Worksheet 2.0: learning concepts, deliberate practice and desirable difficulty

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If you had told me a few years ago I would be extoling the virtues of worksheets via the public medium of a blog post, I would have thought you were barking mad. Early in my teaching I had been encouraged to see worksheets as a bit of a remnant from the teaching Dark Ages – an outmoded tool that showed a lack of imagination and a lazy approach to planning. I have since come to form my own opinion about their efficacy in the classroom. In short, I think that handled well worksheets are an incredibly useful instructional aid. I use them a lot in my teaching and bizarrely my students seem to like them too, particularly my A level classes.

Before you stop reading, I should stress that a raft of pedagogical reasoning underpins my approach to designing worksheets, and that I use what I create in specific ways to enhance my students’ learning, not as an opportunity to kick back and drink coffee, which I do anyway regardless of the activity. There are essentially three principles that guide the design and execution of what I shall henceforth refer to as worksheet 2.0. These principles relate to the amount of interactions students have with subject content, how much time they get to practice with specific elements of that content and how frequent low stakes assessments help to review and deepen learning.

This post does not really go into the ideas. I am sure that many of you are already familiar with the relevant research, such as Graham Nuthall’s work in uncovering the realities of classrooms beyond the watchful eye of the teacher, or the work of K. Anders Ericsson surrounding deliberate practice, popularised in books by Doug Lemov and Matthew Syed. Likewise, a lot of good stuff has been written about the importance to education of the ideas emanating out of cognitive scientist Robert Bjork’s wonderful ‘Learning and Forgetting Lab’. This post is more about how I have tried to synthesise some of these ideas and theories through the design and implementation of worksheet 2.0.

I have increasingly been using worksheet 2.0 in all my classes, but I think the most successful application of it – the class where students ‘appear’ to have made the most progress as a result of its usage – is my current A2 Literature group. The rest of this post lays out some of the ways I have incorporated the principles of learning new concepts, deliberate practice and desirable difficulty with this class.

Principle One – learning new content

I always try to engage A level students with in depth knowledge about their set texts and the relevant context – often above and beyond what is strictly speaking necessary. I go to great lengths to read around a topic and provide students with all the information (articles, weblinks, critical essays, film interpretations) they need to achieve success, become more independent and compete with others from more culturally literate backgrounds. The trouble is, whilst most of the students diligently read and understand this material, they are often not able to retain it.  It doesn’t seem to matter if I ask to see their notes, help them with annotating and summarising techniques or give them specific areas to focus on. After reading Graham Nuthall’s The Secret Lives of Learners it became clear: they lack repeated, structured exposure to this new information. In one of many seemingly obvious, but ultimately quite profound, observations of learning Nuthall concludes that students need to piece together ‘three complete definitions or descriptions of a concept’ for it to transfer to long-term memory. Enter worksheet 2.0 as a way of helping to structure these repeated interactions and make long-term retention more likely. 

1)    This first example relates to social and historical background to Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’. I set the students a chapter to read from the play’s introduction and used worksheet 2.0 to structure the reading, and hence their understanding (the first interaction). The next lesson revisited their responses in pairs and as a group (the second interaction), and the following week the content was re-introduced through exemplification in a piece of extended writing (the third interaction).

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2)    The second example of this approach is even simpler, one which I have used a lot to help develop students’ understanding of plot, character, relationships and key ideas. I call it Twenty in Ten. Students have ten minutes to answer twenty comprehension questions. As with the previous example, I find three different ways to introduce and refer back to whatever content I want students to know. The students I teach seem to really like this structured way of reading and organising their written notes.

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Principle Two – Deliberate Practice

At our school the science department achieve truly staggering results. They have by far the largest intake of A level students and they consistently achieve way above the national norms. The department is well led with great, enthusiastic and hard-working teachers. Yet, as much as these things are key reasons for their success, I felt there were also other factors at play too. When I read about the work of K. Anders Ericsson it struck me – they are engaged in deliberate practice, albeit without realising it. Every student has access to lots of workbooks, each containing thousands of specific questions organised around core topics. I think that one of the reasons our students get so good at Chemistry, Physics and Biology is because they engage in countless hours of specific deliberate practice on these questions that hone their levels of mastery. Worksheet 2.0 is my attempt to replicate this approach in English, which does not so overtly seem to lend itself to isolating individual elements in this way.

3)    The following example is one of many similar versions I have made to accompany the teaching of ‘The Great Gatsby’. This novel has a number of set piece scenes that invite forensic close analysis of ideas and methods. My approach here enables deliberate practice on both the art of close analysis and – by way of the notes made and a short class discussion – focused analytical writing. On some occasions I repeat the activity in the same lesson with a different passage and no writing structure, enabling me to mark students’ work quickly and provide immediate corrective feedback. 

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4)    This example is more about the structure of specific sentences to aid analytical expression. I am thinking here of the use of relative and non-finite clauses to frame brief analytical comments. I model how to combine the two sentences and then students engage in deliberate practice of similar examples.

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Principle Three – Desirable difficulties

Whilst there are a number of different aspects to Bjork’s notion of desirable difficulties, the one that I have been trying to harness the most in my A level teaching is the use of frequent, low-stakes testing to not only gauge levels of understanding, but also to significantly increase them. At the beginning of each week I have been getting into the habit of giving students a short, focused assessment on the previous week’s learning, including aspects of comprehension, the learning of quotations, and developing literary and academic vocabulary. Using worksheet 2.0 as a vehicle for regular testing has helped me to gain valuable readouts of students’ performance – and so address misconceptions or gaps in understanding – whilst also deepening their levels of mastery.

5)    This example of low stakes assessment takes the form of multiple-choice questions, which I have blogged about before and whose leading champion (especially in the realms of English) is Joe Kirby. In this instance I used variations of the following questions to develop a critical vocabulary for talking about and analysing the ideas in the play. 

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6)    The next example illustrates how I have been trying to help students learn quotations from the text and be secure in their understanding of literary terminology for discussing writer’s craft. This year, more than ever before, I have consciously tried to teach students to learn quotations. Not only do I think it’s helpful for doing well in the the exam – which it is in a closed book assessment – but, moreover, because I think it significantly enhances their understanding of the themes of the play and how the different ideas cohere with expression.

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Obviously, I do a lot more with my classes than just dole out worksheets and let students work on ill-conceived activities. I don’t think any teacher worth his or her salt would seriously expect that would enhance students’ learning. What I do think, in fact am convinced about, is that worksheets – whether version 1.0. 2.0 or 2.1 – are a valid and useful tool to support effective teaching.

Not Dark Age, Modern Age or any Age. Timeless.

 

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