This week I want to share with you my top 10 education blogs. I read these when I want to be inspired, to deepen my understanding, or for a quick guide on how to do something. Education blogs are a fantastic way to develop your pedagogical knowledge, learn new ways to deliver lessons and to get your head around educational research and policy. Not only that but by commenting on the posts, you can join a community of teachers (including the author) who can debate, challenge and collaborate on the things that matter the most to you and your students.
These top 10 education blogs have been absolutely crucial to my professional development over the past few years and I wouldn’t be the teacher I am today without them. In particular, they’ve helped me cut down on unnecessary tasks, thus reducing my workload. Click here to read more on how to solve the teacher workload problem.
My top 10 education blog list (which is in no particular order) comprises some that you will probably have heard of and some less well-known ones too. Do what I’ve done and subscribe to them all, so that you never miss a post.
TOP TIP: Follow these bloggers on Twitter too. You’ll read a lot more than just what they put in their posts! You can follow me on Twitter @guruteaching.
Last time you were observed teaching a lesson, did your observer focus on ‘measuring progress’ in their feedback? What exactly did they mention? Did you believe them? Did you feel proud or ashamed of the feedback? Did either of you ‘grade’ the quality of the teaching or even the teacher? Was the amount or rate of learning measured? Was the observation a positive, or even a useful experience? Teachers across many schools have had experiences such as these. It is one of the factors contributing to a crisis in recruitment and retention of high-quality teachers across many countries. But it is a factor that can be eliminated very simply. Ban lesson observations from discussions on student progress. They simply do not work.
What does ‘progress’ even mean?
In this post, I hope to convince you that measuring progress in lesson observations is a waste of time. There, I said it. Do I have a chip on my shoulder? Yes. Why? Because students in every school are at risk of a second-rate education. This is due largely to teachers altering their lessons to ensure short-term success within a lesson, at the expense of better progress over the long-term.
There, I said it. Do I have a chip on my shoulder? Yes. Why? Because students in every school are at risk of a second-rate education. This is due largely to teachers altering their lessons to ensure short-term success within a lesson, at the expense of better progress over the long-term.
This problem is exacerbated even further during lesson observations. In many schools, the ‘rate’ or ‘amount’ of progress within the lesson is still being ‘measured’ by SLT and external inspectors alike. However, the problem with aiming for short-term success is that the long-term needs of the students are put aside. This is simply for the sake of teachers trying to demonstrate excellent progress in front of observers. After all, nobody wants to be judged as anything less than brilliant! Observations are a snapshot, a small-scale sample. They simply cannot be used as evidence of student progress.
Fortunately, many high-performing schools are taking on board ever-increasing levels of educational research, in order to raise the achievement of students. Organisations such as the Sutton Trust have researched what factors make the greatest difference to learning. Schools have developed Learning Improvement Plans in response to this research. Now it’s time for Senior Leadership Teams (SLT) to examine whether or not lesson observations are useful enough in improving student progress, to justify the problems they also generate.
So, what’s wrong with measuring progress?
To really understand this question, it’s important to go back to first principles and to ask these fundamental questions:
What is the purpose of education?
What role should teachers play in education?
What role should students play in their own education?
What else matters?
1. What is the purpose of education?
The ‘purpose’ of education, in my mind, comes down to one simple idea. Education should aim to provide a person with the knowledge and skills to ensure they are able to flourish and succeed once they have left education. In order to achieve this aim, educators should measure progress. But only when it helps education over the long-term. We should evidence the development of students’ knowledge, but there are far better methods than old-fashioned lesson observations. Monitoring student folders is far more accurate. It can’t be staged and it allows teachers to teach in their own way, using their own professional judgement to guide them.
Artificial situations have also been created by teachers, in order to ‘demonstrate’ their own teaching ‘skills’. But a teacher’s aim is to promote learning as their first priority! The cause of this mismatch in priorities is that in too many cases teachers feel they must ‘perform’ to the latest standards, or use the latest methods ‘preferred’ by external inspectors or SLT.
Finally, too many teachers provide students with everything they need in order to pass an exam. This can be useful, but only insofar as it equips the students with the skills they need after leaving school. However, students are often so spoon-fed that they don’t know how to learn or how to solve problems even though they managed to achieve good grades in their exams.
