Five strategies for encouraging more effective independent study

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At my school we have identified five core strategies to use in supporting our students with their independent study. Initially, the focus has been on embedding these approaches into year 11 and year 12, though in time we very much want all our students to understand the best ways to learn, both in the classroom and at home.

To this end, over the past few months we have undertaken a number of initiatives, all with the aim of getting students and teaching staff to be conversant in the importance of quizzing, spacing, elaboration, chunking and metacognition. We want to establish a shared language around effective learning strategies and believe that by having a thorough grasp of a few core concepts, our teachers are more likely to apply these principles to their teaching and our students are more likely to use them to improve their studying.

Now, we are certainly not the first school to think and act in this way. In honing our five principles of effective study, we have looked at much of the good work being done elsewhere, including this by Shaun Allison at his school. I hope that this blog, and the accompanying PDF resource at the end, will continue this good work and help other schools to get better at helping their students to succeed.

A different approach

In the past, we have talked quite a bit about helping students prepare for exams. Like other schools, we have dutifully supplied students with a range of resources to help them revise at home. We’ve given them highlighters (big mistake!), notecards, motivational pens, post-it notes and all manner of things to help get them organised. This was all done with the best of intentions, but, aside from the odd tokenary assembly, we never really considered the how of revising effectively. We now recognise that it is far better to have a coherent, shared approach to the language of effective independent study – a common way of thinking and talking about the learning that takes place outside the classroom.

Quizzing

Most, if not all, the people reading this will be familiar with importance of regular quizzing, as well as its attendant benefit in relation to long-term learning. It can, however, be hard to share this level of understanding across a wider body of staff, not to mention with the students. The difficulties of spreading messages at scale can lead to a loss of nuance and hence misapplication, such as the false belief that simply setting past papers constitutes quizzing. It doesn’t. This helpful post from the Learning Scientists’ blog addresses some of the issues in designing effective quizzes, and provides guidance about what is more likely to work with students than not.

To try and avoid misunderstanding, we have been  explicit about the distinction between low stakes quizzing and high-stakes testing, and taken the trouble to teach our year 11 students how to learn, in a similar way to what we have done in staff CPD. We designed a weekly tutor programme, where each week we unpicked the research behind specific learning principles and followed up with practical tasks designed to deepen understanding. We have also drawn colleagues together at INSET to share an understanding of effective independent study and provide time to design resources and approaches around the agreed principles. In terms of quizzing, for instance, we used examples of 4-5 different ways to quiz, including cued and non-cued recall tasks, as well as the use of graphics. This was followed up with opportunities for students to take these quizzes in tutor time, or to design their own to use with friends.

Spacing and interleaving

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As with quizzing, sometimes there can be considerable misconception about what spaced or interleaved study actually looks like. I remember presenting a session on interleaving and after I finished my talk, someone came up to me, thanked me for my presentation and then suggested that he was ‘going to try some of that into leaving tomorrow’. I didn’t know whether to laugh at his misinterpretation or cry at my poor communication. Either way, confusion abounds.

Like quizzing, a clear visual example can be helpful to illustrate an idea like spacing, particularly with students who find it difficult to construct a mental model of an abstract concept. The mocked up A level weekly study timetable below has been useful in showing students and teachers what it might mean to spread out small blocks of focused and iterative study on targeted concepts and modules. We know that modelling works to support teaching, yet we do not tend to do enough of it when it comes to supporting students to become more autonomous learners. We have learned to change.

Elaboration

For practical reasons, we collapsed elaboration and self-explanation into the same principle. Whilst there is a difference, they do essentially boil down to a similar thing: asking questions that encourage links to be made to other knowledge and understanding in interesting and unpredictable ways. Examples of four different types of elaboration – Clarification (What does this mean?); analysis (why does this matter?); speculation (What would happen if?) and contextualisation (How does this relate to?) – have helped teachers to model the types of questions students should be asking themselves, consolidating their understanding by forging links to existing, seemingly unrelated, knowledge.

A great and simple way of maximising the benefits of elaboration is through combining it with the more familiar way of quizzing using flash cards. Inspired by another great post from the Learning Scientists blog, we have been encouraging our students to generate an additional set of flash cards to go along with their chunked subject-specific ones (see below). This additional set contain a range of elaborative cues, so that not only can students quiz themselves and each other on the content of the original card, but also be encouraged to make connections they had not necessarily considered and which may or may not arise in the actual exam. This requires explaining, as many students have become so indoctrinated by the idea that if it’s not on the test, it’s not worth learning. This obviously misses the point on two fronts, but is sadly the result of a narrow approach to exam preparation.

