Where do you get your information from about how students learn?


This post was originally written for the TES (edited and featured 0n 25/06/16)

For most, this question may seem an odd one, but according to Dr Gary Jones, sound evidence based practice requires teachers to discriminate, apply and evaluate a variety of sources of evidence in order to answer such questions, so have you?

@OliverCavigliol and @AceThatTest recently collaborated on Twitter to determine a continuum of subjective to objective sources of information that may be used by teachers to find out about how students learn. This article intends to explore the benefits and limitations to each of these sources:


Intuition and Experience

Highly subjective, people’s intuition often derives from a desire to find patterns and connections in randomness. Sometimes people overestimate their intuition and prevent themselves from making sound decisions. Take the roulette player that observes 5 reds come in one after another, he believes that there is little chance that a red can come in again, so places his bet on black. But of course, the odds are still the same regardless of how many came before. Liken this to the classroom, we use our intuition and experiences to guide us in situations that we face day-to-day. Being time-short means that teachers don’t have the opportunity to contemplate decisions, rather they act in the moment when it comes to thinking about how students learn best. Denes-Raj and Epstein (1994) propose that people process information in two different modes, one identified by terms such as rational, analytical and deliberative, and the other by terms such as experiential, automatic, intuitive and natural – The latter being a dangerous concoction of highly subjective approaches. Conversely, experience can support us contextually, particularly when less objective sources are available to us, moreover, intuition may useful to open yourself to new ideas that rational thinking may not allow.


CPD Sessions

Though some CPD sessions are informative and outside experts can act as agents for change (http://bit.ly/1THQQS7), there are a lot of snake oil salespeople out there. These individuals work in their best interests to promote ideas and resources, not really providing us with unbiased information about how students learn and often not informed by research. Furthermore, there remains limited evidence to support the impact of one off CPD sessions on teaching and learning (http://bit.ly/1Zfh2XS). However, if the CPD session is well informed and part of an ongoing community of practice, then this is where it is likely to have most value.


Communicating with peers

Teacher Learning Communities are held in high regard by Dylan Wiliam, who advocates this over the traditional sheep-dip approach to CPD, but done alone, does it really tell us about how students learn? Probably not, but in trialling strategies that are informed by more objective sources, it is certainly worth working with peers in communities of practice to determine how students learn best in your context.


Media and Blogs

This very article poses some bias towards particular sources. The very nature of this publication provides all in education a voice – some more authoritative than others. Blogs can also be produced by anyone and perhaps reinforce bad practice. Having said that, with both media and blogs, the information is current and highly accessible, so as a starting point, why not use it to find out how students learn?


Popular education books

There are thousands of books on the shelf that serve to provide us with information on how students learn. The issue we face is deciphering which are the most valid and reliable sources. Of course, once you get past this gargantuan task, you then have the bias of the author and editor to tackle. In spite of this, the thing that makes books more desirable is their ability to make the research accessible.


Education journals

On the topic of research, there are an array of individual peer-reviewed studies available covering a broad range of age groups, subjects and countries. These have been synthesised by both John Hattie and Robert Marzano, who have drawn upon the thousands of studies to determine how students best learn, producing an ‘effect-size’ for each of the strategies. There are some that have critiqued the methods used to determine the ‘effect-size’, however, questioning the validity of such an approach. Despite this, it is difficult to completely dismiss the findings of such large scale studies – just don’t take it as a standalone piece of evidence.


Cognitive science journals

Out of all of the abovementioned, this resource is the only one that focusses on the brain – that is what we’re here for isn’t it? These studies try to isolate the variables associated with typical classroom experiments and are generally laboratory based, so are pretty much as objective as we can get (of course, there is neuroscience, but this is a developing, yet murky area). Key principles of the learning science can easily be applied to the classroom, but it can be problematic trying to interpret these.



In determining how students learn best, we should try to use as many of the aforementioned sources as possible, preferably using more of the objective sources. If we can draw upon, and amalgamate the information gleaned from each to determine the most effective strategies to support our learners, then surely that’s what we should be doing?


Here’s an example:

Cognitive science informs us that distributed practice is a highly effective way to increase long term retention (http://bit.ly/1sO8Pzv). Classroom experiments also corroborate this, with the effect size of spaced practice being 0.46 (http://bit.ly/1VsEUIv). My experience tells me that cramming delivery into short blocks does little to help my learners remember the content at the end of the year and my peers would agree. So having gathered this information, next year I shall now try distributing practice and evaluate the findings at the end of the academic year.


So, how will you use the evidence to find out how students learn?

You don’t need to…

Over the last few weeks I’ve been working with a new group of unqualified, practicing teachers. It’s fascinating to hear about some of the things they’ve been indoctrinated with from others – those that did their teacher training many years ago.



Over a series of sessions, I’ve dispelled several myths about things they think they need to do and asked them to question their current practice. It’s not that this practice is necessarily wrong or ineffective, but the view of a ‘model lesson’ is, in my opinion. I’m going to explore some of these myths in this post and hopefully reassure readers that you don’t need to do any of them:


1. You don’t need to… start all lessons with a ‘starter activity’.

While it might be beneficial to grab the attention of the learners, a lesson needn’t start with an activity that has little relevance to the content. If you’re going to use one, I’d suggest a quick recap quiz for retrieval practice and initial assessment. Having said this, sometimes you might just fire straight in with the main body of the lesson and that’s fine, there isn’t a ‘right’ way to do this.


