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.
This article is a transcript of a training session on Effective Remote Learning Strategies, which I delivered to Religious Education PGCE students at the University of Sunderland on 28 Jan 2021.
[Article contains affiliate links]
The Nature of Remote Learning: How Different Is It?
Remote learning, remote teaching, remote schools. It’s all different. As much as we can try to emulate what we ordinarily do in the classroom, there is something distinctly different about teaching via a screen.
We can’t see each other a lot of the time. Either the video isn’t working, or someone’s got their camera turned off. Maybe our students don’t want everyone to be able to see into their homes. Maybe we don’t either!
But the upshot of it is that we don’t have that crucial interaction with other people, seeing their facial expressions, watching to see when their attention span might be dipping. Seeing whether Tyler is copying again, or doing his own work this week. We also can’t tell whether or not Sarah is sleeping during her lesson, or whether she’s slept at all for the past couple of days.
What we do as teachers, when trying to educate our students is incredibly complex. You will be focused on developing your pedagogy, your behaviour management, your understanding of assessment and so on this year and rightly so!
But what the Teachers’ Standards don’t adequately assess is our ability to spot and react to the tiny details that we pick up on when having a conversation. It can be a word, a look, a shiftiness, a lack of care and attention to detail, a short temper. All of these things tell us how to adapt our practice and we do it unconsciously a lot of the time.
Remote learning often prevents us from being able to do this well, or even at all.
So, one of the greatest challenges teachers are facing right now is not in their teaching. We have adapted our practices pretty well this year, refined our curriculum, changed our modes of assessment and they work. The challenge we face is in not knowing how our students are doing, from a Pastoral point of view, at least not without further investigation. In the normal classroom, we could have a quiet word in a students ear, or ask them to step into the corridor for a quick chat about something that’s clearly bothering them. This often nips the problem in the bud or at least lets the student know that their problem is on the way to being dealt with.
The remote lesson is often not a good place for similar investigations to take place. After all, would you want your teacher broadcasting to the class their questions about your personal life? Or even worse, in the private chat function? NO THANKS! Aside from it being a Safeguarding minefield, it just doesn’t work like a normal human interaction. This makes things a lot trickier for a teacher on their own to tackle.
However, I’m not going to spend further time on that issue, as it needs a session of its own and someone with greater Pastoral expertise than mine to deal with it.
Finally, there are two different types of remote teaching or remote learning that take place.
Synchronous, where the lessons are being taught “live”
Asynchronous, where the lessons are pre-recorded, or tasks are set to be completed online, but not necessarily at a set time.
There are good reasons why a school or Multi Academy Trust would opt for one or the other of these modes of teaching. Most schools that I’m aware of employ a combination of both.
Where I teach, we are expected to incorporate a live element to the lesson, but it doesn’t have to be for the full lesson. Maybe you would have a live introduction, before setting the students off on tasks for a period of time. You could then rejoin them later in the lesson to go through answers, or to set the next set of tasks.
Or, you might be “live” throughout the lesson, breaking the lesson down into lots of short chunks and asking students lots of questions, verbally, during the session, while being “there” for the whole time.
Or, the students themselves might even take on more of a presenting role during the lesson, with the teacher being the listener, rather than the speaker.
There are lots of different approaches to teaching remotely and I would highly recommend varying your style of lesson now and again, to prevent (a) boredom and (b) burnout. I’ll be going through a couple of ways to do this when we look at some of the types of tasks that are useful when I teach remotely myself.
If “live lessons” are so useful then why don’t we all do them all the time? (I hear Gavin Williamson ask).
Well, Gavin, the fact of the matter is that students might not be able to access the lesson remotely, in the same way that they can access the lesson in a normal school environment.
They might not have their own device. They could be sharing with others in the family. This isn’t a deprivation issue though. I find this hard myself. I teach from home on a laptop. My wife also works from home on her laptop. I have two primary school-age children, each needing the use of a laptop (and supervision!) Oh, and I have a 4-year-old, rightfully wanting to be entertained for the whole day (often popping into my lessons to sing theme tunes from her favourite Netflix shows). Sometimes there just aren’t enough devices to go around! (And that’s without my laptop breaking last week!)
