if slides or their equivalents are used), is that they can have a tendency to just read them out to the class. This too can be not only distracting but can leave the audience feeling as though listening is a waste of time. After all, they can read for themselves at their own pace.
Many students will also spend a disproportionate amount of time making the visual appeal of their presentation fantastic, but at the expense of providing real value to the listener. The point of the presentation isn’t to show off design skills. The visual appeal should really just be “clean and clear”, so as no to distract from the content.
Tips for student presentations
Focus on your verbal presentation rather than relying on the written text on your presentation screen. Make it a speech, rather than pointing to what you have written. Otherwise, the audience will keep shifting their attention from the speaker to the screen and back again, ultimately focusing on neither.
Use images on your slides (if you even use ‘slides’) instead of text. A symbolic image can be far more thought-provoking than a paragraph or a set of bullet points.
If you absolutely must have text on the screen, then limit it to three bullet points. If you can’t limit it to three, then split the ideas across more slides.
Provide a detailed handout to the class at the end of the presentation, so that any points that went unnoticed by the audience can be addressed and taken away to be studied further.
Have at least one ‘scriptless’ section, where the content of the presentation has been memorised. (This is mainly for those students who are more comfortable with presenting, or who have a greater depth and/or breadth of subject knowledge.)
Allow for Q&A at the end of the presentation, so that any students who want points to be clarified can have their questions answered. This is also beneficial for the presenter, who will then be able to demonstrate subject knowledge that they hadn’t thought to put into the original presentation.
I firmly believe that by following the tips outlined above, students can create excellent presentations. As always, I welcome critical argument of anything I’ve written and I would love to know if you give similar or different tips to your own students. Just leave a comment or tweet me (@guruteaching) and I’ll get right back to you!
Black Box Thinking is a philosophy which allows learning to emerge from mistakes.
The phrase was coined by Matthew Syed in his excellent book of the same title, where he examines performance and critical self-evaluation in sport, aviation, politics and many other fields. He took the term from the “black box” flight recorders fitted to aircraft, which contain vast amounts of data, to be used to inform future improvements. They are used extensively, but especially following poor performances. These could result from human error, failures of systems and procedures and unexpected events.
How does black box thinking apply in education?
In education, just as in aviation, we continually train ourselves and others, ensuring consistently high performance. But despite the time put into this training, students can still underperform in exams. Schools and inspection bodies collect this data, containing a wealth of information to guide current and future performance. But I’m not certain that we use this information effectively. After all, which information should we act on and how on earth should we act on it?
When teaching doesn’t work…
A few years ago, Steve, a friend of mine working in another school, called me on A Level Results Day. He was in shock. For the last few years, his students had achieved excellent exam results and he was considered by many to be an “outstanding teacher” (I hate that phrase!). This year, however, a number of his students had “failed”. By “failed”, he meant that they had passed, but had significantly dipped below their expected grades.Steve had to account for this dip in his post-results analysis that he had to present to the Headteacher. But only two months earlier he had predicted much higher grades. How could he have got it so wrong?
In essence, he had assumed that because he had always been right about his students in the past, he was able to draw similar conclusions about his current students. Unfortunately, he was looking at the wrong data or at least interpreting it in the wrong way.
Steve’s current students were not in any way “weaker” than in previous years. Nor had his teaching changed much. But he HAD missed one crucial point. The STUDENTS were different. He had forgotten to take this into account. This caused him to infer that the data he had used effectively last year was just as relevant for this year’s students. Steve was wrong.
When the “data” doesn’t add up…
We are all familiar with the use of assessment results to inform our understanding of how students progress towards their targets. However, those results do not “measure progress“. They are a proxy, something which may indicate progress but which is not synonymous with it. Steve believed his assessment procedures to be rigorous. He used a range of assessment questions from the exam board’s past papers. He was a seasoned examiner and was a competent judge of student responses. But he was ignoring something crucial. Steve focused entirely on improving the skills and techniques used in answers to exam questions. It made no difference in the end.
Steve recalled some of the papers from the exam board to see what had gone wrong. He assumed that the students had ignored the techniques he had taught them. How could they have forgotten the special mnemonics they had constructed together? Had they not written using PEE paragraphs? Did they follow up each of their ideas with a brief evaluation of it? Did their conclusions not follow the highly prescribed formula he had repeated time and time again?
The papers showed Steve what had really happened. The students didn’t know the content.
As much as they had tried to structure their writing, they just didn’t have enough subject knowledge. Steve expected a deep evaluation of quotes and he’d even taught the students how to go about discussing multiple interpretations of keywords and phrases.