2. You don’t need to… write your learning objectives on the board.

It’s so frustrating that people think this makes a difference to the learners. Often the language used on the board is written in learner unfriendly, educational jargon. In most cases it is important to share the intentions with learners, so that they know what they’re doing and why, but sometimes you might reveal the intention as the lesson progresses. Whether you write down, tell learners or mime it, it doesn’t matter. Having said this, I often write intentions on the board so that learners have a point of reference should they wish to clarify what they’re aiming for, but I normally write this in the form of a question.


3. You don’t need to… make your learning activities fun, engaging and relevant to learner interests.

Two of my favourite quotes: ‘learning happens when people have to think hard’ (Coe, 2014) and ‘memory is the residue of thought’ (Willingham, 2009) should be considered here. All learning activities should give the learner the opportunity to think about the content. If fun, engagement and interest is a byproduct, then fine, but we should ensure that the focus is on content first. It doesn’t really matter how you do it, though some methods have, through research, demonstrated to be more effective than others (see here and here).


4. You don’t need to… worry about having enough time to teach the qualification.

This is something I hear a lot of, particularly in recent years where the guided learning hours of qualifications are being stripped back and every minute of a teacher’s contract is accounted for. For a start, you’re probably spending too much time on writing lesson objectives, doing starters and fun activities where the learners aren’t actually learning. If 5 mins are wasted in each lesson doing this and the learner has 12 lessons per week for 36 weeks, my maths says that’s 36 lost hours that I’ve just found you. In reality though, we are time short, so let’s not waste the precious time we have on nonsensical, ineffective tick box exercises.


5. You don’t need to… develop learners’ English, maths, soft skills etc in every lesson.

Whilst I am a huge advocate of developing literacy and numeracy through subject lessons, I don’t believe this should be at the expense of the content. I also don’t think we should force something in to ‘tick a box’. Natural opportunities should be taken and opportunities to develop the skills around the subject should be considered where appropriate. For example, if an learner uses subject specific terminology incorrectly, I would look to explore their understanding of the term and help them to put the word into context through use of a glossary.


6. You don’t need to… have a lesson plan.

Of course, you’d be foolish to think that you can teach without some sort of a plan, but you certainly don’t need to complete a particular lesson plan template. I’ve seen people plan to the exact minute in their lessons, but if learners don’t get something, rather than moving on because it is 9:23 and your plan says that you should be giving learners an activity, stop, and respond to what the learners need. Having a broad aim, an idea of how you’ll achieve it and how you’ll monitor learner progress towards it will allow for a more responsive approach to the learners – you might even be able to squeeze all of this information onto your fag packet.


7. You don’t need to… do what’s always been done.

New teachers, old teachers, teachers with no label – there’s an obsession with doing things how it has always been done. You pick up a new unit to teach, so follow the scheme that was planned by the teacher who did it in 2007, because that’s how its always been done. You include a learning styles inventory within your induction period and write the results on the group profile with no intention of using them, because, that’s how its always been done. Hey you that is nodding your head to this! Take control of this situation and your professionalism.


There’s probably many more myths that I dispel in every session, but these are a few that I have and will continue to challenge. You don’t need to do any of the above and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, but equally, if you want to do them, then that’s your call.

Should we spend more time designing multiple choice questions? a) Yes b) No

I am the first to admit that when I plan my lesson resources, I spend far too long making them aesthetically pleasing. Of course, I try to ensure that my instructional design is efficient and the content is challenging, but I enjoy making the resources look great too. There are probably many others, just like me.


In this post I’d like to look at formative assessment design, specifically multiple choice questions (MCQs), and I will argue why I need to spend more time focussing on designing these and probably less time on how ‘funky’ my resources look.


Let me explain the benefits* of multiple choice questions before I go on to how you might approach the design of them:

  1. The ‘testing effect’ – Frequent quizzing has shown to enhance later exam performance (McDermott et al, 2014) as learners are provided with the opportunity of retrieval practice. There is, however, research that indicates that MCQs might not be as effective for retrieval compared to short answer response questions due to the answer being available, thus learners are not required to think as hard (Kang, McDermott and Roediger, 2007).
  2. Identifying gaps in knowledge – We can quite reliably use multiple choice tests to identify the gaps learners have in their knowledge. We can use this information to close the gaps in knowledge for groups or individuals. Whilst there is the argument for guessing answers, if we increase the number of plausible incorrect answers and the number of questions to respond to, we do increase reliability. This is illustrated in the work of Burton et al (1991):
  3. 00001Furthermore, when we ask questions to learners in class, each learner is usually asked something completely different and therefore, this results in completely different answers. Whilst I think questioning is useful, it isn’t a reliable measure of learner understanding, plus we only know the response of that one learner we ask, not the others.
  4. They can be used as a diagnostic tool – If the questions are written as such that we can determine why the learner is selecting a particular answer, then we can start to diagnose problems with their cognitive processing (Wylie and Wiliam, 2006). Wiliam advocates using a small number of these questions at a hinge point in the session, whereas I’d argue that they’re useful at any point. The problem is tha they are quite challenging and time-consuming to create, as Harry Fletcher-Wood and others have found. I’m still developing my thinking on these, but here is a video by Wiliam which explains it in a little more detail – “Kids cannot get it right for the wrong reason”.
  5. Quick, visible responses  – When the learners answer these questions, we need to be able to see the responses of all individuals. This can be done quickly and with ease through the use of mini whiteboards or holding fingers up. The teacher can view the whole class in a few seconds and determine whether they can move on, or revisit information accordingly. The wealth of formative assessment online tools also allow for MCQs to be administered to all, and automated marking can generate clear analytics quickly. I personally like Google Forms, but there are many other online tools offering similar features.