A good education system should create resilient problem-solvers. A focus on measuring progress, however, often makes teachers less likely to spend enough time on challenging tasks. This is because the task may not provide positive ‘progress’ data in time for the termly data-window when assessment results are submitted. Instead, many teachers favour shorter and less rigorous tasks, where they can demonstrate repeated intervention, rather than allowing students to learn resilience.
2. What role should teachers play in education?
There is often a debate about whether the teacher should be the ‘sage on the stage’ or the ‘guide on the side’. I don’t think it matters, so long as you change it up now and again. Students need both direct instruction and the freedom to tackle things in their own way. That way, they benefit from having an expert in the room and from having the space to be creative in how they learn. A focus on measuring progress in a lesson can sometimes interfere with this process, creating unnecessary constraints on the structure of lessons.
Teachers should be able to teach in whatever way they like, so long as by the end of the course, students are able to demonstrate that they can achieve well in the exam and go on to lead successful lives. After all, isn’t this what matters most to our students?
3. What role should students play in their own education?
Learning how to learn is arguably the most important skill a student can learn at school. It happens when we give students a variety of levels of challenge, over time, with varying levels of support. Independent learning is crucial, whether through homework or through students’ own wider reading around the subject. Students often overlook their own role in their own education. Therefore it is vital that we teach students explicitly about their own role in the learning process.
Unfortunately, though, students often overlook their own role in their education. Therefore it is vital that we teach them explicitly about this. I would even argue that it should be done before you begin teaching subject topics. That way, it won’t be viewed by the students as a simplistic reaction to a badly completed homework, or as a trendy add-on following a course we’ve been on.
One consequence of creating a culture of independent learning is that some students will do it extremely well. Sometimes my own students will turn up to a lesson, having taught themselves the topic at home.
4. What else matters?
Teachers are in education for the long haul. So are students. Observers should be too, but often they become distracted by short-term thinking, rather than planning for the future. The consequence is that lesson observations are added to the workload of teachers and SLT.
However, a quick cost-benefit analysis shows that the number of hours put into lesson observation schedules does not make enough positive difference to long-term teaching, to justify the expense. Teachers are worn out. SLT are worn out. We can’t really use the ‘data’ gathered as it doesn’t really measure progress accurately. Our paperwork is then filed away for external inspection teams. This is so that SLT can at least be seen to have tried to monitor and make an impact on student progress.
Meanwhile, lessons are taught with ‘education’ as a secondary priority.
But there is one last nail in the coffin of lesson observations: external inspectors now take less and less account of what they see in lesson observations when making judgements on progress. Sir Michael Wilshaw, an experienced headteacher and the head of Ofsted (at the time of writing), has frequently bemoaned the way that many teachers feel they ought to measure progress, often several times per lesson and especially during inspection visits. Bite-sized chunks of learning are used too often, at the expense of students taking their time on more challenging tasks. I mentioned this earlier, but you can read more about his experience in this Telegraph article.
In essence, Wilshaw views the process of measuring progress as a much more long-term one. Progress ‘measurements’ should take into account long-term data trends and evidence of students making progress over time. The individual lesson observation plays such a superficial role in the measurement of progress, that we might as well abandon it altogether.
So there you have it. If you want to measure progress then leave lesson observations out of it. They are quite frankly, not fit for purpose.
If you want to know more (from a true expert on the subject) then I recommend the brilliant book Making Good Progress (Amazon affiliate link) by Daisy Christodoulou.
Here, she gives practical advice in simple terms, based on extensive research. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better book on this subject. It’s had a huge impact on the way I teach and I know I’d be a poorer teacher without having read it.
I’d love to know your thoughts on this. Leave a reply below or send me a message @guruteaching on Twitter.
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.
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!
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…
Students remember more information because they have practised retrieval
Students then become more confident and so worry less about upcoming tests
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!
I originally wrote this to my students, but on reflection, it works just as well for teachers, or anyone else with a heavy workload of any kind. This week I’ve written about the Pareto Principle. Pareto was an Italian economist who noticed that 20% of the population owned 80% of the land. He also noticed that 20% of his peapods were responsible for 80% of the peas grown in his garden. It’s a principle also observed in other fields too, such as in sport (20% of your training is responsible for 80% of your gains) and in business (80% of your revenue is generated by 20% of your customers, etc). I intend to apply the Pareto Principle to solve the problem of teacher workload.