But the students hadn’t memorised the quotes.
It got worse. The case studies in the exam were supposed to trigger students to consider socio-economic theories, court cases and historical events.
But the students only understood the ones they were tested on in class and so hadn’t read widely enough to answer the questions in the actual exam.
Why do your students fail?
Your students succeed and fail due to many factors. They may lack knowledge and understanding of a theory, method or event. They might not have ‘memorised’ the information they need. Their skills of analysis and evaluation may undermine the depth of their understanding. Steve considered all of these possibilities but was still at a loss to explain the underperformance. The truth was, that these weren’t the only factors that were at play. It’s often more complex.
Let’s look at why three particular students failed:
Student A had recently been dealing with a bereavement of a close family member. This had taken its toll on the student, who had performed well up to that point. In the final run-up to the exam, Steve had believed that this student would cope well with study leave, having demonstrated for almost two years that he could work well independently. However, in this instance he was wrong. The student was unable to focus at home, in the way he could at school, in part because he was constantly surrounded by distractions relating to the passing of his relative. Whilst his bereavement would not be much easier at school, at least he may have found some space to concentrate a little better, or for longer periods, enabling him to perform better than he eventually did on exam day.
Student B had a poor track record regarding her attendance. But despite this, she still managed to perform well in her assessed essays. As it turned out, she was close friends with a student who had written the same essays in the previous year. She re-worded these essays and in some cases had even memorised them by rote, for closed-book timed assessments in class. By doing so, she evaded the attention of staff who were actively looking for students requiring intervention. Since her grades were good, they didn’t consider her to be at risk of failing. Her problem though, was that in the exam she was not able to adapt those memorised answers when the question changed ever so slightly. She pulled the wool over many eyes, including Steve’s and failed outright.
Student C was a high performer. At GCSE she had achieved all A* and A grades and had done so with little visible effort. Throughout A Level, however, she had not always enjoyed the same level of success. Essay grades ranged from A* to C. Steve had been hot on the case with this student and had accurately identified where marks were being gained and lost. He gave thoroughly detailed feedback to the student, who was able to redraft the essays to an excellent standard, following the advice he gave. But on the day of the exam, her marks were inconsistent across the paper. Why had she performed so well in some areas, but so poorly in others? As it turned out, the detailed feedback had made no difference. Why? The student hadn’t had to think hard enough for herself as to how to improve. In the end, her highest marks came from the topics where Steve’s feedback was much more limited in detail (despite the formative essays being of an equally low quality to others where feedback was detailed). In this instance, the student had performed badly overall because she hadn’t become independent enough. She was still overly reliant on the teacher to help her to improve, even in the final weeks and days before the exam.
Action points for “Black Box” teachers
Assess regularly. Balance scheduled tests with unscheduled ones to accurately identify true levels of understanding.
Use rigorous assessment methods (past paper questions, etc)
Give feedback that strikes the right balance between being too detailed and not detailed enough
Create and maintain a ‘culture’ of student independence
Reward resilience and genuine effort, rather than high attainment alone
Test knowledge and understanding in creative ways, to avoid “scripted” responses
Formalise how you will act on the data you collect. Checklists are a time-efficient way of developing set procedures. (More on this in a future post!)
Learning from failure is sometimes the only way. I would love to hear your own stories of “Black Box” thinking. In the meantime, you can take a look here at Matthew Syed’s Black Box Thinking (my Amazon affiliate link).
Please leave a comment on this post or send me a tweet (@guruteaching). I’ll get right back to you!
My students are about to receive their mock results. For some, this will be a time for them to feel relieved that their efforts so far have paid off. For others, they won’t be happy with their result. Ultimately though, the result itself doesn’t really matter. It’s how my students respond to their result that counts. The hope is that my students will find that balance between fear of failure and over-confidence, to best prepare them for the final exams. In this post, I explain the methods used to ensure that my students respond positively, so that they will achieve their desired result in the future. Giving effective feedback is a tricky business and the stakes are too high for us to do it badly.
Why target setting is priority number 2
As teachers, we constantly set targets, whether short or long-term, aspirational or realistic. Target setting is absolutely necessary, but it must be well-informed and fully explained. Otherwise, your students may not understand those targets immediately.
In many cases, my own students have seen their own targets as too high, too low, or completely arbitrary, before the targets are explained. If I didn’t explain the targets to them, then they risk putting insufficient effort in, to achieve their target. The explanation, though, must contain the ‘bigger picture’; this is priority number 1. More on that in a moment.