Designing the Stem

In designing effective MCQ’s I have found several research articles and documents (1,2,3,4). Each of which offer similar advice when writing questions and answers. Here are some of the key things to consider when writing the stem:

  1. The stem should be meaningful by itself and should include the main idea.

Basically, this means that the main thing you’re trying to find out about should be in the stem. E.g. What chamber does deoxygenated blood enter in the heart? (I am trying to find out if they know about chambers of the heart).


  1. The stem should not contain irrelevant material.

This will just serve to confuse learners and this can cause more harm than good. Learners may create ‘false knowledge’ if the information is not relevant.


  1. Avoid a negatively written stem.

Where negatives are used in the stem, this can make the question easier according to Harasym, Price, Brant, Violato, and Lorscheider (1992). Furthermore, negatives can cause ambiguity in what is being asked and just because a learner knows an incorrect answer, this doesn’t mean that they know the correct one. Here’s an example by Burton et al (1991).

Which of the following is not true of George Washington?

  1. He served only two terms as president.
  2. He was an experienced military officer before the Revolutionary War.
  3. He was born in 1732.
  4. He was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence?


Designing the Answers

In a meta analysis of MCQ research, Rodriguez (2005) informs us that it is not the number of distractors but the quality of distractors that are important when designing answers for MCQs. It was found that writing more than 2 distractors can become challenging and is not significantly more effective that having more, so having A-C is fine if you are struggling to produce A-D. The key elements that should be addressed when writing stem answers are:

  1. All alternatives should be plausible.

Essentially, each incorrect answer should be plausible. In the example below, there is clearly one implausible response:

In what year was Winston Churchill first chosen as Prime Minister?

  1. 1700
  2. 1940
  3. 1941
  4. 1942


  1. Alternatives should be stated clearly and concisely.

Try to avoid unnecessary ‘waffle’, so that in interpreting the question, the cognitive burden is reduced.


  1. Alternatives should be mutually exclusive.

There should not be more than one answer that can be defended as a correct response by using correct reasoning. An example by Burton et al (1991) shows two possible correct answers:

How long does an annual plant generally live?

*a. It dies after the first year.

  1. It lives for many years.
  2. It lives for more than one year.

*d. It needs to be replanted each year.


  1. Alternatives should be free from clues about which response is correct.

Avoid including a word from the stem in the answers. This can provide a clue to the answer, and for some, they may think of it as a trick question, thus go with an alternative answer. For example:

What muscle is the agonist on a bicep curl?

  1. Bicep
  2. Deltoid
  3. Hamstring
  4. Tricep


  1. The alternatives “all of the above” and “none of the above” should not be used.

Speaks for itself as more often than not, this option is the correct answer in MCQs.


  1. The alternatives should be presented in a logical order.

The best approach suggested is numerical or alphabetical to avoid any clues as to which is the correct response. When working with City and Guilds on a project a few years ago, I was also advised to avoid having the starting letters of each answer show an obviously different response. For example, in the first set of answers, Hungary clearly stands out and this might lead learners to respond with that, whereas in the second set of responses, each starting letter is different and leaves no clues:

  1. Germany                 a. Germany
  2. Ghana                      b. Hungary
  3. Greenland               c. Poland
  4. Hungary                   d. Russia


As can be seen, writing MCQs isn’t something you can throw together 5 minutes before a lesson. To make them effective, it requires time and a number of elements need to be addressed. I’d suggest working with your colleagues to build a bank of questions.


*I have stumbled across a couple of problems with MCQs which are worth examining. @surrealyno has written a short piece on the disadvantages of MCQ’s and Roediger and Marsh (2005) also found that using MCQs could lead to ‘false knowledge’ in some students, where they believe an incorrect answer to be true. With due consideration of the abovementioned points, it certainly will mitigate against some of these concerns and I’d argue that the advantages of using MCQs outweighs the disadvantages, particularly compared to alternative methods of assessment.


A need to understand cognitive architecture.

Understanding the basics of human cognitive architecture is essential to understanding effective instructional design, but how many teachers can actually remember anything about it (that’s if they were even taught it in their teacher training)?


Whilst there is little concrete evidence for what I am sharing, after decades of psychological studies on memory, there is a general consensus amongst psychologists, along with some empirical evidence about how memory works. Much of this stemmed from the work of Atkinson and Shriffin (1968), followed by Baddeley and Hitch (1974), which I have attempted to visualise below (I did this for my students, the document can be accessed here should you wish to use):



Produced by: Dan Williams @FurtherEdagogy with reference to Kirschner et al (2006)


With instructional design we need to understand how we can use the aforementioned information to plan and deliver information to learners that will maximise their learning. I have blogged about some instructional design approaches previously, here, here and here, though for me, the Learning Scientists and Oliver Caviglioli have really nailed it with their six study strategies.



