Feedback and what good ‘looks like’

I’ve been thinking a lot about feedback lately and reminiscing on my younger days as a sports coach. When introducing a new skill to an individual, it was imperative that I could model, or show an example of what good looks like, otherwise learners would simply not know what they were aiming to achieve.


Learning something new is really challenging, it becomes more so if we don’t know what good ‘looks like’. I’m not an engineer, but let’s take the example of learning a fillet lap weld. Without seeing what a good fillet lap weld looks like, it would be nigh on impossible for a learner to do one successfully. Take the correct use of apostrophes – without seeing the various uses of an apostrophe, one simply wouldn’t know know how to use it.


Just knowing what good ‘looks like’ isn’t enough to learn something effectively however. Along the way to mastering a fillet lap weld, or correct apostrophe use, there’ll no doubt be mistakes made. This is where feedback is essential. According to Ramaprasad (1983, p.4) ‘feedback is information about the gap between the actual level and the reference level of a system parameter which is used to alter the gap in some way’. In other words, feedback should identify the strengths and weaknesses of performance in relation to what good ‘looks like’. But is it that simple?


No. In 1996, Kluger and DiNisi explored the effects of feedback on performance. Their meta-analysis revealed that on average, feedback improved performance but bizarrely, in over a third of cases, feedback actually impeded performance. Upon further exploration, their work revealed that the more effective feedback focussed on the quality of the work (task-oriented), rather than the person (ego-oriented). In other words, focus was on the strengths and areas for development of the work, rather than assigning numbers or grades to the work, which allow for comparisons between learners. In addition to this, they found that more effective feedback focussed on what and how the individual could improve their performance (the future), rather than focussing too much on the performance itself (the past). I liken this to the analogy of driving a car. If we focus too much on what we can see in our rear view mirror, we’ll probably crash (image 1). Whereas, if we acknowledge our mirror, but focus our attention on the road in front, we’re more likely to be moving forward positively (image 2).

Similar findings were noted in the work of Hattie and Timperley (2007); they determined that feedback was best served with clear goals for improvement. If we think back to my above mentioned point about knowing what good ‘looks like’, if feedback is provided in relation to a good example of a fillet lap weld and looks at how current work could be developed to achieve a good standard, then it is more likely that the learner will make improvements.


The thing with feedback is that it becomes extremely challenging for a teacher to provide 20-30 learners with regular individual feedback in a session. Here’s the thing, you don’t need to. Once learners are clear with what good ‘looks like’, there are 20-30 other resources at a teacher’s disposal, so why not ask them to provide feedback to one another?


Some common methods to do this are identified in Petty’s (2009) fantastic Evidence Based Teaching book. One of his diamonds is the ‘medal and mission’ approach – very simple, yet also very effective. Firstly task centred information is provided to the learner in relation to the goals (what good ‘looks like’) – the medal. Following this, learners are given a clear target for improvement in relation to the goal – the mission. For example:


‘Jamal, you have clearly fit-up the plates accurately and your weld indicates that the distance to the joint was good, as the arc is the correct depth (medal). If you look at the model example, the bead size is slightly larger. To increase the size of the bead, you need to decrease the speed that you move along the joint. In your next attempt, continue in the same manner as before, but with a slightly slower speed’ (mission).


Similar approaches that may be used include:

  • 2 Stars and a Wish – useful for peer assessment, the learners give one another 2 stars (i.e. 2 things they think their peer has done well in relation to what good ‘looks like’) and a wish (i.e. something they wish could be improved upon in relation to what good ‘looks like’).
  • WWW/EBI – as before, this acknowledges the past – What Went Well (in relation to what good ‘looks like’), before looking to the future with clear guidance for improvement, Even Better If…(in relation to what good ‘looks like’).


Whilst peer feedback is really useful, it is worth noting the limitations of the above approaches. Indeed, Nuttall (2007) acknowledges that around 80% of feedback in a typical classroom is between peers, yet around 80% of that feedback is inaccurate. If we can provide suitable structures, such as the above, and ensure that clear success criteria is provided (what good ‘looks like’), then we improve the effectiveness of peer to peer feedback.