Students’ lack of engagement with targets also seems to be caused by their own perceptions of themselves as learners. They often see themselves as an “A grade” student, for example. This makes it harder for them to come to terms with any grade that doesn’t fit with that label. Following a positive result, they can then become lazy, thinking it’s in the bag. A negative result can leave students thinking it can’t be done. It’s vital then, that we spend time, before giving feedback, to help students understand what they should be looking to achieve, both in the short and long-term. They need to know and be constantly reminded that ‘progress‘ is not linear and that their path to success will not be a straight one.
Students need to see the bigger picture
One exam result can seem like the entire picture to some students. So, in order for targets to be meaningful to your students, they need to understand their own situation. By this, I mean that your students need to be able to see what their current level of achievement looks like, compared to their past achievements. Have they dipped? Plateaued? Accelerated? Where is it going?
They should also be made aware of how far a student like them should be expected to achieve by the end of the course. I often cite examples of students from previous years, who have achieved similar mock results, but have then gone on to have even greater success when they have followed a specific plan. I then share that plan, breaking it down into practical steps, which when followed, led to my previous student achieving the desired result.
By making the steps simple, my current students are able to see further progress as realistic. This provides them with the motivation required to increase performance in preparation for the exam. Because the feedback conversation is focused on future achievement, rather than past failure, my students’ mindset is far more receptive and they tend to react more positively.
Students need to feel supported
Many students will know that a poor result is their ‘fault’, but guilt and remorse will only make them dwell on negatives. This distracts from the positives and creates a barrier to forming a solution-focused mindset. So, ensure you are giving effective feedback by using as many comments as possible about what your students have achieved. By beginning the feedback conversation in this way (and feedback must be a conversation, not just one-way) your students will be encouraged to feel as though they have a platform to build upon for future success. They will also see you as being on their side, rather than just being there to find fault.
Many successful schools use the “What Went Well / Even Better If” structure to ensure positive feedback. Here, students are left in no doubt that their successes, no matter how limited, have been recognised and rewarded on some level.
Top Tip: A good way to enhance the WWW/EBI system is to share with the whole class a range of WWW comments that you have given to the group. This then provides students with concrete, achievable examples that they can strive to emulate in future assessments.
Preparing students to receive feedback
This week I’ll be giving my students a brief questionnaire to fill out before they are able to access their results. The purpose of the questionnaire is twofold. Firstly, I aim to prime the students with as much positive-mindset thinking as possible, so that their result will be seen as just one step on the way to future success. I want to build resilient learners. Secondly, I want the students to be able to see what practical steps they can put into place, to get them from where they are to where they need to be.
Here are the questions I’ll be asking:
What do you stand to gain from success in this subject?
What is your end-of-course target?
What practical steps did you take to move towards your mock exam target?
Which of those practical steps paid off?
What was your target for the mock exam?
If your two targets are different, then explain why.
Which practical steps would you change or not use again? Explain your reasons.
How close do you think you will be to your target?
If you achieve your mock target, how will you react? Why?
If you don’t achieve your mock target, how will you react? Why?
If you could go back in time and give advice to yourself three months ago, what advice would you give?
I may change the wording of the questions, or even add/remove some of them. However, what I want to do is to create a dialogue with each student about their own journey. The questions are really just conversation-starters.
Planning your next steps
After giving feedback on the mock exams, it’s crucial that you put a plan in place to ensure that every single student can be monitored and so that their performance on exam day is not left to chance. The plan should be specific, realistic and time-bound if it is to work. But most importantly, the onus should be on the students to solve the problem. All you are doing is giving them a blueprint to follow and dates by which you will measure their success on agreed criteria. Your role is an advisory one. You certainly shouldn’t be expected to re-teach content, especially if your students are perfectly capable of independent learning!
Steps you can put in place:
Students should respond to feedback as early as possible – create improved answers or redo the mock exam from scratch.
Set aside specific times for on-to-one conversations with each student (if logistically possible). This should happen as soon as possible.
Share results with colleagues in other departments and the Head of Year to see if there is an issue beyond your subject.
Students create an action plan for the final exams: exam dates, when they will begin revising, successful revision methods, when they will be assessed throughout the revision period to see if it’s working.
Book another one-to-one for 6 weeks time to see how students have got on individually. Did they bother to stick to the plan? Where’s the evidence? Did it work? How do they know? What do they now need to focus on? Is parental involvement necessary at this point?
Don’t judge yourself as a teacher, according to the exam results in front of you. There’s a good chance that you weren’t in control of more than half of the factors that affected your students’ performances on the day.
Besides, by now giving effective feedback, you will make a huge difference to your students.