Chunking

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All teachers and students usually know something about the limitations of working memory, even it only intuitively. We have used CPD time to improve our collective understanding of issues around cognitive load, and whilst there will be some staff that won’t necessarily remember the specific terms to describe what is going on when students learn, they understand the basic premise that you cannot think of too many things at any one time – the familiar 7 +/- 2 identified by George Miller, and more recently revised downwards to around 4.

If you get the idea of limited working memory capacity, then you are more likely to take steps to reduce cognitive load. Chunking is one of the most obvious strategies to help reduce pressure on working memory. The problem is that whilst there are many examples of what chunking is, there is little guidance about how to apply it practically. It is all very well to demonstrate how letters are chunked to form words, or that acronyms such as FBI, BBC and WWF allow more information to be stored at any one time, but that does not really help a class teacher chunk their lesson content, or a student to form chunks to help them revise.

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One, admittedly simplistic, way in which we have tried to promote the benefits of chunked learning is through the use of modelled flash cards. We have shared exemplar GCSE and A level versions to illustrate how it is possible to deconstruct a subject from topic level through to specific items or chunks of to-be learned information. It is all fairly obvious stuff, but from my experience it is often in the realms of the seemingly self-evident that the most unpredictable of mistaken assumptions are made. I remember when I was revising for my A levels, I created hundreds of cards for each subject. The problem was I just rewrote condensed versions of chapters from textbooks without properly understanding what I was copying out. I suspect some students still do this today.

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Metacognition

Metacognition is wide field with a great deal of nuance, so we focused on just one or two practical applications of ‘thinking about thinking’ to improve our students’ ability to organise their learning outside of school and to help them approach their exams in a confident, well regulated manner. Each department used INSET time to provide a step-by-step guide to examination components. These guides provide the starting point for students to personalise their approaches to exams, taking on board how they might be thinking and feeling at different points, how long they should be spending on different questions or sections and what strategies they can best employ to help them overcome moments of confusion, anxiety or forgetfulness.

More broadly, we have tried to build up an understanding of the main metacognitive strategies that will help students to study more independently, whether they are preparing for exams or not. Effective metacognition controls highly important aspects of our minds including motivation, self-regulation and will power, and through a simple five step process we have tried to help students to see how they can better reflect on the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ of what they are doing, and to devise appropriate coping and organisational strategies to enhance their performance under pressure.

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So, there you have it – our approach to better supporting the independent learning of our students. It is far from perfect, but it is a lot better than what we have done before and we can continue to make it better in the future.

Here is a copy of a two-sided summary of our five principles that we have used with our teachers and students this year. I hope it is helpful.

Thanks for reading!

 

 

 

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Why I’m (mostly) enjoying teaching the new linear A level

I have taught an A level class of some kind every year since I was an NQT. I really enjoy the challenge of teaching the older students, and over the years I have been lucky enough to teach some incredible texts – Paradise Lost, Doctor Faustus and Larkin’s poetry are amongst my favourites. The background reading can be daunting, but I have always found that by improving my subject knowledge I have really helped my students to improve their learning.

A level English teaching is not easy, though. One of the main difficulties I’ve found teaching English in three different mixed comprehensives is that a great many students do not have the necessary grounding in literature and often their writing is not controlled enough to handle the demands of higher-level essay writing, even when grades achieved at GCSE would suggest otherwise. Whilst this may not be everyone’s experience, I have seen the result of curriculum narrowing and an imbalanced focus on English language at GCSE.

So, as much as I enjoy teaching A level, to a certain extent this enjoyment is tempered by the sometimes overwhelming demands of not only teaching the syllabus, but also in addressing the issues that remain as a consequence of a superficial emphasis on skill acquisition at GCSE. In my experience, these issues can get exacerbated, or rather perpetuated, by the AS and A2 examination format. Under this format, where year 12 students sit exams sometime in May, there is not really enough time to teach for learning rather than performance, with the result that nothing really changes.

Since September I have been teaching an AS class who are pursuing the linear course. I had arrived at the beginning of term expecting to teach a year 13 class the legacy specification with texts that I know well and have built up considerable resources and subject knowledge. For one reason or another, the class got cut and I found myself at the last minute faced with the prospect of teaching three texts I was not very familiar with and without time the time I would usually set aside to prepare. Despite feeling vulnerable about my lack of subject knowledge, I have greatly enjoyed teaching the new specification and feel liberated by the possibilities that the linear structure affords.