To summarise, if we really want to maximise feedback in classrooms, we need to ensure the following:

  • Everyone is clear with what good ‘looks like’
  • Feedback looks forward and not back
  • Feedback focuses on the task and not the person
  • Feedback involves everyone



Hattie, J. and Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research. 77 (1), p. 81-112.

Kluger, A.N. and DiNisi, A. (1996). The effects of feedback interventions on performance: A historical review, a meta-analysis and a preliminary feedback intervention theory. Psychological Bulletin, 119 (2), p. 254-284.

Nuthall, G. (2007). The Hidden Lives of Learners. NZCER Press

Petty, G. (2009). Evidence Based Teaching. Cheltenham: Nelson Thornes.

Ramaprasad, A. (1983). On the definition of feedback. Behavioral Science, 28, 4–13.


Think about thinking hard

I recently stumbled across this statement in Coe’s excellent ‘Improving Education‘ publication and it 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‘. But how do we ensure that learners are both thinking hard, and putting effort into their learning? Easier said than done eh?

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

  1. Teach students about the importance of hard work and effort: Now this is no easy feat. Marzano informs us that this can have a high effect of achievement and suggests sharing examples of personal experiences or those that learners can relate to. He also suggests that learners self-assess their effort in lessons when self-assessing achievement against success criteria – not something I have tried myself, but certainly one to consider.
  2. Establish routines early: 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 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.
  3. Find out what learners know and use the information: Initial assessment is crucial, but I’m not talking the whole sticking the learners on a computer to complete a maths and English IA to determine… well, not-a-lot. What I’m talking about is finding out what the learners know about your subject. Give them an advanced organiser to help them identify current knowledge and how this fits with information they’re going to learn. Use what they know to help them make sense of new information, to challenge misconceptions and to give a clear direction to the learning that they’re about to embark on.
  4. Organise information: Building on from the above, the more organised the information that learners are dealing with, the better. Provide a range of concrete examples to explain abstract concepts and use both verbal and visual information simultaneously (dual coding) to reduce cognitive load. Cognitive science research also indicates the benefits of revisiting information on several occasions over the term/period of learning (distributed practice) to enhance retention. There are many other strategies that have shown time and time again to be effective – summarised clearly for teachers by the learning scientists (every teacher needs this in their life).
  5. Test learners regularly: As with the above, our memory trace is improved when we have to work hard to retrieve information from long term memory, thus improving retention. Therefore, we should aim to test learners frequently through mini quizzes and self testing. This not only supports retrieval practice, but it also allows both teacher and learners to identify strengths and any misconceptions that learner have, thus allowing for appropriate intervention.

All of the above are simple ‘off the shelf’ strategies that may help to increase the effort and ensure that learners are working and thinking hard in your classrooms. They are not silver bullets and may work better in some situations than others, but all are worth considering – particularly as the new term is about to begin.


Learning my Craft pt 1.

I’ve been reflecting on where it all began for me as a teacher. At 16, I left school with six GCSEs above grade C and didn’t think that further study was for me, so I embarked upon a career in the leisure industry. I worked for a couple of years as a lifeguard, swimming teacher and fitness instructor before going back into education. When I think about it, it was during this period that I learnt most about the craft of teaching. Let me explain why:


Like many activities, both gym based exercise and swimming involves a range of motor skills. From the breaststroke technique, to performing a bench press, both involve complex motor skills and for novices, both can be difficult to master. Whilst learner confidence is an important ‘affective’ characteristic in both environments (particularly in swimming, which I might blog about at a later date due to its relevance to FE learning), once a level of confidence is developed, the teaching of a new skill can be done with efficiency and impact. However, the teaching of a skill can also be very inefficient and ineffective. In this post I hope to share some of the theories/strategies that I learnt early on in my career which have helped me to hone my craft and I’d like to think are the more efficient/effective approaches.