The 80/20 split isn’t perfectly accurate. In fact, it’s often anecdotal, sometimes misunderstood and in many cases, it’s difficult to measure at all. But the accuracy of the 80/20 split isn’t important. What IS important is the recognition that some activities are more likely to boost your success than others. The crucial “20%” tasks should be prioritised over the less crucial “80%” ones.
My workload experience
Observation of my own workload over the past year shows that 80% of my success is down to 20% of my workload. This seems like an easy thing to say and a difficult thing to measure, but just take stock of some of the tasks that you and I, as teachers, have completed over the past year:
Organised and delivered extra-curricular activities
Made phone calls home or met with students’ parents
Filled in data tables
Attended Open Evenings
Compiled student reports
Helped draft university applications
Helped with students’ job applications
Attended professional development sessions
All of these activities are valuable. They all have a place. However, the Pareto Principle asks which of these activities contributed MOST to the academic success of students (our main goal). This activity is where we should focus most of our attention. This activity is priority number one. Our other activities can often wait, or could perhaps even be removed from the list, without a decline in results.
So, where is the 80/20 in teaching workload?
When I’ve looked at the outcomes for my students, essentially in exam scores, they perform better on questions where I’ve spent more time planning detailed lessons which not only explore the main topic areas but also discuss the subtle nuances surrounding them. When I’ve taken extra time to cater for the range of students in the class, I pre-emptively ask myself questions about why they might struggle on a given task. Once I’ve identified this challenge, I’m able to implement strategies to deal with it before the problem occurs in the lesson. By the end, all students are able to demonstrate exceptional progress, regardless of their various starting points and personal barriers to learning.
Second to planning is feedback (but not always written feedback). I’ve posted about this before, so click here to find out more. After that, the other activities I listed above play only a relatively small part in raising achievement. These are all Marginal Gains areas that I’ve mentioned in a previous post. They are the extra things that you can do that may not make much difference on their own, but collectively can change an entire grade. I love the Marginal Gains theory, but it must be in balance with Pareto’s 80/20 Principle, otherwise teacher workload becomes unbearable and unrealistic.
My reason for implementing Pareto’s teacher workload solution?
I want to apply the Pareto Principle to the workload experienced by teachers, because, let’s face it, we need help.
Recruitment and retention of teaching staff, both in the UK and in many other countries is at an all-time low. A major reason for this is that heavy workload dominates teachers’ lives, often impacting upon physical and mental wellbeing. This cannot go on, it’s morally indefensible, lacks long-term strategy (just watch the increasing drop-out rate for newly qualified teachers) and is a completely unrealistic ideology.
I know this is controversial, perhaps even political. But my aim here is simply to ask an important question. Teachers only have a finite amount of time to deliver an outstanding education. Teachers also have families and children of their own. They also have limited levels of physical and mental endurance.
We are already stretched to breaking point by our existing workload and more work is being added.
Q: What activities should we remove from our workload list?
A: Anything that doesn’t directly IMPROVE the quality of the work produced by students.
We want the best for students. We want our schools to be successful. We want to enjoy our own lives too (even if that seems unreasonable to some policy-makers). But above all, if teachers suffer, then the standard of education does too. If education suffers, then communities, businesses and individual people suffer.
So, what’s next?
I’ll be focusing more and more of my attention on planning extremely high-quality sequences of lessons. I’ll let you know how I get on!
I’d love to know your thoughts on this. Also, please SHARE this article with any teacher you know.
Teacher workload is the biggest issue affecting teacher wellbeing, as well as teacher recruitment and retention. Only together can we fix it!
It consumed every evening and at least one day of the weekend. The workload was unbearable. I had no life and the cycle repeated itself every week until the summer holidays. I hated marking.
Oh, and by the way, it made no difference!
I was ticking and flicking, leaving comments that were far too generic and the marking often went unnoticed or unacknowledged by the students. So, I’ve stopped. Or at least, I’ve stopped doing what I was doing. Now, my marking is less frequent but makes a much greater difference to the progress of my students.
I’ve trialled a few different methods of marking and feedback (they aren’t always the same thing!) to a wide range of classes from KS3 to KS5. I’ve settled, for now, on the one that appears to make the biggest difference, whilst taking the least amount of time to implement. My classes are making better progress and I have my life back!