Sign learners up for the graft

I despise the first weekend of January. Not only do I get the Christmas blues, but it reminds me of my days working in the fitness industry where there would be an influx of people fulfilling their new year’s resolution to get fit. Little did they know that by the first weekend in February, the vast majority of them would no longer be members of the gym, nor did they truly understand that in order to see the results they expected, it would take months of hard work.


We live in a consumer world and January to fitness professionals is what September is like for teachers. Learners arrive at our classrooms expecting results, but not always willing to exert the prolonged effort that is needed.


Whilst writing a forthcoming blog post on observation, I stumbled across this statement in Coe’s excellent ‘Improving Education‘ publication which really ‘hit home’:

Some research evidence, along with more anecdotal experience, suggests that students may not necessarily have real learning at the top of their agenda. For example, Nuthall (2005) reports a study in which most students “were thinking about how to get finished quickly or how to get the answer with the least possible effort”. If given the choice between copying out a set of correct answers, with no effort, but no understanding of how to get them, and having to think hard to derive their own answers, check them, correct them and try to develop their own understanding of the underlying logic behind them, how many students would freely choose the latter? And yet, by choosing the former, they are effectively saying, ‘I am not interested in learning.’

Coe goes on to inform us that ‘learning happens when people have to think hard’.


Much like the gym, in FE, there will be a number of learners that leave early on, but how can we prevent this and ensure that learners are both thinking hard, and putting effort into their learning?


Here’s some ideas for you to think about using with learners at the start of the academic year:

1. Establish routines: For those working in an FE college, most learners are joining your class with no idea as to what to expect. they will be in new surroundings, with new people and this is a great opportunity to establish high expectations and routine in the classroom. Start as you mean to go on. If you have learning activities that require little effort, or if learners are allowed to put little effort in, then guess what? Yes, that will be the routine for the year. Keep the bar high for all and regardless of the outcomes, always praise those that put effort in to their learning.


2. Find out what learners know: Initial Assessment (IA) is crucial, but I’m not talking the whole putting learners through a load of irrelevant activities where the information gleaned is never used. What I’m talking about is finding out what the learners know about your subject and use this to guide the lesson. Perhaps give them an advanced organiser to help them identify gaps in knowledge, or quiz them on the content using diagnostic questioning.


3. Organise information: The more organised the information, the better. Give concrete examples and use both verbal and visual information simultaneously during instruction (dual coding) to reduce cognitive overload. Also ensure that learners are afforded the opportunity to revisit the information on several occasions over the term (spaced practice). Furthermore, learners should be given opportunities to elaborate on their understanding and transfer their knowledge to different problems. The Learning Scientists and Oliver Caviglioli have put together 6 study strategies which I highly recommend are implemented into your planning and delivery (link).


4. Test learners regularly: Our memory trace is improved when we have to work hard to retrieve information from long term memory. Therefore, we should aim to test learners frequently through mini quizzes, self testing and the like. This not only supports retrieval practice, but it also allows both the teacher and learners to identify strengths and areas for improvement. When learners start to see that their memory is improving and that they can transfer their knowledge to new situations, this can be highly motivating.


5. Show learners that you care: I’ve added this in after reading Dylan Wiliam’s ‘9 things every teacher should know’ last week. It really is important to show learners that you care about them succeeding. For some, this can be a natural thing, but for others it might not be. Positive relationships built on mutual respect and passion from the teacher can have a positive impact on learner motivation and achievement (Hattie, 2012). As Dylan says, it’s about seeing learners as people.


Good luck for the new academic year!

Less is more…

I’ve been writing a lot about cognitive architecture and instructional design of late (here, here and here). Arguably, the goal of instruction is to help students be able to explain information that they’ve retained and to transfer this to solve problems. Here I want to discuss a method of instructional design which may be highly effective in supporting learners with not only their retention of information, but also transfer.


According to Mayer et al (1996):

‘a common instructional practice is to provide a lengthy verbal explanation, such as a textbook passage or a classroom lecture…[in doing this]… instructors may believe…[that this]… fulfills their responsibility to provide information to the learner…[however]… this practice is not very efficient for many students.’

In their work, Mayer and colleagues conducted three experiments with a group of college students to explore the effectiveness of different instructional approaches to share a scientific explanations:

Experiment 1: Students read a summary that contained a sequence of short captions with simple illustrations depicting the main steps in the process of lightning. Students recalled these steps and solved transfer problems as well as or better than students who received the full text along with the summary or the full text alone.

Experiment 2: Taking away the illustrations or the captions from the summary reduced its effectiveness.

Experiment 3: Adding additional text to the summary reduced its effectiveness.

From the results of the experiments, it was concluded that multimedia learning that is concise, coherent, and coordinated, aids explanation recall and problem solving transfer. It is suggested that the reason for this is simply because summaries reduce the load on the cognitive system, enabling learners to carry out the cognitive processes necessary for meaningful learning, similar to that of dual coding.


In layman’s terms, an effective method of instruction is to provide learners with a storyboard of a process that contains both visual and text information, being mindful of the three ‘C’s:

  1. Conciseness: only using a few images and sentences in the storyboard.
  2. Coherence: Images and sentences should be presented in a cause-and-effect sequence
  3. Coordination: Images should be presented next to its corresponding sentences


So, I asked a colleague of mine, Mike Tyler to trial this approach and see how he found  and here’s the result…

Of course, it’s easy for me to sit here and say that sound instructional design should look a certain way, but there are implications in doing this. We know the opportunity of using resources like the above is good, but at what cost? I asked Mike a few questions following his work to untangle this a little.