They might not have broadband. Or data on their phone. Or even a phone. Maybe mam’s got a phone, but she’s at work.
There could be SEND issues affecting students’ ability to access the materials. Perhaps they aren’t differentiated or scaffolded as well as they would be in class. The TA that normally sits beside them isn’t there any more to talk them through the task piece by piece.
Parents might not have the knowledge, the time or the patience to help their children, even if they wanted to. Unfortunately for some children, their parents don’t even seem to want to.
Students are left to regulate their own learning. This is hard. They have to take almost complete ownership of it for the first time in their lives. Getting up on time, doing the work without anyone checking if they are doing it and so on. For a lot of students, they struggle with not being told what to do. When we looked at home students performed during and after the first lockdown where most students learnt from home, it helped some of those students become extremely independent. Most students stayed about the same in terms of their independence. But some of them regressed significantly, becoming much less confident in their abilities and required much more extensive support afterwards. And it isn’t always easy to spot which students will fall into each of those three categories. It doesn’t always affect the typical “groups” that you might normally monitor, like PP, SEND, vulnerable, etc. Some of the highest levels of stress were felt by the higher attainers, who were left devastated by the thought that the lockdown might prevent them from getting onto the high-flying career that they were planning for.
Ofsted have also published their own guidance on What’s working well in remote education. You can find it here.
Pedagogy: Is the “teaching” bit really any different?
Now that we’ve dealt with the difference in the nature of remote vs normal teaching, we need to get down to the pedagogy. This is where you have the most amount of control over the situation and can make a real difference and where you should focus the majority of your attention.
There are some simple things you can do to make remote learning work better, but these are strategies you would also use in a normal classroom too. As always, some are more powerful than others, or are more necessary, depending on the school, the group, or the individuals in front of you, virtually or not.
Firstly, make sure that you think about the structure of your lesson. In the normal classroom, you could talk to your students for much longer and have a much more relaxed interaction with the class. The remote classroom is different. Often it might seem as though you are lecturing into the void, with nobody speaking back to you, much like I’m doing now. This is ok, for short bursts, but students won’t hold attention for long.
Pause often. Break the lesson into much shorter chunks than you normally would with a face-to-face lesson. Plan for pauses in the lesson, to give students a chance to digest the information, to discuss it, either using their actual voices or if not, then in the chat box. This is something that Doug Lemov points out in Teaching in the Online Classroom – Surviving and Thriving in the New Normal. (I really do recommend this book as it gives some brilliant practical advice and draws from teachers’ real classroom experiences as well as from research studies.)
Use cold-calling, rather than waiting for the same students to volunteer their answers. A good method to use for your questioning technique is to ask the question, pause for a few seconds, then name the student who you would like the answer from. This has the twin-benefit of keeping everyone on their toes, while also giving students the opportunity to think of an answer before their name is called.
If a student can’t answer, then don’t leave the interaction there. Try rephrasing the question, or giving them a little prompt. If they still can’t answer, then don’t continue to flog a dead horse, as my granny used to say. Instead, tell them that you will come back to them for their answer later on, or for an answer to another question. This lets them and everyone else know that there’s no opt-out. No getting off the hook. It makes it much less likely that students will attempt to dodge questions later on. They know they won’t get away with it.
Make sure you also ask a lot of questions. You might be familiar with Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction, but in case you aren’t, he suggests that the teachers whose students performed better in the research studies, all other things considered, asked far more questions than their peers. Not only that, but those effective questioners asked a higher proportion of questions about the process of getting to the answer, as well as asking for the answer itself.
This makes sense doesn’t it? After all, a student might guess the answer correctly, or be told the answer secretly by their best friend. But if you probe a little further, asking why that is the answer, any doubt will soon unravel and you will know whether the student truly knows the answer, or whether, like me when I was in Y10, they are just blagging it.
