Knowing how to improve literacy is crucial if we are to improve the life chances of our students. The attainment gap between highly literate students and their less literate peers is stark. Add to that the complexity of examination questions and the texts that often accompany them and you have a perfect storm. Students who are well-read and who have grown up in vocabulary-rich environments tend, on average, to achieve much higher examination marks. They then have more opportunities available to them and once they have children of their own, the cycle continues. Those who have not grown up in a vocabulary-rich environment achieve lower scores in examinations and consequently have fewer opportunities to them. They then have children who inherit an even more challenging education system and the problem becomes ever more acute.
Knowing how to improve literacy not only improves the life chances of today’s generation of students, but it also improves the chances of future generations. Narrowing today’s attainment gap, in my opinion, requires a bold and well thought out literacy strategy.
Ways To Improve Literacy
I read a tweet recently by @positivteacha highlighting a huge literacy issue that I noticed in my own students.
Showing kids a pre-prepared model answer and asking them to write a paragraph off the back of it is no different to showing them a picture of Duck l’Orange and sending ’em to the kitchen to knock one up.
Mr Pink @positivteacha
A huge proportion of students see the perfect model answers created by teachers on pre-prepared PowerPoint slides and think to themselves that they can’t possibly emulate them. What if they make a mistake? What if someone notices?
One method that I was particularly keen to try out was “live modelling”. The idea is that teachers should move away from their pre-prepared slides, especially where it shows exemplar answers. By removing these carefully scripted responses, teachers are forced to model the writing of these responses by hand, live in front of the class.
Scary, you might think! Well, that’s the point.
Live modelling demonstrates in a very explicit way how the writing process really works, in all of its ugly beauty. When I write on the board in front of my class, they see a teacher who sometimes struggles to phrase ideas the way they would like. They also see a little of themselves when they watch me writing, redrafting and making mistakes. Ultimately, they see that its okay.
Writing is a messy process and it is okay to make mistakes along the way as your thought process develops.
Since trialling live modelling for a couple of weeks, I’ve noticed a growing confidence among many of my less-literate students. They are now less reluctant to ‘have a go’ when they are unsure of how to proceed with a sentence, a description or an explanation. Consequently, they make more progress over time.
Additionally, as the students become more resilient learners, they will become less afraid to use new and more complex terminology. The increased variety of the sentences they create will hopefully lead to better quality explanations and arguments. Consequently, their performance across all subjects will hopefully improve.
I use the word ‘hopefully’ on purpose. I don’t yet know how well this will work. If only I use this method, then it will have only a limited effect and on only a small proportion of the students in my school. If used as part of a whole-school focus on literacy then it really does have the power, not only to improve answers, but ultimately to change lives.
Thanks go to @positivteacha for his inspirational tweet!
I don’t know about you, but even my most resilient students often struggle with revision, especially for GCSE and A-Level exams, where the stakes are high and the content is complex. Using textbooks is an excellent start in helping them develop their knowledge, but as you know, having more interactive resources like revision videos can be of even greater benefit to students, regardless of their ability.
Do you think your students would benefit from interactive revision videos, with built-in quizzes, to help consolidate and extend their learning? If so then I have a FANTASTIC resource for you to share with them.
Study Rocket is a new website where students can sign up for sets of revision videos, created by expert teachers and animated by professionals.
Revision videos are available for all subjects studied at GCSE and A Level and are tailored to specific exam boards, so you only pay for what you really need.
The videos contain summaries of key topics required by each exam board, followed by self-marking quiz questions to help students assess their knowledge of those topics. By giving the students the opportunity for immediate automated feedback on their revision, you reduce teacher workload – no more marking!!
I know that many of my students struggle to revise using notes and books, so I will be recommending Study Rocket to them to help with all of their GCSE and A Level subjects. As you know, a variety of revision resources is much more likely to lead to success than textbooks and notes on their own!
Many courses are already available on the website, with the remaining ones coming online soon.
Not only that, but right now there is a huge 30% discount available for anyone who pre-orders courses which haven’t come online yet. Get in there quickly before the videos go online! Just register your interest by entering your email address on the website, so that you are notified when the videos for your chosen course come online.
If you have any questions about Study Rocket then please reply and I’ll get back to you!
P.S. For more tips on how to build resilient learners, click here.