How to mark and still have a life
Decide why you are marking in the first place
It isn’t agreed by all educators what the purpose of marking is. Some argue it is to point out where the student is going wrong and guiding them back to where they should be going. Some argue it is to build up a relationship between the teacher and the students so that the teacher can understand better how to support them in class. Others think that marking is a way of showing to parents and school inspectors that teachers are paying attention to the work produced by students. Recently, Ofsted has begun using evidence from marked books and folders as a better judgement of progress than lesson observations.
My view is that marking is one method we can use to cause an improvement in student performance. It isn’t the only method; forms of feedback other than traditional marking can be much more effective, e.g. immediate verbal feedback (one of the most significant drivers of improvement in my experience). It is the ‘causal’ relationship between the marking and the improvement which is the key point here.
If marking doesn’t ’cause’ improvement, then either change it or abandon it entirely.
As teachers, we are sometimes slow to abandon practices that don’t yield fruit immediately. We see value in playing the long game. However, we can also fall into the trap of mistaking the ‘long game’ for plain old-fashioned ‘laziness’.
Question: Are we really assessing our methods over time, or are we just unwilling to change our method and hoping that things will improve?
Only mark work that will significantly help your students achieve their goal
Some work should be marked and other work shouldn’t. We should get students to do both types of work, as they serve different purposes. However, we also need to distinguish between both types of work when planning our lessons. Otherwise, our lessons risk becoming too formulaic, may lack creativity and will fail to engage at least some of the students.
To decide which work to mark, ask this question: “What does the student need to be able to do by the end of the course?”
The work should (only?)* be marked if it shows:
the student adding to or improving a skill that they need to be able to master
the student’s understanding of a concept, story, method, etc that they need to be able to explain
the student’s detailed analysis, application or evaluation of a theory that they need to be able to argue
The work (perhaps?)* shouldn’t be marked if it shows:
Repetition of previously marked work (with nothing added or amended)
Basic consolidation of understanding and which may be below the student’s ‘true potential’ (I hate this phrase but we all use it)
skills, knowledge, etc that doesn’t help students in their pursuit of the goals of the course (why would you be doing these tasks anyway?)
*In teaching, nuance is everything – you know when an exception can be made here!
You must give feedback quickly
Students who receive marked work long after they handed it in are less likely to engage with the feedback comments. Make sure that you return their work in a timely manner, so that they can still remember the topic clearly. Immediate feedback has been shown to make the biggest difference to students. The longer you leave it, the less difference your marking will make.
Only make comments that will significantly help students achieve their goal
Generic comments like ‘great effort’ and ‘more detail needed’ are only useful up to a point. They tell the student in a vague way how you feel about their work. However, they do not give any specifics about what to do to rectify any mistakes or omissions. There are different schools of thought on this. We can either go the ‘spoon-feeding’ way and tell our students exactly what they should have done differently. This can include re-writing sentences or adding content that students failed to include, for example. However, this can be time-consuming. For an easier way, read this post on how to implement a marking code, to reduce marking time.
Alternatively, we can encourage more independence in our students by giving them some indication of what they should do, but without the specifics of how to do it or what it should look like. I use a mixture of both but tend towards the latter. Over the years, I’ve found with my classes that if they come to rely on specifics from me, then over time they lose the ability to solve problems for themselves further down the line.
Ensure that students respond to the marking
When students respond to marking it accelerates their progress. When students don’t respond to marking, their progress will be limited. Responding to feedback also leads to higher levels of confidence over time. But not only that, it helps you see more easily what a fantastic difference your interventions are making in their education. Since we are all here to make a difference, maybe this will be why you would move to the marking system I’ve adopted. Another benefit: you’ll have more time for a social life (remember that?). But that’s not all.
You may even learn to love marking. Really.
My personal marking policy may be controversial, it might already be in use by you and your team, or it may seem arbitrary and confusing. Either way, I always appreciate constructive feedback.