Further Education (FE) caters for a diverse group, which makes it challenging when recommending particular teaching strategies. Last year I blogged about the different approaches one might take with 3 learners.  There are many technical subjects where the vast majority of learning is skill based (procedural knowledge to the cognitive scientists). When one learns a practical (motor) skill, for example, welding, sewing, cutting, drilling etc, according to Fitts and Posner (1967), there are certain stages that one goes through in order to develop ‘automaticity’. A summary can be found in the table below:

Image Source

STAGE 1: Cognitive Stage Huber (2013) states that the cognitive stage is:

‘verbal–cognitive in nature (Schmidt & Lee, 2005) because it involves the conveyance (verbal) and acquisition (cognition) of new information. In this stage, the person is trying to process information in an attempt to cognitively understand the requirements and parameters of motor movement.’

In other words, this involves the learner making sense about how to perform a skill. In order to do this, they need to see what ‘good looks like’ (blog to follow). To see this, they require explicit instruction by a competent individual. In the case of a teacher, the most effective way of doing this is to accurately model the skill and explain each step clearly. This is supported by research in the fields of fitness and gymnastics where it was found that effective modelling improved performance over other methods of instruction/development. Of course, as McCueeagh, Weiss and Ross note, there are many other factors to consider when modelling skills, e.g age and stage of learners, but if we think about principles of cognitive load theory, clear, chunked explanations and a combination of coherent visual and auditory information (dual coding) are proven techniques for supporting knowledge acquisition.  When I think back to my fitness instructor course in the early 00’s, effective modelling and instruction was inherent. The main strategy adopted when supporting gym users with new exercises/equipment was NAMSET:

  • N= Name of the Exercise – the name of the skill is outlined by the teacher
  • A= Area of the body worked – the teacher identifies the area of the body that is being worked
  • M= Muscles used – the teacher uses the correct anatomical terminology for muscles used
  • S= Silent demonstration – the teacher demonstrates the new skill in silence
  • E= Explanation of the exercise – the teacher explains the skill in small steps, with key points of consideration.
  • T = Teach the exercise – the teacher supports the learner as they complete the skill

Whilst I didn’t always follow this to the letter, I used the principle to instruct clients and found that they often managed to grasp techniques quickly. Incidentally, I hadn’t heard about cognitive load theory until around 18 months ago, but had been implementing key principles in my instruction. As with any new information, one needs to manage cognitive load and the NAMSET steps allow for this. I’ve placed in bold, the sections that are perhaps most relevant to teaching any new skill.

  1. Name the skill/task. What will you be showing and why? Giving reason and purpose to any new skill is likely to improve the focus.
  2. Where possible, demonstrate how to do it in silence. This allows the learner the opportunity to observe and self talk. I’d like to explore this a little further if I’m honest. I’m not sure that this should come before or after the explanation. Thoughts?
  3. Explain whilst demonstrating. This uses both the visual and auditory pathways to working memory (dual coding) if the explanations are clear and concise. Using complex terminology and excessive information risks losing the focus of learners, and/or overloading their working memory.  What are the key points for consideration? How can you explain the process clearly and concisely?
  4. Allow learners to complete the skill independently, but guide as required.  This is an opportunity for learners to apply their new knowledge and carry out the procedure themselves. As they do, the teacher should guide, reinforce key points and question the learners to ensure accuracy.

It is this early stage of skill development that the learner is likely to make quick gains in their performance of the task (as outlined by Fitts and Posner above), so this is arguably the most important stage for a teacher to consider when introducing new and complex practical skills.

In summary, this post has focussed on the early stages of learning a new motor skill. The discussion is supported by Kirschner, Sweller and Clark, whose work with novice learners found that minimal guidance during instruction is less effective and less efficient than explicit instruction. Here we can see that this stage of learning a new skill requires a lot of teacher input, but this needs to be done so with accurate modelling and clear explanations. My next blog post will focus on stage 2 and 3 of Fitts and Posner’s model, where the teacher begins to move towards the role of a coach to support learners with fluency/automaticity with their skills.