When I was a student, I remember staring for hours and hours at folders full of notes, trying desperately to memorise and understand them. It didn’t work. It probably didn’t work for you either. The problem is that memorising information is insanely difficult unless you employ the right methods. For most people, “reading notes” just doesn’t cut it, but whenever I ask students “how do you revise for exams?”, their first answer is almost always “I read through my notes”. I had never heard of meta-cognition and until recently, neither had my students.
The results were predictable. Students would leave their exams devastated that they couldn’t remember everything they supposedly “revised”. I vowed never to allow this to happen again and began my search for “the answer”.
Reading (and most importantly implementing) this post will help you teach better and will help your students learn better. It’s a bold claim, I know. But trust me on this one, the evidence for using meta-cognition strategies is overwhelming.
“Meta-cognition” is best understood as learning how to learn. It’s a self-reflective strategy that allows students to understand how to learn more effectively and efficiently. Once mastered, students can memorise facts, understand concepts better and make connections between pieces of information with greater ease.
Why is meta-cognition so important?
Research by a number of educational bodies and cognitive-psychologists have demonstrated beyond doubt that when students are genuinely reflective about their learning ‘methods’, they improve quicker than their peers.
The Education Endowment Foundation (formerly known as the Sutton Trust) published research in 2012, highlighting a number of strategies that could be employed by schools, to raise the performance of their students. Meta-cognition strategies came out as second only to Feedback as the most impactful strategy. Not only that, but it was also extremely cheap to implement, compared with other less effective strategies.
The Learning Scientists, a group of cognitive-psychologists studying the effects of meta-cognition on learning, have also published a variety of strategies, some of which my students have trialled with great success (read on to find out my favourite one). Their work has begun to be picked up by a wide audience of teachers on Twitter, on both sides of the Atlantic. On their blog, they have written extensively on both the benefits of using meta-cognition strategies and on which strategies have proven to be the most effective. You can follow them on Twitter at @acethattest.
Which meta-cognition strategies should I use?
I’ve trialled a wide variety of meta-cognition strategies, both for delivering content and for helping students revise for exams. I’ve written below about the three strategies that in my experience have made the biggest difference to my students. I would advise you to try them all. What you will probably find, as with most teaching strategies, is that some work better than others for “your students”, or fit better with your preferred style of teaching. Just give them a go!
Whatever you find though, leave some feedback for me (and all the readers) so we can see which ones work best across a range of subjects. Don’t forget to mention your subject!
Retrieval Practice is, in my experience, THE way to teach students, in a way that almost prevents them from forgetting the content taught. In essence, you teach your content in whatever manner you choose, but then quickly follow it up with a set of questions. The questions should range from short to extended answers and should cover as much of the information you have taught as possible. Ideally, this should happen within the same lesson that you taught the content. You would then use the same quiz questions in the following lesson, once the students have had a chance to forget some of the information. Going back through the answers helps students to get used to ‘retrieving’ the information, thus improving their memory. Using the same questions again in another lesson a few days later will not only aid students’ memories further, but it will draw out the information that students struggle with the most, allowing you to plan for further teaching on that topic.
Interleaving is an excellent companion to Retrieval Practice and when the two are used regularly together, they make a huge difference. Interleaving is a revision strategy where students focus on Topic A, then Topic B, then go back to Topic A, then Topic C, then back to Topic B, then Topic D, etc, etc. It doesn’t really matter what order the topics are in, so long as there are lots of opportunities to keep going back and forth between them. By doing so, much like Retrieval Practice, you allow the students to forget, then get them to practice bringing the information back to the forefront of their mind. I teach my students that memory is much like a muscle. It must be put under strain, regularly, if you want it to become significantly stronger.
Self-Review Questionnaires are a completely different type of strategy to Retrieval Practice and Interleaving. This involves getting students to rank their topics in order of perceived difficulty. They then have to speak for a set amount of time, or for as long as they can, without repetition, hesitation or deviation (much like the BBC Radio 4 comedy show “Just a Minute”). It will quickly become evident to the student whether the perceived difficulty matches up to their actual knowledge of those topics. They can then begin to address the areas where they are evidently weaker, removing unnecessary revision from the equation.
If you’re a Primary School teacher then there really is no better book you can buy than Metacognition in the Primary Classroom (my Amazon Affiliate Link) by Peter Tarrant and Deborah Holt. In this book, they not only go into the rationale and research behind meta-cognitive strategies, but they explain how you can put them to use. In fact, rather than giving a broad approach to meta-cognition, they break their strategies into age ranges. Obviously, there are clear advantages to using particular strategies aimed towards a specific age group and this book shows you exactly how to do it. Why not take a look?