My students are generally very good at recalling the points that they are supposed to make when writing their essays. However, where they often lose marks, at least at the beginning of the course, is where they add detail to their points. For years I found that this was a challenge to teach. I teach two different essay-based subjects. I’ve also examined at GCSE and A Level for two different exam boards, so the topics I’ve covered are extremely varied. Over the years I’ve come up with a few different essay structures and even paragraph structures for students to follow. I have found that essays which gain the highest marks, regardless of the subject, share a number of striking similarities. These similarities can not only be applied to my own subjects but can be effective in very different subjects such as Science and Technology too. Hopefully, though, with a little tweaking, you should be able to take these tactics and apply them to any subject you teach.
The top 10 ways to add detail to an essay
Over a period of ten years, I’ve taught Religious Studies, Law and even dabbled in Critical Thinking. This year I’ve also taken on the Extended Project Qualification. They are all assessed on different criteria. But despite this, I have found that the essays which gain the highest marks share a number of striking similarities. These similarities can not only be applied to my own subjects but can be effective in subjects such as Science and Technology too. What we all know though is that when students add detail, they achieve higher marks.
It is often very important to write an introduction, but not always. Whenever I read a good introduction, it is always focused directly on the question the student must tackle. It isn’t always necessary to “rephrase” the question, but for some students, this can be a good way for them to focus their mind on the way they would like to answer the question. Beware, though, if the student rephrases the question in a way that moves away from the central topic criteria, then it can sabotage the rest of the essay.
In some cases, an introduction is not needed and the student is better off just diving straight into giving their first argument or setting out the first part of a theory that they will go on to explain.
In evaluative essays, the introduction should be planned well in advance, so that the student can set out what they intend to prove. If this isn’t planned in advance, the student may be caught out and actually have to admit in their conclusion that their original position is not supported by the evidence they gave in the body of the essay. Planning is key!
2. Defining ‘terms’
Key terms related to the central aspects of the question should be defined and analysed. Often a key term can be interpreted in a number of ways. This might change the outcome of the essay’s conclusion, so it is useful for the student to set out what they interpret from the outset. That way, the internal logic of the argument is likely to be far more resistant to criticism.
3. Defining ‘style’
It isn’t always necessary in the essay to write about the style of the essay the student is writing, but in some subjects it is. For example, are they writing to explain or to argue? If they are arguing, are they basing the argument on deductive reasoning or inductive reasoning? Are they relying on empirical evidence to prove their point, or will logic suffice?
It is also crucial for the student to know whether they are simply trying to demonstrate how a theory works, or whether they are evaluating its effectiveness. In many exam questions, this difference is signposted by the ‘trigger words’ in the question. If it says ‘analyse’ or ‘explain’ then it is asking for the student to show mastery of a theory. If it says ‘assess how far’ or ‘evaluate’ then the student will need to weigh up evidence for and against, then arrive at a conclusion.
4. PEE paragraphs
PEE stands for Point, Explain, Evidence and is a popular structure for students to ensure that they add detail to their essays. The advantage of this style of writing is that it is clear and easy for students to remember. It is also easy for the examiner to quickly pick out the points they are looking for, so long as the PEE style is followed consistently. A disadvantage, though, is that when used consistently, without adding any extra elements, the essay can lack flair. Students may, therefore, miss crucial areas that the examiner would like better answers to show, e.g. hypothetical alternatives (see below).
5. IDEA paragraphs
IDEA stands for Identify, Define, Explain, Apply. I teach this structure to my students who are answering a scenario-based question. In Law, this could mean that they must identify the offence committed, define the rules governing this offence, explain how the rules are applied in theory and in previous cases and then apply those rules to the facts of the scenario. I find it works a lot better than the PEE paragraphs because it adds detail by including a further level of depth. Also, you can teach students specifically how to structure each of the constituent parts of IDEA. Then you just tailor them to whatever subject you want to across the curriculum.
When writing an argument, there are two things that excellent answers tend to show: passion and clear reasoning. Arguments that jump out at the reader will often be worded strongly. By simply changing “Aristotle’s objection is strong because…” to “Aristotle’s objection is particularly strong because”, it adds an extra element: judgement. This shows to the examiner that the student has weighed up the different objections and decided that this one is more notable than the others. Higher marks for evaluation will usually follow.