Mastery Learning – getting the foundations right

In the 12th Century, construction of a bell tower behind the Pisa Cathedral began. Due to it being built upon soft soil with only 3m of foundations, the tower began to subside on one side during the construction phase. Despite this, the bell tower was eventually completed nearly 200 years after starting. However, each year the tower increased its tilt by 1mm, until in 2001 it got to the point of no return. Had work not been carried out to correct the foundations, the tower would have collapsed under the immense pressure being exerted on it. Although it has now been corrected (to an extent), engineers believe that in a couple of centuries, it will likely be at a point where correction will need to be made again.

Isn’t this interesting? Due to building upon poor foundations, the building will never last without regular intervention…

Reminds me a bit of education. Before I make the link more explicit, let me digress to a term that is bandied around a lot in education – MASTERY LEARNING. Sounds pretty awesome, indeed I imagine you’ve heard a consultant, manager or colleague throw the term around in an attempt to sound awesome and you’ve no doubt thought to yourself… they’re awesome! For those of you that don’t know what it is, here are a couple of definitions:

The Wikipedia definition cites:

‘Mastery learning (or, as it was initially called, “learning for mastery”) is an instructional strategy and educational philosophy, first formally proposed by Benjamin Bloom in 1968. Mastery learning maintains that students must achieve a level of mastery (e.g., 90% on a knowledge test) in prerequisite knowledge before moving forward to learn subsequent information. If a student does not achieve mastery on the test, they are given additional support in learning and reviewing the information and then tested again. This cycle continues until the learner accomplishes mastery, and they may then move on to the next stage.’

Slavin defined mastery learning as:

‘The principal defining characteristic of mastery learning methods is the establishment of a criterion level of performance held to represent “mastery” of a given skill or concept, frequent assessment of student progress toward the mastery criterion, and provision of corrective instruction to enable students who do not initially meet the mastery criterion to do so on later parallel assessment.’

Isn’t this just good teaching?

In maths, would I allow learners to move onto percentages if they can’t perform division and multiplication?

In anatomy and physiology, would I allow learners to move onto the energy systems if they didn’t understand the structure and functions of the respiratory system?

Of course not. Without sufficient underpinning of the foundation knowledge, then I’d be setting them up to fail by introducing new concepts.

Let me go back to the leaning tower – had the builders established it upon a solid layer of soil and with much deeper foundations, it is unlikely that their successors would be required to save the damn thing every couple of hundred years. So with teaching, if we spend time getting the basics right before moving on to more advanced things, perhaps our successors won’t need to go back over the foundations.
For all their faults (according to others, not me), the EEF actually inform us that mastery learning can improve achievement by 5 months. They state that:

  1. Overall, mastery learning is a learning strategy with good potential, particularly for low attaining students

  2. Implementing mastery learning effectively is not straightforward, however, requiring a number of complex components and a significant investment in terms of design and preparation

  3. Setting clear objectives and providing feedback from a variety of sources so that learners understand their progress appear to be key features of using mastery learning effectively. A high level of success, at least 80%, should be required before pupils move on

  4. Incorporating group and team approaches where pupils take responsibility for helping each other within mastery learning appears to be effective.

Whilst I understood points 1, 3 and 4 (features of good teaching), I was a little perplexed by point 2, so investigated this further. In one of the cited articles looking at the impact of a mastery maths programme, the following was stated:

‘Typically, mastery approaches involve breaking down subject matter and learning content into discrete units with clear objectives and pursuing these objectives until they are achieved before moving on to the next unit. Students are generally required to show high levels of achievement before progressing to master new content. This approach differs from conventional approaches, which often cover a specified curriculum at a particular pre-determined pace.’

I’m not convinced that this is dissimilar to conventional approaches. Sure, there is often a lot of content to cover in most qualifications, but good teachers know how important it is to master the basics before moving on. The EEF go on to add that:

‘In addition to the ‘mastery curriculum’, other features of the approach include a systematic approach to mathematical language (see Hoyles, 1985; Lee, 1998), frequent use of objects and pictures to represent mathematical concepts (see Heddens, 1986; Sowell, 1989), and an emphasis on high expectations (see Dweck, 2006; Boaler, 2010).’ 