If you teach Secondary, then I recommend Thinking About Thinking (another Amazon Affiliate Link) by Stephen Lockyer. In this book, he gives a broad range of strategies you can apply to your classroom immediately, whilst explaining the rationale behind them in clear terms. His writing style is very accessible and you can use this book to dip in and out of at your own leisure, making it a must-have for anyone looking to improve outcomes at a minimal cost.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Learning Scientists for bringing Retrieval Practice and Interleaving (amongst many strategies) to my attention via their blog and on Twitter (links are above). Please follow them – you won’t be disappointed!
I would also love to hear how you’ve used meta-cognition strategies to improve your students’ performance. Add a comment and I’ll get back to you soon!
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, especially following the poor performance of human beings, the failure of systems and procedures, unexpected events and even complete disasters.
How does black box thinking apply in education?
In education, just as in aviation, we continually train ourselves and others, to help ensure consistently high performance. But despite the amount of time put into these areas, students still sometimes underperform in exams. Schools and inspection bodies collect this data, which contains a wealth of meaningful 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? How should we act on it? What culture should we create around the data we collect?
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. 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. In his post-results analysis that he had to present to the Headteacher in September, Steve was required to account for this dip, despite submitting much higher predictions only two months earlier. 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. Only this time, 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 and subconsciously had inferred that the data he had used effectively to predict this year’s results 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 himself was a seasoned examiner, so felt competent to judge the quality of student responses. But he was ignoring something crucial. Steve focused entirely on improving the techniques used in his students’ answers to exam questions. It didn’t matter 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 know the answers. Steve was expecting a deep evaluation of quotes and had taught the students how to go about it, focusing on multiple interpretations of keywords and phrases. But the students hadn’t memorised the quotes. The hypothetical case studies presented in the exam were supposed to trigger students to consider socio-economic theories, court cases and historical events. But the students hadn’t understood the ones they were supposed to write about on exam day. They only understood the ones they were tested on in class.
Despite the failings of some, a small number of students had performed well. But instead of patting himself on the back, Steve just felt bewildered. How had they performed well when others hadn’t? After all, they were all in the same class, had access to the same resources and were assessed in the same way throughout the course. Their results should all be roughly on par.
Or so Steve thought.
Why do some students fail?
Students succeed and fail due to a multitude of 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 quality of their responses. The structure of their answers could make it difficult to demonstrate their mastery of the question. 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.
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 badly 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!)
I would love to hear about your use of “Black Box” thinking in education.
Just leave a comment on this post or send me a tweet (@guruteaching) and I’ll get right back to you.
A podcast is an audio recording which delivers content verbally, as opposed to the content being in text form. By adding podcasts to your resource bank for students, you will inevitably engage students who, perhaps, don’t engage fully with text-based resources. Podcasts improve learning by delivering content in a manner which suits some students better than textbook use.
This is certainly my experience. Recently I was invited to try out the podcasts offered by Audiopi. I was blown away by the high quality of the content delivery. But also by how much information I retained, even some days later. I’ve always struggled with retention of information when using texts to learn. I would have to put in hours and hours of intensive study, only for my performance in tests to be “inconsistent” as one kind teacher put it! I don’t want the same experience for my own students, so I’ve introduced podcasts.
When using the Audiopi podcasts to learn new content, I found that even just listening to them once, whilst making brief notes, I remained attentive and could recall the information easily days later. (I listened to the History ones, as I’m an enthusiast but not a subject specialist in this area. Listening to the excellent History podcasts enabled me to assess more accurately whether I was biased by my own subject specialism.) The ability to rewind and re-listen to the Audiopi podcasts, as many times as I liked, further allowed me to go over some ideas over and over until I understood them. This helped a lot!
To enhance the experience of the content delivery further, the Audiopi podcasts improve learning by using sounds and music to excellent effect. This can be a very tricky thing to achieve. Many podcasts I’ve listened to had music playing in the background, but it was irritating, distracting, or just didn’t ‘fit’ with the narrative. Audiopi succeeded in this regard. I would definitely recommend subscribing to them if increasing engagement or depth of study is a particular focus of your department.
Currently, Audiopi offers a range of podcasts aimed at GCSE and A Level students for the following topics:
The first podcast in each Audiopi series is free and you can listen to examples of all their tutorials too. They also have some examples of podcasts on their YouTube channel here, so you can even try before you buy!
Is the success of podcasts supported by research evidence?