7. Scholars and Authorities
Adding detail in the form of scholar’s views, case studies from the media or quotes from texts is an excellent way to support your arguments. The key here, though, is to cite the authority and then analyse the different ways that it could both show support for your point but also any drawbacks that authority has. For example, you could use a court case to illustrate how a law is applied in reality, but then point out how slight differences in the case may have changed how useful the case is in supporting your argument. Differences in interpretation of a scholar’s view are the best way to demonstrate a breadth of study, clarity of thought and depth of evaluation.
Sometimes there isn’t an example from real life that a student can draw from to illustrate their point. In this case, encourage the student to create their own hypothetical scenario that would show illustrate their point. This highlights to the examiner that the student is aware of how to apply their argument to reality. A good tip is to keep the hypothetical scenario as simple as possible so that there is less chance that the student will confuse themselves or the reader. Any extra complexity in the scenario, however, would give the student a great opportunity to examine a range of issues that might not surface if the scenario was simpler.
This component is sometimes overlooked, especially as it may not be specified by an exam board as a marking criterion. By ‘audience’ I’m referring to the intended recipient of an argument. For example, my Religious Studies students often evaluate the strength of an argument regarding belief in God. It might be assumed that the intended audience for an argument proving of God’s existence is non-believers, in order to change their beliefs. However, this may not be the case at all. The argument’s intended audience may instead be people who already believe in God. The strength of the argument, therefore, does not depend on successful conversions. When this element is added by the students, it demonstrates a much broader view of the role of arguments in general, a much more sophisticated view.
My students often struggle with this one. They often just make a simple statement, either agreeing or disagreeing with the point they made in their introduction. As an examiner, I would want to know why they chose this conclusion, as opposed to an alternative one. Teach your students to explain why they were persuaded this way and which reasons were the most significant and why. If they want to add some unexpected ‘twist’, then this can be of benefit, as it can show creative thought. However, I try to dissuade my students from doing this. This is because, if their ‘twist’ is good enough to be mentioned, then it should appear earlier in the essay and be analysed in depth, just like the other reasons they gave.
As a teacher, motivating students is one of the biggest challenges we face. There are probably a number of reasons, other than the quality of teaching, to explain why some students didn’t make as much progress as they could have done. Lack of motivation, distraction, tiredness, ineffective study techniques, porr homework record, the list goes on.
But no matter what the reason was for their underperformance, we, as their teachers or Heads of Departments, will have to quickly deal with the areas that have held those students back from achieving their potential. Otherwise, we fail too.
In your first lesson back after the summer holidays, take some time to explain to students the context of their results: why the results matter, but also why students are not defined by their exam results. They are people, not data. This may offer little comfort to some who think that they’ve wasted a year or two, but at least they will see you as being on their side and being willing to look for solutions. This will help later on when things get tough again.
However, most importantly, it’s true. Students are people, not little marks on a chart, or a step towards achieving an acceptable percentage for the cohort. Teachers can lose sight of this when schools are increasingly measured by exam data. If this thought isn’t central to our thinking, then we will lose sight of the entire purpose of education – to help people achieve their full potential and contribute positively to the world.
Below I’ve outlined a few solutions, as a way to begin helping your students to the next level after their exams. It’s a starting point, not a complete solution. So if I’ve missed something obvious, or you would do things differently, then good! You know your students better than I do!
Priorities for improving student achievement:
Sometimes it’s important to refer back to the big picture. Ask the students why they are here, studying your subject. Get them to see both the intrinsic and extrinsic value of performing well your subject. Will high performance in the subject lead to Higher Education, a career, further vocational training? Will proficiency in the subject develop skills relevant to a wide variety of industries? Will the skills increase enjoyment, or be useful in everyday life? So long as you can find a “yes” for each of your students, you will be able to do something to improve their motivation.
Unsurprisingly, students will be very emotional. Surprisingly, though, many teachers do not tap into this to see if there is some way to get students to focus on positive emotions. I find that visualisation can help here. Tip for motivating students: Have the students close their eyes and talk them through what the upcoming year will look like, leading through various stages, all the way up to results day when they will open their results envelope, discovering the grades they are hoping for. By giving students the time and by creating the conditions for them to imagine the simple stages leading to success, they will see the end result as attainable. This will help prevent the familiar “I can’t do that” mindset that can emerge after a poor performance in an exam. Resilience is key. You can read more on developing resilience here.