It’s usually not enough to ask students to create an extended answer, without showing them what one looks like first. The problem is that if you show them an image of a completed paragraph, perfectly crafted, using sophisticated terminology, detailed explanations and lucid examples, it will demotivate them. It’s the same as showing you a photo of Duc a l’Orange and then sending you into a kitchen to knock one up (thanks for that analogy go to Matt Pinket (@positivteacha), co-author of the incredible Boys Don’t Try? Rethinking Masculinity In Schools).
Seeing the end result doesn’t actually show you how to get there. This is where modelling helps.
I like the “I do, we do, you do” approach. It gradually moves responsibility from the teacher to the students. In the remote classroom you can quite easily do this using an online whiteboard like Google’s Jamboard, or whiteboard.fi. Or if you just want a simpler way to do it, create an answer on a blank document or slide, while sharing your screen with the class.
Make sure that as you construct your model answer, you narrate your thinking, so that students understand why you are making the decisions you are making, choosing one word over another, or structuring your paragraph in a certain way.
After that, do one together, getting students to suggest what to write, how to edit it as you go, suggesting improvements and revisions. Help them to understand that writing is a messy process and that they don’t need to create an amazing answer on their first attempt. This fear of writing it “wrong” is often paralysing. You can avoid this paralysis by removing the notion of “wrong writing” altogether.
Finally, get students to do their own, without any (or with much less) support. This is where remote learning differs slightly from the normal classroom. You would ordinarily be able to peer over someone’s shoulder to see what they were writing and to offer feedback. To make that possible in a remote setting I’ve found a useful way to emulate this. I use Google Classroom, Docs, Slides, etc but Microsoft has similar functions too.
To do this, share editable documents with your students for them to type their answers into. When they type into it, you can see what they are typing in real-time. So, you can offer real-time advice, rather than waiting for them to submit the final piece, by which point any meaningful in-the-moment feedback will be redundant. You can therefore give timely comments to your students, referring to the models you worked on together previously and keeping that useful advice you narrated earlier in their minds for longer.
When I’ve spoken to my students about how they are finding remote learning, a lot of them miss the fact that they can’t see what their friends are producing. They like to know if they are keeping pace with the rest of the class. It can be very unnerving to not know whether you are doing enough, or too much, or just as expected. By being able to work with their peers, we can avoid this problem too.
I’ve started using shared spreadsheets for some collaborative tasks. What I do is I share a spreadsheet with the whole class. They all have their own column, row or tab that they type their answers into, so that they don’t accidentally overwrite someone else’s work. But what is great is that they can see what each other is typing in real-time.
For some, this gives them a nudge in the right direction if they aren’t pulling their own weight. For others, it can instil a sense of competitiveness, as they want to write something better or quicker or more original than their best friend. Some of them even use this as an opportunity to show off, but in a way that isn’t disruptive, as it doesn’t cause a scene.
This sort of task works best when used in synchronous learning, as the live element enhances the interactions between the students. It also works in asynchronous learning too though, as it gives “absent” students the ability to read the answers that were given in the live lesson, helping them to feel less like they have missed out. They can always add their answers later on.
Unless you think about it carefully and deliberately plan for it, assessment of remote learning can be very difficult. After all, it’s much easier to check for gaps in the learning, or gaps in work completed by taking a quick flick through an exercise book, or scanning the room as you’re doing an in-class test.
Fortunately, there are tools you can use to make the job of remote-assessment much simpler. Google and Microsoft both have similar functionality, but their apps are called different names and the labels on the buttons is often slightly different. For the purposes of this session, I’ll be talking about how I use Google’s platform, but rest assured you can do similar things using Microsoft too.
To capture student data on their knowledge and understanding of a topic, I create quizzes using Google Forms. The benefit of this is that once my Google Forms quizzes are created, I can:
Re-use this resource with different classes
Share it with as many students as I like at the click of a button
Easily edit the questions
Randomise the order of the questions to help prevent cheating
Collect and analyse data automatically – it is self-marking
Give feedback automatically, or at a set time in the future
Easily test for and spot common errors and misconceptions.