Yes! Researchers at George Washington University reported that podcasts improve learning. They do this by reaching students who do not necessarily engage well with textbooks. Using podcasts also helps to supplement textbook use for students who are already engaged by those texts. For more information, you can read an article on their research here.
Do you recognise those students in your own class? If so, then you should seriously consider using podcasts, especially in the run-up to exam season.
How could I use podcasts with my students?
I typically use podcasts as a Flipped Learning resource in preparation for a future lesson. Sometimes I use them as an independent learning resource to aid comprehension, add depth of content and to revise from. In both of these cases, students have told me that they prefer learning this way, as opposed to using textbooks. The reasons are many. But the two I find most significant are, firstly, that students enjoy listening and can do it anywhere, even on the school bus! Secondly, they have to be more cognitively active in order to make notes. This is because there aren’t textbooks to lazily copy from, which we know is an inefficient way of studying.
To help podcasts improve learning, you could also use transcripts as a text-alternative or to supplement the audio recording. You could even use the transcripts to develop comprehension-based activities. I’ve certainly found that with my own students, the depth of knowledge increased substantially after podcast use, compared with textbook-only study. My students made rapid progress and they improved their examination performance too.
To begin searching for podcasts, take a look in the iTunes store, websites such as the BBC, or even (for more advanced students) some university websites. Failing that, just Google the subject or topics you are looking for and add “podcast” to your search query.
Some free podcasts to get you started…
Geography: GCSE Bitesize Podcasts
Law: BBC Law In Action
Chemistry: A Level Chemistry Revision – Chris Harris
Economics/Business: BBC More Or Less
Politics: Politics Weekly – The Guardian, The Bugle
French: Coffee Break French
ReligiousStudies/Philosophy: Philosophy Bites, BBC In Our Time
Spanish: Spanish Obsessed With Rob And Liz
General: LSE Podcasts, TED Talks
I would love to hear about your podcasting experiences and would be happy to answer any questions you have about starting a podcast. I’ll blog about that another time!
Just leave a comment on this post or send me a tweet (@guruteaching) and I’ll get right back to you.
Disclaimer: This article is not an advertorial. For total transparency, I received access to one Audiopi podcast series, in return for a review by me for their website. This article was written entirely independently and not as any form of “payment” for the podcast. I wrote this article simply in response to my positive experience of listening to the podcast.
Starting a class blog is one of the most effective ways to engage students in and beyond your lessons. I’ve been using them for years and my students absolutely love them. Recently, my Year 10 class asked me to create one just for them. They’d heard from some older students how much they enjoyed learning in this way and why blogging beats using “traditional” methods hands down. I would agree for the most part with their assessment. However, when blogs are used effectively, they do not replace “traditional” methods. They simply present traditional methods in a modern way.
For example, in my both my Law and Religious Studies lessons, at all Key Stages, the most important part of my planning is “Questioning“. My students love to go deep into a topic during debates, looking at concepts from a broad range of perspectives. They love it even more when I drill down into what they mean by the words they’ve used, or what assumptions are built into their reasoning and beliefs. This is as traditional as teaching gets, just take a look at the dialogues in Plato’s works.
Blogging simply allows that dialogue to take place in an environment more familiar to today’s students, the digital natives. And we all know that when students are in comfortable surroundings, their fight or flight system switches off and they become more naturally inclined to engage with the lesson. The depth I’ve seen in some of the comments sections of my class blogs has been phenomenal.
When blogging is done well, it takes the topic away from the teacher and gives ownership and independence of learning over to the students. The teacher can still moderate the debate, but they become a moderator rather than the centre of the discussion. Not only that, but your entire debate is recorded. This means that your students can revisit it when planning an essay or revising for a test. How many of your verbal debates in class were recorded accurately and in detail in the past year?
Why aren’t more teachers starting a class blog?
Trying something new is always a challenge. Below I’ve listed some of my colleagues’ responses when I’ve asked them about blogging. Some of these may sound familiar…
The teacher is not familiar with blogging, so they worry about doing a bad job, or that it will take up a disproportionate amount of time for very little gain. (Below I’ll show you my foolproof 5-minute process to set up your blog. It takes me longer to create a decent worksheet!)
The teacher feels they are “not good with computers”. (Sorry you aren’t allowed to use this one, it’s not 1998 anymore.)
The teacher feels that their methods are perfectly fine, so they don’t need to change anything.
The teacher sees blogging as a fad, that will soon go the way of Brain Gym and Learning Styles.
The teacher is worried about how students may abuse the blog, bully other students on there, or somehow get the teacher into trouble.