Hang on… so what was being measured in this study? Was it the impact of mastery learning, language use, dual coding or high expectations, or…all of the above? At this point I was confused, but I did note that these are, what I would call, characteristics of good teaching.


As can be seen, mastery learning is a bit of an en-vogue concept with, in some cases, a lack of clarity. In reality, it is a sign of good teaching – ensuring that the foundations are right before moving on.

Remove your headphones!

It’s revision season. Exams are nearly upon us and learners up and down the country are locked away in their rooms revising (I hope they took on board my advice with the do’s and don’ts of revision).


When I was revising for my GCSE’s back in the late 90’s, we only had one television in the house and I didn’t have a mobile phone, so I’d be in my room testing myself against the OCR revision guides for each subject. This didn’t prove very fruitful in all honesty, but I would dread to be revising in the modern world – Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Whatsapp, Phones, TVs, Laptops, iPads and iPods. You name it, there are so many distractions that face young people today.


What’s the problem?

Due to the problems associated with memory, and the subsequent distractions students face, this can limit the cognitive resources that can be allocated during the learning process. Salame and Baddeley found that the auditory pathway (phonological loop) is susceptible to negative effects of speech and other sounds. In other words, when there are noises in the room, beeps from the phone, the TV on in the background, the music etc, it increases the cognitive load, thus impeding the ability of working memory. What’s worse, when we are reading, we aren’t using the visual pathway (visuospatial sketchpad), we are actually using our auditory pathway as a result of ‘self-talk’. This is largely corroborated by the work of Alley and Greene who also found that individuals are pretty rubbish at judging just how much their working memory is impaired by irrelevant sounds. So when learners are telling you that having their headphone in is helping them to concentrate, they’re likely to be wrong.


What does this mean for teachers?

There is a real need for teachers to promote effective study strategies to learners and this starts in the classroom.

  • Learners should be encouraged to work in silence during independent practice – this includes removing phones, tablets, or anything else with a sound… even peers.
  • I recommend strongly that learners are not allowed to use headphones when working independently – even if they think it helps them.
  • Encourage learners to follow the ‘dos’ on my revision guide, and of course, ignore the ‘don’ts’.
  • When at home, learners should be encouraged to revise in a ‘distraction free zone’. TV off, phone in another room.




I’ve been fortunate to work in the three great cities of the East Midlands – Leicester, Nottingham and Derby. My first 29 years of life were spent in Leicester. As a result of hundreds of trips to family and friends, I was able to develop an extensive knowledge of the area. Despite no longer living there, I often visit, and when traffic is bad I benefit from knowing most of the rat runs to ensure a timely arrival at my destination. Having this knowledge means that I can be creative with the journey I take. I can make sound judgements about where the traffic is likely to be bad and where I can save time by going alternative routes.


After much of my life in Leicester, I spent 3 years working in Nottingham in a role which required a lot of travel around the city. During this time, I developed a reasonably good knowledge of the city, getting to grips with most areas. Today I visited an area of Nottingham that I hadn’t previously, so as I neared my destination I needed to switch the sat nav on to guide me in. As I left the area to go to another part of the city, I started to recognise where I was and so the sat nav could be put away. Some knowledge of the area meant that I didn’t need to rely on the sat nav for too long.


I’ve been working in Derby for the last few months and prior to that, had only visited on a few occasions. Much like my previous role, my current position  involves a lot of travel. Today I made it out of Derby to Nottingham and back to Derby without my sat nav – the first time I have managed such a feat! Usually I am reliant on my sat nav to direct me everywhere in Derby.


On my travels, I started to think about learning, specifically knowledge of new areas. You see, when I drive around a new city, I use my sat nav as it tells me exactly where to go and on most occasions, I get to my destination in the most time efficient manner. Were I to try getting to a destination without the sat nav, I’d lose much of my day trying to figure out where I needed to go. Until I have developed a sufficient knowledge base which allows me to recognise that I’m on the correct route, the sat nav is my guide. Once I have a wealth of knowledge, the sat nav becomes redundant.