1. How long did it take you to produce? 
Mike’s response: ‘It took a couple of hours… I used PowerPoint to make the pictures then grouped them, saved each one as a png and imported each into Word. Finally I saved it all as a pdf. Basically, it was a full-on mission, as they say! I’d do it by hand next time and scan / upload.’
2. In producing it, how did you know what to put where and what information to omit/include?
Mike’s response: ‘I included only what was minimally necessary to make sense of the process. i.e. osteobalsts, osteoclasts, etc). I had able Level 3 learners in mind.’
3. Do you think you will use this when teaching the process in future? Why?
Mike’s response: ‘I will probably give this a go in the future. I might try it for Anatomy & Physiology this coming term, maybe in a lesson on the energy systems.’
I’m going to be following up with Mike once he’s used this with his learners and will keep you posted by updating this post, but in the meantime, why not have a go yourself?
With thanks to Mike Tyler for this collaboration.

Three learners – What instruction?

I’ve written previously about the differences between expert and novice learners. You may want to read this if you haven’t already, as it provides a good base for this post. 

For this post, I’d like to start with a question. We have three learners; what instruction is likely to be most beneficial to them?

  • An A’ level physics learner with ten A-A* grades, including GCSE Physics
  • A BTEC Level 2 Sport learner with a range of GCSEs at grade D or below
  • A Level 1 Automotive adult learner with no formal qualifications, but many years experience of working on their family and friends cars

Of course, the answer isn’t quite as clear cut as one would like to think. I want to highlight that there is no ‘best way’ to teach in FE, all of these learners are very different and will require a different approach. Let’s explore each learner with some suggestions as to what might be more appropriate:


  1. It can be assumed that the A’ level Physics learner will have a sound understanding of the foundations of Physics. They are moving towards developing ‘expertise’, so will have well structured schema in this subject. So how best will they learn?


Kalyuga et al propose a phenomenon known as ‘the expertise reversal effect’ which I have attempted to depict below. In essence, when we have a solid foundation of knowledge in a subject, we need less guided instruction. The reason for this is that studies exploring the effect of guided instruction on experts have shown a negative impact, with some theorising that it is due to a greater extraneous cognitive load (basically too much non-relevant information), interfering with existing schema. So with this in mind, providing learners with less guidance and more opportunity to work independent of the teacher on problem solving and inquiry based tasks may be more effective.



  1. With the BTEC Sport learner on the other hand, we can assume from their GCSE profile that their schema is less organised compared to the A’ Level learner. So how will they best learn?


They probably have little knowledge of sport studies in general and therefore will require more guided instruction. As I mentioned in my previous post, without sufficient prior knowledge, minimally guided instruction is largely ineffective. To enhance the guided instruction, one should attempt to use approaches that reduce the burden on the working memory. This might include taking advantage of the ‘dual coding‘, by providing learners with visual and auditory information, and through ‘chunking‘ the learning coherently.


  1. The adult learner poses a more complex issue. They are likely to have some structure to their schema around automotive through their experience of working with cars. There are however, likely to be some misconceptions and potentially ‘bad habits’ as a result of this experience. How best to approach these learners then?


Through any instruction, this learner is likely to experience what Waxer and Morton call ‘cognitive conflict’, which essentially means the uncertainty we have when faced with new information that contradicts what we believe already (our current knowledge and experience). In terms of instructional methods, Bell and colleagues found positive results in using a constructivist approach to teaching called ‘diagnostic teaching’. This type of teaching involves:

‘lessons typically begin with a problem that exposes the variety of students’ existing thinking. Students are then confronted with the cognitive conflicts that emerge from these different ways of thinking. New insights are constructed through reflective discussion, leading to deeper understanding. This approach is challenging for teachers but research shows that it develops connected, long-term learning in their students.’

This blog by Nick Rose finds conflicting evidence in the research for teaching cognitive conflict, showing the benefits of both minimally guided instruction (diagnostic teaching) and guided instruction. In light of this, I would argue that the abovementioned learner will require a combination of both types of instruction. In the first instance to correct misconceptions and clarify understanding, explicit guided instruction is recommended. The learner is not an expert and therefore needs to have strong foundations built and reinforced. Following this, they can challenge cognitive conflict through a constructivist approach such as diagnostic teaching.


Key to planning instructional design is knowing your learners. This isn’t a case of their learning style or any other nonsense about how they like to learn, nor is it about trying to make the learning activities more ‘learner-centred’ because it is in-vogue. Rather it is about finding out as much as possible about what the learners already know and how secure they are with this. If we can do this, it will assist us in designing effective instruction to maximise future learning – whether this be fully, or minimally guided.

FE Bloggers

A blog is an identity, a way to express yourself, a way to think freely, to reflect and to share this with a large population. Your voice isn’t lost in the myriad of levels within an individual institution, but instead, one is considered an equal amongst colleagues from across the sector. I have learnt a vast amount through writing/reading and taking part in dialogue around my own and other’s blog posts, so am an advocate for celebrating those that currently blog and for encouraging others to start blogging in order to broaden the knowledge pool we can access. 


After receiving several requests lately asking for FE specific bloggers, I have took it upon myself to collect information about all blogs by FE practitioners (well those that replied to my request anyway). I have ordered them alphabetically for ease of reference.