Focus is crucial. Distraction is the enemy of focus. If there are distractions, then identify them. Remove the distractions when the revision is supposed to take place. Once temptation to procrastinate is removed, focus will be easier to achieve. Popular distractions for my students include:
an infinite number ways to procrastinate online
By far the biggest distraction for my students is social media. I tell my students that when revising, turn off your mobile and put it in another room. Try to revise using offline methods wherever possible. Anecdotally, it works. Try it – it might work for your students too!
Studies suggest a wide range in the number of hours that we need, but they generally all agree that students need even more! Remind students to get to bed early more often than not and over time it will have a huge impact on their attention spans and ability to retain information. Revising whilst tired is a poor substitute for revising whilst alert.
Effective vs ineffective study techniques
Get the students to mind-map their revision methods (if they used more than one – hopefully they did). Then get them to list the most effective and least effective methods they used – NOT the ones they enjoy or prefer. A discussion of the results will help groups of students to see what ‘busy work’ they should avoid next time, leaving time to complete effective revision. There’s nothing worse than finding out that you’ve worked hard and been busy in the lead up to an exam, only to find that your revision didn’t actually work!
Motivating students is a much simpler task if you can clearly show them the best ways to achieve success.
I always ask this question with my fingers crossed behind my back. For some teachers and some students, it will have been a day of celebration. For others, it might have been a very different kind of day. Tread carefully!
It’s very easy to take one look at the exam results your students have achieved and let your emotions take control. Many teachers have told me that they immediately look to see who achieved the top grades and also who failed outright. (The middle of the road students being ignored yet again! Aaaarrghh!!) Many of us want to jump for joy when we see our (students) work pay off. However, many teachers also feel deflated and even under pressure to ‘explain themselves’ when they return to school if a student or group of students has not made the progress expected of them.
But now that Results Day has passed, with all of its euphoria, hysteria and emojis, we as teachers need to re-evaluate how we will teach our next cohort of students. This is probably the most important part of my planning for the following year, more important than individual lesson plans, or even marking assessments. Without knowing how to analyse exam results deeply and accurately, there can be no clear strategy for the following year.
As I mentioned in my post on Making Better Decisions, a clear strategy is the key to success. Otherwise, the same mistakes will be repeated and ultimately results will decline. For next year’s strategy to work, we need to make sure that we are fully knowledgeable about what is going to improve students’ chances and how we can avoid the triggers that lead to them dropping below their potential. It’s easy to panic when things don’t go as well as planned and you might have a thousand thought flying around your head. Those thoughts need to be organised if they are to create better conditions for learning next year.
How to Analyse Exam Results
Below are my Top Ten Questions for analysing exam results for your classes. You can answer them with the focus on students, teachers, school leadership, resources, attendance, behaviour, whatever is most appropriate. The most important point though, is honesty. Only a truthful examination of the reasons for the results being what they were, will lead you to a better strategy for next year. If you shy away from the true reasons for a dip in results, then you will never put it right. This means analysing your own performance and the performance of those in your team. Sometimes this can lead to difficult conversations (particularly with yourself!), but they are conversations that must happen and they must lead to action, to build upon successes so far and improve the following year.
Answering the Top Ten Questions in as much detail as possible makes it easier to have these conversations with yourself and others, as you will invariably move from ‘blame’ to ‘solution’, a much more positive conversation point.
Top Ten Questions
How close were my predictions for these results?
Which results were surprisingly high? Why might that have been the case?
Which results were surprisingly low? Why might this be the case?
Which surprising results should be investigated further, via recall of scripts or a re-mark?
What steps should I put in place to reduce the probability of low results?
What steps should I put in place to increase the probability of high results?
Did students in my classes perform to a similar level in their other subjects? Why or why not?
How do my results compare to results in similar schools?
How do my results compare to results in schools nationally?
How do my results compare to previous years? (Does a trend emerge over time?)
Once your analysis is complete, create an action plan to tackle each of the factors that emerged as being influential, both positive and negative. This action plan should include short-term and long-term tactics to raise achievement. Share this action plan with your team and see what else they can bring to the table. Good practice is to see what other departments are doing too. They may have similar positive and negative points that could be better tackled inter-departmentally.
Finally, good luck for the next year!
Knowing how to Analyse exam results is a huge challenge for all of us every year. I’d love to know what questions you ask, or how you tackle underperformance – particularly of pre-identified groups.