Whilst all of these problems are valid to some degree, they all boil down to one thing. Fear. Fear that we as teachers aren’t good enough, or that we will try something that doesn’t pay off. Personally, I don’t think that as teachers we can afford to think in these terms, even if we try to rebrand the Fear as “just being practical” or muttering to like-minded colleagues “I’ve seen this before”. Apart from anything, we are supposed to inspire our students and give them the sense that it doesn’t matter if you fail. You just learn from it and do things differently next time, without judging yourself or worrying about being judged.
Not only that but as I mentioned in a previous post on Flipped Learning, students should be encouraged to engage with materials before the lesson in which they are studied. This allows the teacher to focus more on higher-order tasks regarding analysis, evaluation and problem-solving, rather than basic content delivery and comprehension. Blogging allows this to happen but also introduces the depth of analysis via peer-led discussions of the content.
Top tips for creating your ‘beginner blogger’s mindset’
Don’t judge yourself before starting a class blog.
If it ‘fails’ first time around, don’t judge yourself then either.
Stop thinking that others are judging you. They aren’t. In fact, they’re probably jealous of your guts to try it in the first place.
Now try it again, but tweak it a little.
Repeat until you succeed. (It really won’t take you long – you’re probably overestimating how hard it really is!!)
Tell others what made it work and what the benefits of blogging vs other methods are.
How do I set up my first class blog?
Firstly, you will need to decide on a blogging platform. There are many out there and for the most part, there is little between them in terms of how you would use them in the classroom. However, I’m going to show you step-by-step how to use WordPress.com to set up your blog. I use WordPress for all of my classroom blogs and even this blog you’re reading right now! It’s very easy to set up and to customise as you see fit.
All you need to do now is to follow each step and you will have your very own blog to use within five minutes!
Go to www.wordpress.com and click on “Get Started” in the top-right corner of the screen.
Select an initial layout for your blog from the basic templates. (You can change this later.) For ease of use, I would pick the “A list of my latest posts” option as it offers the simplest layouts.
Choose a theme. A theme is a detailed template which you can customise or leave as it is. Any theme will do for now, as again, you can change this later if you like.
Choose your domain (the web address of your blog). Type into the box a word or phrase you would like to appear in your blog’s web address and a list of FREE and PAID options will appear. Choose the FREE option. WARNING: You cannot change your domain once you have registered, so try out a few names to see which ones work for you.
Pick a Plan. Again just select the FREE option, unless you are familiar with blogging and web design and want more features. Personally, I think this is completely unnecessary for classroom blogging, but once you catch the blogging bug you might consider this in the future. With the exception of this website, I’ve always used the FREE options and been completely satisfied with what they have to offer for my students.
Create your account. Type in your email address and select a username and password in order to log in to your blog in future.
You will be sent a confirmation email to the email address you registered with in the previous step. Go into your email and click “Confirm”. You will be redirected to a login page where you need to enter your username and password that you picked in the previous step.
You will now be directed to your “Dashboard” where you can create your own content or link to content that exists elsewhere on the web.
Publishing your first post
Now that you’ve set up your blog, play around with the different features in the dashboard to familiarise yourself with them. Don’t worry about clicking on the wrong thing, you can’t break your blog! As with any new technology, the more you play around with it, the quicker you will learn about it. The Dashboard is designed to be as user-friendly as possible. However, if you are having any issues understanding how things work then there are a tonne of tutorials on WordPress, aimed at beginners. I’ve found that YouTube is also a brilliant resource for blogging tutorials too, with the added benefit of you being able to see what you are supposed to type or click on.
Keep your first post simple.
I tend to make my first post about “House Rules” for students using the blog. It really helps if from the outset students know exactly what they are and aren’t allowed to do on the blog. Set out your high expectations and (hopefully) the students will meet them.
To create a new blog post, go to the Dashboard and click the “Add” button next to where is says “Blog Posts” (I told you it was user-friendly!). Type in your title, then add your text beneath. You can add images if you like, or you could even add a link to another website. Once you are finished, it’s time to “Publish” by clicking on the “Publish button on the left-hand side.
Congratulations, you are now a blogger!
I would love to hear about your classroom blogging experiences and would be happy to answer any questions you have about starting a class blog. Just leave a comment on this post or send me a tweet (@guruteaching) and I’ll get right back to you.