The quiz questions themselves can be different styles: multiple choice, short answer, long answer, source-based (comment on the photo), etc. I prefer the multiple choice ones though. They are the easiest to set as a self-marking task and they have the huge advantage of being adaptable for different levels of difficulty. To increase the difficulty, I often increase the number of common misconceptions in the available answers, making it easier for the blagger to make a mistake and reveal themselves. Or I pose questions that only someone who had really learnt the material would be able to answer.
One top tip that will save you further time is that if you often use the same style of form, then you can set up or edit an existing template, rather than you having to edit your Google Form quiz from scratch each time. I only found this out yesterday and I’m far too excited about it. Alice Keeler (@alicekeeler) is unofficially the Queen of Google Classroom. She posts new videos frequently on the different things you can do, so it’s worth scrolling through her feed to see what tips you can pick up.
Another way to easily create and collect an assessment is by giving out an “Assignment”. This is where students would be given a task, where you can specify a time limit. The way I do this is by scheduling the task to appear in my students’ Google Classroom timeline at a specific time of the day and for the deadline to be at a specified time later in the day.
This is ideal for doing timed assessments during a lesson, as you can tell the students that, “At 9:30 your Medical Ethics timed assessment will appear on Google Classroom. You have 30 minutes to complete and hand it in, from the moment the assignment appears. Open the blank Google Doc attached and type your answers directly into it. Click “Hand It In” by 10:00.”
Any student who does not complete the assignment by 10:00 will be automatically logged as late, or that they haven’t handed it in at all if that is the case. This makes chasing students up much easier as you can just send a message on Google straight to those students, with further instructions or feedback.
This type of activity only really works with synchronous learning though, so depending on the nature of your lessons, or the circumstances of your students, it might not always be possible. That being said, I can see this being used much more widely than previously, even once the pandemic is over and all students are back in the school building full time.
6. Giving Feedback
Giving feedback on the work completed via Google Classroom is going to be a method that I’ll continue to use, once we are all back in school too. It’s so much easier than writing on paper the same sorts of comments over and over again. I’ve already been using a whole class feedback approach for most of the feedback that I give anyway for the past couple of years, creating a slide that all students can see on the board with common errors and misconceptions.
What I can do now though, is easily share that as a Google Doc and place it in my students’ timeline, so that when they receive their marks, they can also see most of the mistakes that they made. For any mistakes that aren’t covered by the whole class feedback, I would add a private comment on the student’s work. I’ve created a comment bank to help with this. All I need to do is to click where the comment would apply and type the # key to bring up all of the comments I could select from.
You can also give an assessment back to the students to mark themselves, using a rubric. This is where you prepare a sheet with basic descriptors on it, that students then apply to their own answer. E.g. “⅗ if you have described the concept/object/event/teaching and given one example, but not given a second example in support”. You can then have greater confidence that the students are able to understand what makes their answer better and therefore what they need to do differently next time, or in a redraft of their answers. Dawn Cox (@missdcox), co-author of Making Every RE Lesson Count posted a Twitter thread about her use of rubrics, which you can find here.
The crucial thing to remember about giving feedback though is that it is not just something a teacher does to the student. The purpose is to ensure that the student is in a better position to answer next time. Don’t point out “more detail needed here”. This doesn’t really help the student. If they knew the detail you were on about, then they would probably have written about it. Instead, tell them, or show them what it is you want them to do next time, eg “Mention St Bernadette’s experience in Lourdes here”. This makes it much less likely that the student will flounder when attempting a redraft because they have a clearer understanding of what the answer should look like.
On Google Forms Quizzes, you can easily give feedback, when designing the questions. At the end of the multiple choice answers, there is a section where you can include feedback on whichever answer was given. This is where you can type in the correct answer and the reason(s) why, so that students who answer incorrectly can see why they should have chosen a different answer. Remember, students need to understand not just the answers, but they must have the correct process to get to those answers. If they get the answer right by accident, then they don’t really understand and they will become unstuck on essay questions later on.