Name: Blog Title: Link to blog: Summary of blog content (What is it about? Who is it aimed at? How often do you post?):
Bren Prendergast bjpren/navel gazing https://bjpren.wordpress.com/ An eclectic mix, but generally SpLD/SEND, SEND Law & parental perspectives. Aimed at those not wishing to tick generic boxes & those wishing to understand SEND legal duties. I post erratically, but fairly frequently.
Carolyn O’Connor myfethoughts https://myfethoughts.wordpress.com The blogs on this site are about further education. It is aimed at anyone interested in FE. I generally post a blog once a month.
Clare ClaresELTCompendium www.ClaresELTCompendium.wordpress.com Aimed at teachers of English for Academic Purposes, Study Skills, teachers interested in CPD. I provide free worksheets & lesson materials, as well as discussion posts on key issues in EAP and teaching study skills. I blog every couple of weeks, sadly not as regularly as I would like!
Dan Williams FurtherEdagogy Furtheredagogy.wordpress.com The blog has a teaching, learning and assessment focus, and using a wealth of research aims to question and challenge widely held beliefs in FE primarily, but also education generally. I post twice weekly. One a written piece and one an interview with an educator.
Diana Tremayne Another Fe Blog https://anotherfeblog.wordpress.com General FE musings with a particular focus on ESOL. Aimed at anyone who wants to read it! Posts approx 1 per month but varies according to time and energy.
Eddie Playfair eddieplayfair.com www.eddieplayfair.com Posting about education, culture and politics fairly regularly.
Emma Bell EMMAths Emmalbell.com/blog Maths, teaching. Don’t post as often as I’d like, but I’m changing that!
Gemma Whitelock Mrs Arty-Textiles mrsartytextiles.wordpress.com Teaching and education support for teachers of art and textiles. I post every term (not as often as I’d like to!) There are student friendly resources on the site and directory of artists to support project research. I often get emails asking for advice in designing and writing curriculum plans and projects for exam groups. . More than happy to help 😊
Gemma Whitelock (Lincoln College of Art) Sharing TLA sharingtla.wordpress.comsharingtla.wordpress.com A new sharing blog to create a platform for FE staff to share the good stuff, show and tell the positives and provide links to the things that have worked so that others can benefit. We post regularly throughout term time.
Geoff Petty Geoff’s Blog http://geoffpetty.com/blog/ Teachers in FE or schools. Posts occur irregularly, when I have something to say
Hannah Tyreman Hannah Tyreman hannahruthtyreman.wordpress.com This blog has posts on my CPD work in FE but there are also posts on teaching & learning, leadership and technology. It’s aimed primarily at a wide FE audience, although posts also have relevance outside of this sector. I post when I have something to say or share.
Hilary Nunns Can Do Courses http://can-do-courses.co.uk/blog/ Irregular blogs aimed at teachers/support staff. I write about ADHD/SEND and behaviour in class.
Howard Scott Cantankerousman https://cantankerousman.wordpress.com Reflections on lifelong learning, FE contexts, technologies and mobile learning, literacies, culture, meandering nomadic posts. Posts are irregular these days – once a month, more or less. The aim is more personal: to help assimilate things I learn – a reflective process, rather than try to prescribe (I hope I’m not cantankerous. It was created for my MA digital cultures course and a spur of the moment name!).
James Clay e-Learning Stuff http://elearningstuff.net Thoughts, views and news on using technology to support, enhance and enrich teaching, learning and assessment. Aimed at staff in FE as well as HE mainly of benefit to teachers and managers. Posts roughly once a week.
Jayne Stigger FE Culture http://feculture.blogspot.co.uk/ Issues in education, mostly Further Education; it covers Teaching, Support Staff, E & D, Maths, Funding etc., but things of interest too. A mix of posts, interests and passions.
Joe Baldwin IncludEDfe www.includEDfe.com Weekly posts about SEND, inclusion, additional learning support, high needs and ALS funding in FE.

I have only just relocated my blog from StaffRM to its new home so content is currently sparse but will be moved across in chunks!