My students are about to receive their mock results. For some, this will be a time for them to feel relieved that their efforts so far have paid off. For others, they won’t be happy with their result. Ultimately though, the result itself doesn’t really matter. It’s how my students respond to their result that counts. The hope is that my students will find that balance between fear of failure and over-confidence, to best prepare them for the final exams. In this post, I explain the methods used to ensure that my students respond positively, so that they will achieve their desired result in the future. Giving effective feedback is a tricky business and the stakes are too high for us to do it badly.
Why target setting is priority number 2
As teachers, we constantly set targets, whether short or long-term, aspirational or realistic. Target setting is absolutely necessary, but it must be well-informed and fully explained. Otherwise, your students may not understand those targets immediately.
In many cases, my own students have seen their own targets as too high, too low, or completely arbitrary, before the targets are explained. If I didn’t explain the targets to them, then they risk putting insufficient effort in, to achieve their target. The explanation, though, must contain the ‘bigger picture’; this is priority number 1. More on that in a moment.
Students’ lack of engagement with targets also seems to be caused by their own perceptions of themselves as learners. They often see themselves as an “A grade” student, for example. This makes it harder for them to come to terms with any grade that doesn’t fit with that label. Following a positive result, they can then become lazy, thinking it’s in the bag. A negative result can leave students thinking it can’t be done. It’s vital then, that we spend time, before giving feedback, to help students understand what they should be looking to achieve, both in the short and long-term. They need to know and be constantly reminded that ‘progress‘ is not linear and that their path to success will not be a straight one.
Students need to see the bigger picture
One exam result can seem like the entire picture to some students. So, in order for targets to be meaningful to your students, they need to understand their own situation. By this, I mean that your students need to be able to see what their current level of achievement looks like, compared to their past achievements. Have they dipped? Plateaued? Accelerated? Where is it going?
They should also be made aware of how far a student like them should be expected to achieve by the end of the course. I often cite examples of students from previous years, who have achieved similar mock results, but have then gone on to have even greater success when they have followed a specific plan. I then share that plan, breaking it down into practical steps, which when followed, led to my previous student achieving the desired result.
By making the steps simple, my current students are able to see further progress as realistic. This provides them with the motivation required to increase performance in preparation for the exam. Because the feedback conversation is focused on future achievement, rather than past failure, my students’ mindset is far more receptive and they tend to react more positively.
Students need to feel supported
Many students will know that a poor result is their ‘fault’, but guilt and remorse will only make them dwell on negatives. This distracts from the positives and creates a barrier to forming a solution-focused mindset. So, ensure you are giving effective feedback by using as many comments as possible about what your students have achieved. By beginning the feedback conversation in this way (and feedback must be a conversation, not just one-way) your students will be encouraged to feel as though they have a platform to build upon for future success. They will also see you as being on their side, rather than just being there to find fault.
Many successful schools use the “What Went Well / Even Better If” structure to ensure positive feedback. Here, students are left in no doubt that their successes, no matter how limited, have been recognised and rewarded on some level.
Top Tip: A good way to enhance the WWW/EBI system is to share with the whole class a range of WWW comments that you have given to the group. This then provides students with concrete, achievable examples that they can strive to emulate in future assessments.
Preparing students to receive feedback
This week I’ll be giving my students a brief questionnaire to fill out before they are able to access their results. The purpose of the questionnaire is twofold. Firstly, I aim to prime the students with as much positive-mindset thinking as possible, so that their result will be seen as just one step on the way to future success. I want to build resilient learners. Secondly, I want the students to be able to see what practical steps they can put into place, to get them from where they are to where they need to be.
Here are the questions I’ll be asking:
What do you stand to gain from success in this subject?
What is your end-of-course target?
What practical steps did you take to move towards your mock exam target?
Which of those practical steps paid off?
What was your target for the mock exam?
If your two targets are different, then explain why.
Which practical steps would you change or not use again? Explain your reasons.
How close do you think you will be to your target?
If you achieve your mock target, how will you react? Why?
If you don’t achieve your mock target, how will you react? Why?
If you could go back in time and give advice to yourself three months ago, what advice would you give?
I may change the wording of the questions, or even add/remove some of them. However, what I want to do is to create a dialogue with each student about their own journey. The questions are really just conversation-starters.
Planning your next steps
After giving feedback on the mock exams, it’s crucial that you put a plan in place to ensure that every single student can be monitored and so that their performance on exam day is not left to chance. The plan should be specific, realistic and time-bound if it is to work. But most importantly, the onus should be on the students to solve the problem. All you are doing is giving them a blueprint to follow and dates by which you will measure their success on agreed criteria. Your role is an advisory one. You certainly shouldn’t be expected to re-teach content, especially if your students are perfectly capable of independent learning!