Behaviour management and relationships
I can only really speak from my own experience on this topic, but I think behaviour, in general, is better than it was. By better, I only mean what I can see on the surface. There aren’t students shouting out, or pinching each other’s stationery. They might still be avoiding work or being distracted. I just can’t easily see it as obviously.
However, there are some classes whose behaviour stands out from others, in a good way, and I put it down to this: Means of Participation.
This is something I read in Doug Lemov’s Teach Like A Champion quite a while back, but I recently read an article by Adam Boxer (@adamboxer1) that mentioned it again and it brought it more sharply in my conscious understanding of how I speak to students in my own lessons.
When you set your instructions for an assignment, but then you aren’t there to keep an eye on what is going on, the students will often not do what you want them to do. This isn’t on purpose, though, they think they are doing what you’ve asked. The problem is that they haven’t really taken on board the “means of participation” or the rules of engagement if you like. Sometimes this is because I have forgotten to explain the parameters of the task, e.g. “You should write roughly 400 words” or “Use three Jewish teachings in your answer”.
Sometimes though, I give out the instructions in the wrong order. Can you spot the difference between these instructions?
In the Google Doc attached, write 500 words explaining the Jewish kosher rules, where they originate and how some Jews might find them difficult to live by.
Write about the Jewish kosher rules, where they originate and how some Jews might find them difficult to live by, in 500 words, using the Google Doc attached.
The nature of the task and the procedure or behaviour expectation are placed opposite ways around. I’ve found that if you place the behavioural expectation, the parameters or means of participation, at the front or at the start of your instructions, then the students are less likely to answer the question in the wrong way. It is even more important to do this when speaking to the class than when it is written down for them, as they can’t easily go back over the words you’ve said, especially if they are busy thinking of the next thing to do.
The last thing I want to say about behaviour management is also a Pastoral thing too. You need to deliberately put effort into maintaining your relationships with students. In class this is easy and comes naturally as you can see and hear each other and have a bit of banter with them. In a remote lesson it’s much harder. If they are learning asynchronously it’s even more difficult. When can you speak to them?
Make sure that you invest some time going out of your way to praise, reward and guide them personally. Mention them by name in your lessons, in written feedback to the class, or even just in an email to them about their progress. Phone calls home or even just emails home to parents can be invaluable, as it reminds students that they haven’t been forgotten about, especially if they aren’t able to be present in lessons.
Practical Tips to Reduce Workload
Encourage the use of cameras if that works in your setting. It’s easier to maintain relationships and to see if students are paying attention.
Almost always choose self-marking over teacher-marking where possible, when assessing to check knowledge.
Set deadlines for tasks, but understand that these need to be much more flexible than in normal times. Sometimes there is no need for a deadline.
Use scheduling to batch your planning. You can set assignments and materials to be uploaded at specific points in the future. This means I can get all of my planning done in one day for the next month. This frees up my time to do other things later on, knowing that students will regularly have work set for them without me having to lift a finger.
Set expectations high for the completion of the work set, just as you would in your normal classroom. Students stay engaged in their education where they see it as challenging. When the challenge drops, they begin to value it less and this can be very demotivating. Once this drops, it’s hard to get it back. Keep them challenged!
If you’ve come this far, then you really should buy the one book that has been a complete game-changer for me and countless other teachers, who began as remote-learning novices, but now have a huge arsenal of effective remote learning strategies to use in their lessons.
In this book, Doug Lemov sets out a series of practical strategies that you can and really should use when teaching your classes remotely. He covers everything you would need and more, including lesson structure, feedback, SEND-specific considerations, explanation and delivery, questioning techniques and interaction/collaboration. I could go on, but I won’t.
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:
“I expect to perform extremely well on this area when assessed”
“I expect to perform quite well on this area when assessed”
“I’m not sure how well I will perform on this area when assessed”
“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.
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.
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!