Jonathan Wells Functional Skills – Post-16 maths and English http://functionalskills.blogspot.co.uk/ 9 years old, average 1 post a week. Maths and English related news and comment for the post-16 sector – FE and Training providers.
Kay Sidebottom Adventures in Lifelong Learning http://adventuresinlifelonglearning.blogspot.co.uk/ Further education and lifelong related posts; aimed at educators from all sectors and trainee teachers. Specific interest in posthuman approaches to curriculum and identity/diversity issues. Post every month or so.
Lou Mycroft TeachNorthern www.teachnorthern.wordpress.com A clarion call to dancing princesses, anti-heroic leaders and all who are interested in education for a social purpose. Also stuff about thinking environments and other pro-social approaches to critical pedagogy. Can be ranty but will always give you the feels.
Martin King inspirenshare http://inspirenshare.blogspot.co.uk/ Weekly Posts about technology, education, creativity, innovation and what I put into practice
Matt Bromley M J Bromley’s Blog http://www.bromleyeducation.co.uk Education, education, education – here I curate my articles and blogs about all aspects of education (pedagogy and leadership; primary, secondary, FE, and HE). I post sporadically but usually several times a month.
Mike Tyler The Residue of Thought http://residueofthought.blogspot.co.uk/ A blog on education from an FE Sport Lecturer. The blog is not subject and phase specific, but also includes my thoughts on education more broadly. I post roughly once a month.
Nicky Hawkins nhawkinsblog https://wordpress.com/posts/nhawkinsblog.wordpress.com Various topics, all FE related. Teachers, teacher educators, those involved in mentoring or coaching. Every 3 months or so.
Patrice Miller The teacher diaries patricelauramiller.com Blog about teaching English to FE learners. Aimed at FE GCSE and FS English teachers. I try to blog monthly.
Paul Warren Paul Warren https://m.youtube.com/channel/UCG0hzreCloIeqpuWiTySNMw Video Blog dealing with mainly with learning technology in
FE but being expanded to include more subjects/areas
Peter Ford Education: the sacred and the profane https://edsacredprofane.wordpress.com/ A blog about education aimed at fellow education professionals. Posting fairly frequent (less so this year).
Phil Bird Phil Bird http://classroom201x.wordpress.com/posts Ideas and tools to use in the classroom – it’s aimed at teachers, particularly those teaching ESOL, though much may be relevant to Functional Skills. I’m trying to post monthly.
Sam Shepherd Sam Shepherd’s Blog http://samuelshep.wordpress.com Posts about ESOL, adult learning, teacher training and issues in FE generally, posting generally twice a month, sometimes more.
Sarah-Jane Crowson Hcascholarship http://hcascholarship.com/ This blog is all about scholarly activity at Hereford College of Arts
Steven Keevil Teacher Learner https://stevenkeevil.wordpress.com/ Potentially it’s about focusing on Level 1 teaching and SEBD withing F.E. Its aimed at myself and anybody else who accidentally reads it.

Minimal guided instruction

Using problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching is likely to be ineffective with novices. 


My last post explored the difference between novices and experts, demonstrating that they think and act very differently due to a contrast in their knowledge and experience in a subject area.


In Further Education, specifically in vocational areas, learners arrive with little to no knowledge/experience in their subject. Take Engineering, Automotive, Hair and Beauty and Construction for example – likely to have never been studied previously.  Then there are subjects where there may be prior knowledge/experience but many misconceptions, for example English and maths. Therefore, learners are arguably still novices when they join us…


The thing is, there seems to be an obsession in FE to teach learners as if they are experts. CPD sessions across the country are riddled with the promotion of minimal guided instruction methods such as: discovery based, problem based, experiential and inquiry-based learning. I get it, I really do. We are trying to reach an audience that is getting hdownloadarder to reach, so if we can make the learning interesting and give learners more autonomy, then we might just crack the problem…

‘You will assume the role of a Wella colour expert and figure out what is wrong with Deirdre’s highlights’


The problem is, we are not doing them any favours by doing this. Once learners have a solid foundation and begin to develop expertise, then these approaches to learning may be very effective, as they can draw upon prior knowledge/experiences to assist them with their learning. Novices on the other hand don’t have this knowledge and experience to draw upon. In fact, it is likely that they will have misconceptions about the subject that, when applied to a problem based activity, may result in further confusion.


Future posts will examine effective methods of guided instruction, but for now I introduce you to a paper by Kirscher and colleagues explains in greater depth why minimally guided instruction is not an effective instructional design for those with limited knowledge. I have attempted to summarise this visually below:


So to end my post. Many of our learners are novices and need guided instruction. When they are experts, we can reduce the guidance we give.

*Also, I’d like to add that I’m not completely averse to this type of instruction on occasion, when I feel that learners have sufficient knowledge.

Experts and novices


This week I stumbled across a fantastic article online written by a self-taught card counter (Steve Pavlina) who, when reflecting on the Blackjack table was able to draw upon some lessons for life. I read this article and it immediately resonated from an educational perspective too.

Steve begins the article by outlining his fascination with the game and went on to outline how he became an expert at beating the casino:

‘I bought a book on blackjack, learned the rules of the game, memorized the basic strategy, and then studied a simple +/- card counting system. It took a heck of a lot of practice and was tedious to learn, but I eventually felt comfortable with it…Between Vegas trips I studied blackjack and card counting ever more deeply. I read 10-12 books on the subject and mastered different counting systems (Thorpe, Uston, Revere, etc.). I practised advanced counting systems that keep a side-count of aces. I drilled myself until I could count down a deck of cards in under 14 seconds. I learned to vary the play of hands according to the count, memorized optimal strategies for different rule sets, and learned the subtleties of the game that would increase my edge even the slightest degree. We’re talking a total edge of maybe 1%.’

Steve made some observations whilst playing. Below I have attempted to make sense of these through an education lens.

1. Novices will make correct decisions most of the time – It was observed that most of the time (80-90%), novices would make the same decisions as an expert, but cumulatively that 10-20% they make incorrect decisions have a big impact on their losses.


In education, we may assume that learners are learning well if, in most cases, they answer questions correctly, or produce a lot of work. Aside from these being generally poor proxies for learning (Coe, 2014), learners themselves may also believe that they’re doing well; mistaking their ability as superior to what it is (the Dunning-Kruger effect). This is dangerous because it’s the bits they may be getting wrong that cumulatively have a considerable impact on future learning (the 10-20%). Taking even the smallest misconception forward could make future learning less clear and more difficult.