Steps you can put in place:
Students should respond to feedback as early as possible – create improved answers or redo the mock exam from scratch.
Set aside specific times for on-to-one conversations with each student (if logistically possible). This should happen as soon as possible.
Share results with colleagues in other departments and the Head of Year to see if there is an issue beyond your subject.
Students create an action plan for the final exams: exam dates, when they will begin revising, successful revision methods, when they will be assessed throughout the revision period to see if it’s working.
Book another one-to-one for 6 weeks time to see how students have got on individually. Did they bother to stick to the plan? Where’s the evidence? Did it work? How do they know? What do they now need to focus on? Is parental involvement necessary at this point?
Don’t judge yourself as a teacher, according to the exam results in front of you. There’s a good chance that you weren’t in control of more than half of the factors that affected your students’ performances on the day.
Besides, by now giving effective feedback, you will make a huge difference to your students.
Why is encouraging college students to read so hard?
Students don’t read books anymore. Instead, they “waste” their time on social media, binge on box-sets, play video games and go out with friends. Personally, I think that sounds brilliant. They are living the dream, aren’t they? (I can’t remember the last time I did all four of those things in one week!) The forms of entertainment they pursue, though, do have one thing in common. They offer instant feedback and gratification. Books can do that too when chosen wisely. However, many college students don’t know which books will offer that short-term “buzz” which other media seems to offer so effortlessly. Encouraging college students to read is a challenge, but hopefully, a much easier one, once you’ve read the rest of this post!
I want to share with you something I’ve shared with my students over the years: I have a very limited attention span for reading books. I always have, but the key for me was not to just give up reading, it’s to read something else. If a student visited a bookshop or an online giant like Amazon, they would be inundated with titles and wouldn’t know where to begin. This post is my attempt to shorten that list, to help those students to choose a book, that is not only appropriate for their reading level, but that will stimulate their minds too.
Why should students read at all?
Of all the different forms of media, books offer students the highest quality. The best books are written by authors who have had polished their writing style to make it easily accessible. Their texts have been edited and re-edited to enhance the reading experience. When written well, they offer complete escapism. Books expand students’ experiences. Above all else, the quality control measures put in place by publishers ensure that only the best books get published. They are then reviewed and only when something is of high enough quality will it gain the attention of the masses. Oh, and books make you smarter, so encouraging the reading of books can only end well.
The same cannot always be said about some other popular forms of media. Video clips, blog posts (I include myself here) and the pseudo-journalism that seems to have invaded social media are all flawed in many senses. The result is, that if students only get their information about the world from unvetted and unedited sources, then they limit their experiences. But even worse, their idea of how the world is, or should be, can become warped. News intertwines with fake news. Celebrity endorsements take priority over rational thought. This can’t turn out well!
What books should my students read?
My students don’t read very much. In fairness, neither did I when I was their age. My reason was because I had outgrown the children’s books I had been reading but I had no idea where to look for books with a bit more grit. I’ve heard the same story from many students I teach. In the end, I usually recommend to them the same books year after year. This is my list. I hope you see some value in it. I won’t pretend that it’s “a list to end all lists”, in fact, it’s largely swayed by my own personal beliefs, political leanings and what I find interesting. It is not balanced and is certainly not complete.
I included a variety of fiction and non-fiction texts, but both serve the same purpose. They both teach us about ourselves and they both teach us the importance of contributing to the world. When you see the titles, this will be obvious in some cases, but perhaps not so much in others. My solution would be to read the book to find out why it made the list.
I’ve categorised these books so that if students want to read more about a particular topic, they can be directed straight to a relevant book. Some of these books are very accessible to pre-college students, but most students would need to be at least 16 years old to gain the most value from them.
Fiction books for college students:
The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling
The Hunger Games Series by Suzanne Collins
Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaardner
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Nineteen-Eighty-Four by George Orwell
A Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Lord of the Flies by William Golding
To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult
The Martian by Andy Weir
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Non-fiction books for college students:
Positive Mindset and Success:
Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss
Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari
Winners by Alistair Campbell
Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg
Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
Bad Science by Ben Goldacre
Chavs by Owen Jones
The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli
Will It Fly? by Pat Flynn
Anything You Want by Derek Sivers
Encouraging college students to read is a long game, so keep at it. Reading is one of the best ways to help students improve their understanding of themselves and of the world.
