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!


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