Illustration by Oliver Caviglioli

For example, upon taking students into my Biology class, I have found many to arrive with the belief that all arteries carry oxygenated blood. Whilst in the vast majority of instances this is correct, it is a misconception that could cause confusion when later learning about pulmonary circulation, where in fact the pulmonary artery carries deoxygenated blood. The misconception should be corrected to ‘arteries carry blood away from the heart’, thus removing the confusion about oxygenated/deoxygenated blood. So what I’m getting at here is that we as teachers are supporting our learners’ development from novices to experts by not making assumptions about learning (as a result of insufficient assessment) and not allowing misconceptions to leave our classrooms.


2. Novices miss golden opportunities – It was observed that novices lost more money on the blackjack table due to a lack of understanding about when to gamble more and when to go bust; instead they tended to play it safe. Experts on the other hand would go bust more often and gamble high when the time was right. They used their knowledge of the odds to their advantage.


Daley found in her research of novice and expert learning that novices are ‘scared to death [and] terrified of making mistakes’, and that they want to be told what it is they needed to know in their learning. They are risk averse and as such don’t like to put themselves in positions where they may make a mistake. On the other hand, experts adopted a more constructivist approach to their learning, assimilating new information with old through experience, and because of a solid base of prior knowledge they were more inclined to know when to make calculated risks (or take golden opportunities). This is why it is essential that there is sufficient hand holding and teacher led instruction to ensure that the learner is provided with the key knowledge that they need, in order to develop into experts. Effective scaffolding should be slowly removed over a series of weeks/months to enable learners to become less dependent on the teacher and support their transition towards being an expert.

Illustration by Oliver Caviglioli


3. Novices don’t put in the time to fully understand the game – Novices don’t take the time to master the basics, whereas experts put in hours of practice and understand the basics and the more nuanced elements of the game.


Deliberate practice is crucial to becoming an expert according to Ericson et al who states that ‘many characteristics once believed to reflect innate talent are actually the result of intense practice’. Many novices (myself included) may be subject to the Dunning-Kruger effect so are misinformed and feel that they may not need the practice to master something. Our duty as teachers is to not only provide time to practise, but also encourage learners to understand the benefits of doing so (more on this below).

Illustration by Oliver Caviglioli



4. Experts are more disciplined – Experts tend to be more consistent in making decisions and taking action. Experts understand that you can make the correct decision and still lose, but they focus on making correct decisions, not on trying to force a particular outcome


In his book, David Didau (2015) informs us that ‘we are predisposed to examine the surface structure of a problem rather than recognising that its underlying deep structure is the same as something we already know’. In essence, when approached with a new problem, unless we are an expert, we are less likely to make links with existing knowledge and prior experiences to solve a problem. Novices simply don’t have sufficient information to draw upon and so can’t make informed decisions, thus focusing on the detail, whereas experts are more likely to focus on the structure of a problem and take a more consistent approach. For example, if given a maths problem to solve, the expert may think of similar problems they’ve faced and compare the structures to help them make sense of the information, whereas a novice may just try to tackle the problem without an idea of what they’re trying to find, or what the outcome might be. With this in mind, teachers need to be modelling explicitly how to approach problems making use of prior knowledge, before scaffolding problems for learners with support mechanisms that can be removed once experience is acquired.

Illustration by Oliver Caviglioli



5. Private victory precedes public victory – Experts spend a lot more time practising, which takes tremendous patience. Their real victories aren’t at the blackjack table, but in their homes practising.


As mentioned above, expert performances only arise through dedicated and deliberate practice. This according to Ericsson et al requires motivation and perseverance, which in itself is problematic, particularly if we want learners to engage in deliberate, directed practice outside of the classroom.

‘Deliberate practice is not inherently enjoyable and that individuals are motivated to engage in it by its instrumental value in improving performance. Hence, interested individuals need to be engaging in the activity and motivated to improve performance before they begin deliberate practice.’

So our role as educators is to establish an environment where learners focus on long term improvement through having a high self-efficacy for learning. To avoid learned helplessness and to encourage a high self-efficacy we should guide students towards success through modelling, scaffolding and giving sound feedback to help move them forward.

Illustration by Oliver Caviglioli


In summary, to support our learners from novice to expert we need to treat them as a novice initially and not as an expert. If we try to teach our novice learners to be scientists by giving them inquiry based science projects to complete, or treat them as hair stylists by placing them straight into a hair salon, they will act as novices (Kirschner et al). I believe, based upon what I have written (here, here and here) that the following approaches should be taken to support our learners to become experts:

  • We are experts in the subject matter ourselves
  • We plan the learning to maximise long term retention (distributed and interleaved practice)
  • We model correct practice and chunk the learning to reduce cognitive load
  • We scaffold difficult concepts to enable learners to more easily understand, before slowly removing the support mechanisms to allow greater independence
  • We provide regular opportunities for retrieval practice
  • We provide learners with sufficient time and space to practise, hone their skills and take necessary risks
  • We support the transfer of knowledge and skills within the subject through well planned and scaffolded activities.
  • We conduct regular checks on all learners’ understanding which goes beyond that of superficial questioning/observation
  • We provide task-oriented, rather than ego-oriented feedback in a timely and specific manner to move learning forward
  • We involve learners in their own assessment and one another’s against clear success criteria
  • We actively encourage learners to practise beyond the classroom through challenging homework that feeds into future lessons


Special thanks go to Oliver Caviglioli for his brilliant visuals to support the text.