Also, if you think I’ve left out something brilliant and that should be read by students, then you’re probably right. There’s a good chance that I haven’t read it, or I forgot to add it to the list. Just leave a reply at the end to let me know!
Each year I make New Year’s Resolutions with varying degrees of success and failure. But what I’ve learnt is that the plans I make only work when I’ve made a conscious effort to keep them. Last year I decided to start blogging and it’s been one of the most valuable and rewarding experiences of my professional and personal life. I had never blogged before and the idea of it filled me with fear and excitement in equal measure. Each week I wondered whether people would understand what I’d written, whether they would agree with me, or whether they even cared at all. It’s easy to lose motivation if you dwell on the negative “what ifs’ for too long.
This week I want to share with you some of the problems and solutions I’ve discovered over the past year. Not because I think you should copy what I’ve done, but because we all fail at times when making grand plans. Hopefully, after reading this, you can at the very least be reassured that your New Year’s Resolutions are achievable if you approach them in the right way.
Make a resolution you will be proud of
Last year I wanted a new challenge. It’s not that I was bored, or had too much time on my hands, I just wanted to squeeze a little more out of my experiences. I’d been reading a number of blogs, some on teaching, others completely unrelated. The best ones all had something in common: they shared ways to add value to the world. This, for me, was something that drew me to teaching in the first place. It’s also something I try to promote with my students when they have to choose career paths, apply for Higher Education courses, or just to find meaning in what they are doing right now. If we all tried our best to add value to the world, in whatever way we can, then we can honestly say that we are successful.
Adding value to the world isn’t always easy. That’s why we sometimes need special times like New Year in order to motivate us. But what exactly does “adding value to the world” mean? It sounds like a throwaway phrase that a politician or a celebrity might use. But it’s far from superficial. Adding value means taking what skills, knowledge and opportunities you have and putting them to use for the benefit of others. We all do this as teachers, but often we limit ourselves when faced with more challenging ways to add value. New Year is a great time to make plans to add value to what we do. Below I’ve included a brief list New Year’s resolutions you can make, to improve your students’ experience in education.
Some resolutions for you to try:
Personalise learning for your students in a more sophisticated way. Look at what or how individual students need to be taught, rather than what or how groups need to be taught.
Give your students specific opportunities to demonstrate independent learning and reward them for going above and beyond.
Encourage more collaboration between your students so they benefit from gaining interpersonal skills.
Encourage more collaboration between yourself and colleagues to improve teaching and reduce workload
Build stronger relationships with parents and families of your students to help support them better when they’ve left your classroom
Write your own education blog or contribute a post to someone else’s blog
Mentor a colleague on something they find challenging but you find less challenging
Spend a little extra time creating a ‘perfect’ resource rather than a resource that ‘will do for now’
Give more instant verbal feedback and less delayed written feedback to help students progress over time
Learn and use a teaching method you’ve never tried before, to boost engagement by varying your approach to lessons
Follow some education bloggers on Twitter (I’m @guruteaching) and contribute to debates
How can I keep my New Year’s Resolutions?
Often the only way I’m able to stick to my plans is by using a support network around me to keep me on the straight and narrow. When I started blogging, for example, I made sure that my posts went straight into my social networks. That way, I knew that my friends and colleagues would ask me about how my blog was going, as they would see updated posts each week. If I missed a post, I knew that certain people would ask me why, which just made me feel guilty. It’s December now and I’ve posted several posts each month, every month since beginning.
Your New Year’s Resolutions don’t have to be posted on social media though. Find yourself an accountability partner. This is someone who will ask you the questions you don’t want to answer, so that you force yourself to keep going when you don’t feel like it. That way, when the end of the year arrives, you will be able to stand tall and say that you’ve achieved what you set out to do. Be honest here, how often can you say you were able to do that? How great will you feel?
My New Year’s Resolution this year
I’m now going to put my money where my mouth is. This year I want to create a set of infographics to put around my classroom, as cheat-sheets or how-to guides for my students. They have to be colourful, interesting to look at and above all, they must be easy to use. I have absolutely no background in design, so this will be a real challenge for me, but one that I will be proud of by the end of the year. I’m a fan of online tools and the most promising one I’ve found so far for creating infographics is Canva. I’d love to hear about any other you’ve used too. Please leave a reply below if you know of any others.
YOU are my accountability partner here and I really do want you to ask me how I’m getting on with designing my infographics during the year. Feel free to make me feel guilty on Twitter if you think I’m not sticking with it. Hopefully though, I will add value to my students’ world.