Hoping for better results next time? By Liz Samuel


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Over the last few weeks, most of us will have spent time revising with classes (and sometimes despairing at how little of our hard work seemed to have impacted on the memories of our students). Over the next few weeks, many of us turn our thoughts to planning new schemes of work and activities for lessons next year. It seems a good time to think about how learning happens and the strategies that support the development of deeper levels of understanding and better retention of skills and concepts.


Coe et al point out that ‘one paradoxical finding is that some approaches that may appear to make learning harder in the short term, and less satisfying for learners, actually result in better long term retention’. They consider the work of Bjork and Bjork (on page 17) and the difference between ‘short-term performance and long-term learning’. Using the concept of ‘desirable difficulty’, Bjork and Bjork offer four specific ways in which the way learning is organised can improve the chance of retention:

  • Varying conditions of practice
  • Spacing study or practice sessions – gaps to allow forgetting improve learning
  • Interleaving – rather than learning a single block of content, moving between different blocks
  • Testing as a learning activity – using low stakes testing with feedback

As teachers we often try to work systematically, ensuring mastery before we move on to the next logical stage. Research suggests that we might be better to move on more readily, switching between activities and revisiting content and skills using different strategies to develop mastery. We may try, when testing, to maximise success for our students but research suggests that testing even before content is covered creates pathways that seem to help later learning. Much of what is being suggested it counterintuitive and needs more thorough testing in classroom situations but if the revision season has shown glaring gaps, the ideas might be worth exploring in more detail before planning for next year.

The idea of testing and the nature of testing is explored in more detail by David Didau in one of his learning spy blogs, and this offers a link to research work by Roediger et al. Like Brown et al, they discuss the link between testing and the recall it involves for the learner, resulting in better memory for material that has been regularly tested. There is no difference in outcomes between self-testing, testing through quizzes, questioning in class, essays and the like. The more complex the demands of the testing process, the greater the impact on learning that is often demonstrated at a later date. As Brown et al suggest, ‘the easier knowledge or skill is for you to retrieve, the less your retrieval practice will benefit retention of it’.

With the move to more linear courses, particularly at A level, recall of large quantities of content is going to become increasingly important. Those of us who remember the days of three hour exams remember the cramming that went on in the last few weeks. But times may have changed with the predictable knowledge focused papers of the olden days giving way to the skills based assessment in many subjects. Where we could once predict likely questions and find enough choice on papers to avoid questions tangential to our structuring of knowledge, in many subjects students are now expected to apply their understanding to novel and unexpected questions. Putting together a file of notes to cram at the end of the course is no longer the game being played.


Engagement: is it “all that”?


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Last year as part of trying to get a picture of what the strengths of teaching and learning were at QKS middle and senior leaders undertook a series of learning walks.  We agreed that we would look only for the strengths in the lessons we dropped into as we felt (unlike OFSTED) that it is difficult to offer even well intentioned “even better if” comments on such a limited viewing of a lesson.  At the end of each learning walk the comment made most often was about how “engaged” our students were in the task.  This pleased us tremendously as we assumed that engagement in the tasks was clearly a prerequisite for learning.


(wordle made from the learning walk feedback from middle leaders)

The importance that we place on engagement came to the fore of my mind again more recently at a middle leaders’ meeting when we watched a Tony Thornley[1] film of a Y11 geography lesson so we could hone our lesson observation skills. As a group we were initially impressed by a sombrero wearing geography teacher who created a great “buzz” by producing information attached to holiday artefacts from laundry bags. However, further reflection made us question if the students really grasped the concept of the Butler model.

In recent months I have begun to question two things: “what does do students actually need to be engaged before learning can happen?” and what does   “engaged in learning look like”?

The purchase of Grham Nutall’s “the Hidden Lives of Learners” Nutall provided some initial food for thought with the sentence, “Our research shows that students can be busiest and most involved with material they already know.” [2] Does this suggest that perhaps students appear to be most engaged when they are familiar with the material? Is the “buzz” we often associate with engagement actually a certain relief that students can remain within their comfort zone?

This reminded me of a blog I read earlier this year by mjbromley who outlines the ideas of a Russain psychologist Lev Vygotsky who had a theory that “teachers should only give students work to do which falls within ‘the zone of proximal development’ ”.  Or in other words , “teachers should not give students work to do which they have already mastered, nor work which they cannot possibly master (yet). Instead, we should give students work to do which they can master if they think hard about it and if they have help from their teachers and peers. Because, if the work is too easy, students will do it automatically and learn nothing. If the work is too hard, however, students won’t be able to do it and will become demotivated. But if the work is just hard enough that students are challenged by it but can achieve it, they will extend their learning.” [3]  This certainly chimes with Professor Coe (one of the authors of What makes Great Teaching? Review of the underpinning research. ) who consistently asserts that ‘learning happens when people have to think hard’ [4]

David Didau [5] on his intelligent “Learning Spy” blog took the engagement debate I was having (largely with myself it must be said) to a new level when he introduced the findings of 2015 Brown Center Report on American Education by Tom Loveless which relooks at 2012 PISA findings to demonstrate that countries that do well on student motivation do poorly on maths attainment and vice versa.  Didau describes Loveless as a “cautious analyst” but that

Data reveal that several countries noted for their superior ranking on PISA—e.g., Korea, Japan, Finland, Poland, and the Netherlands— score below the U.S. on measures of student engagement. Thus, the relationship of achievement to student engagement is not clear cut, with some evidence pointing toward a weak positive relationship and other evidence indicating a modest negative relationship.” ( p 27)

Didau concludes that “I’m not saying engagement and motivation don’t matter at all – clearly they are important in all sorts of contexts – but the idea that there is any kind of direct link to achievement appears to be dubious. If you want to engage students because you want them to be more engaged, fine. But if you believe that engagement will automatically lead to better results you may well be mistaken.”  What I am beginning to conclude is “Should we be planning for students to be in “the zone of proximal development” rather than “the engagement zone”?

Now I just have to figure out what learning (engaged or otherwise) looks like!


[1] http://www.ascl.org.uk/professional-development/other-services/lesson-observation-dvds.html

[2] Nuthall, Graham (2007). The Hidden Lives of Learners. Wellington: New Zealand Council for       Educational Research Press (page 24)

[3] https://mjbromleyblog.wordpress.com/2014/02/01/the-goldilocks-bowl/

[4] http://www.cem.org/attachments/publications/ImprovingEducation2013.pdf

[5] http://www.learningspy.co.uk/learning/does-engagement-actually-matter/