Time

Whilst I am sympathetic to concerns about linearity, more teaching time is available now the burden of preparing for exams in May has gone. Because the AS exams come so early, you are revising and preparing with past exam papers before you know it, sometimes before you have taught all the poems or finished reading the novel. Once you knock out study leave and the exams themselves, only a few weeks of learning remain when students return in June. In those remaining weeks of term, it doesn’t seem to matter how you try and structure the time to make it purposeful – and trust me I have tried everything from AS/A2 transition units to beginning coursework – it rarely seems to amount to much.

Spacing and interleaving

I think by now that most people, particularly those reading this post, know about the benefits of spacing and interleaving. Unfortunately, knowing and doing are often two completely different things, particularly when you don’t have the time or the opportunity to implement the structures you think will make a difference in the classroom. In my experience, putting spacing and interleaving into practice is hard: aside from practical internal and external constraints, as Robert Bjork himself acknowledges, ‘students don’t like it’.

For the last couple of years I have been trying to introduce these desirable difficulties into my classroom, but I think it has only really been since September and with my current year 12 class that I have got close to implementing them in a way that is reasonably true to the ideal. I spoke at a conference earlier in the year about interleaving and a delegate came up to me at the end and said she thought it sounded a good idea and would ‘try out some interleaving later in the week’. Either my explanation was terrible, which is quite possible, or there was a bit of misunderstanding on her part about what implementing interleaving actually entails.

The reason for this disconnect is, I think, quite simple: introducing desirable difficulty into the classroom is actually quite hard and, like all learning, requires a prolonged period of time to understand it conceptually and making it effective in its practical application. I think where I have been more successful with my attempts this year is because I have had the time and the freedom to do so: I have been able to weave between texts and to allow a decent amount of time for forgetting to take place. The table below provides a brief overview of how I have gone about this and divided up my teaching time between Hamlet and Rossetti over recent months.

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The testing effect

It is much easier to take advantage of the testing effect as a classroom teacher. Designing frequent low-level tests of quizzes is relatively straightforward and does not really require too much unnecessary time in design or execution. Starting a new syllabus from scratch allows the additional opportunity to build a coherent programme of quizzes and sequence them in such a way they are testing and encoding the learning in a planned and systematic way. With my A level class I am now ordering my quizzes, so that next year I can gather them together in a master resource for students, which will should make my teaching easier and allow students’ to become more independent in their own quizzing and self testing.

Assessment hour

At my school we have taken what I think is quite a bold decision by insisting that most students only take three A levels. This, in part, has allowed us to offer an additional hour’s teaching to all subjects. On top of this, and I realise that we are lucky here, we have created an additional assessment hour every cycle. This means that every two weeks, each student completes a one-hour assessment under supervision for each of his or her three subjects. The assessment can take whatever form the department thinks is appropriate, such as a quiz, a set of comprehension questions or an essay. This format was designed to provide departments with the opportunity to assess students’ learning (ok, performance) on a regular basis, but it is also proving to be a fantastic mechanism for regular low stakes assessment.

Building knowledge

For me, probably the greatest benefit of the new linear course – with fewer texts studied in greater depth, together with the specific structures put in place by my school – are that it has meant I can teach in such a way that build up my students’ knowledge and understanding of the texts, whilst also addressing their individual and collective weaknesses. With the need to prepare for an exam early next year removed, I now have more time and freedom to build up a web of knowledge around the text, to methodically introduce relevant contextual details, to tackle grammatical misunderstandings one by one and teach analytical skills through extensive modelling and practice. In short, to do things the right way.

End note

I don’t wish to paint my teaching as great or somehow perfect; it is far from it. I have not got everything right and some of my quizzes are more effective than others. Interleaving in the way that I have illustrated above has been a challenge: although I genuinely believe in the efficacy of distributing learning and weaving between units, it stills feels unnatural and requires a courage of conviction. So conditioned are we English teachers to the practice of teaching a text or unit in a term that to break up this dominant structural arrangement can feel weird and unnerving. I also don’t mind admitting that I am still struggling with my own knowledge of the texts. I hate being just one step ahead of the students, even though I know that this is not really anyone’s fault – it is just the way that things sometimes go in large schools with lots of variables. If anything, being not so well prepared has reminded just what it is like for less experienced teachers, where everything is new and every new text is a body of knowledge to learn!

Thanks for reading