This is analogous to learning. Teacher = sat nav. If we want to learn anything, it is far more efficient and effective to be told by the teacher in the first instance. It is no good trying to figure out things for ourselves – it is not an efficient or effective way of proceeding. When we have more knowledge, we can begin to remove the teacher, until we become fluent. When we are fluent, we are able to do the ‘higher order’ stuff independent of the teacher.


I have blogged previously about the need to adopt different instructional methods for different learners (no this is nothing to do with learning styles!). The different methods of instruction are more/less effective based upon the prior knowledge of the learners.  For example, there is a body of research (Kirschner et al) which shows that direct instruction is more efficient and effective with novice learners. Essentially, they need to be told what to do, due to having insufficient knowledge to allow them to think for themselves (much like me trying to find my way around a new city – Derby). When sufficient knowledge is accrued, then the guidance can become less. Much like me driving around Nottingham. When learners acquire expertise in a subject, they are actually impeded by direct instruction according to Sweller et al (expertise reversal effect blog). This I suspect, is much like a sat nav telling me where I should go in Leicester. Sure it will send me the quickest route, but it won’t know where there is likely to be more traffic, like me. It will probably add more time to my journey.


In summary, the more we know, the less support we need; the less we know, the more support we need. How do you know what they know… initial assessment of course!


Some points I am aware of:

  • The post is a bit of tongue in cheek. We all know that learning isn’t quite as simple as I have made it out to be.
  • I know there is a danger of becoming over reliant on the teacher (sat nav). 
  • Bad teacher instruction is bad – much like a bad sat nav (I’ve hit a few dead ends in my time). 

Bringing the outside in…

In a Technology Enhanced Learning Showcase led by my PGCE trainees last week, I was reminded of the use of Skype in the classroom as a means of bringing experts in for our learners.*


Those of you that read my blog regularly will be aware of my appreciation for teacher expertise in subject content knowledge. Not only should teachers be experts in their content knowledge (CK), more importantly, they should aspire to be experts with pedagogical content knowledge (PCK) (I have written about this in a previous post, if interested). To acquire expertise in PCK takes years, however,  it could be asserted that there are many situations where abstract concepts can be made more concrete by experts in particular fields of a domain; those that can share ‘real world’ experiences with learners, as opposed to a teacher’s ‘text book’ understanding.


I have used Skype myself with learners and found it invaluable. Just a couple of examples include:

  • When teaching Foundation Degree teaching and learning students about professionalism, specifically in FE, I was able to organise a Skype call with David Russell, CEO of the Education and Training Foundation to answer trainees’ questions about how the organisation supports practitioners with their development. My understanding in this regard was limited at the time.
  • When delivering a module on inclusion with trainee teachers, I was able to invite Amjad Ali and Nancy Gedge into the room to.share their views with trainees and answer their specific questions about the subject – something that both have vast experience in.

The opportunity to engage with the depth and breadth of knowledge, skills and experiences is something that I alone could never offer to learners.  I am by no means a pioneer in using Skype to bring experts into the room, but in using it, found that my learners thrived.


There are many ways in which you might engage with experts in your subject. Below I have listed a few ideas which might inspire you to try it for yourself in your subject:


The list is not extensive; the only limitation to how you might use Skype is your imagination.


Using Skype or similar packages does not come without problems from time to time, however. For example, trying to download Skype software onto college systems was like asking the IT technicians to work on Christmas day – a bit of a chore. Moreover, you have to rely on a reasonably good internet connection and of course have a microphone and camera, which not all school/college computers have. Putting this to one side, I’d say from time to time, the opportunity outweighs the cost.


*Thanks to the three trainees that shared their use of Skype – it provided inspiration for this post. There are other packages that can be used e.g. Google Hangouts, so you do not have to limit yourself to Skype.

ResearchEdFE – Oliver and me

Last week (03.12.16), Oliver and I delivered our ‘Choose Science, Not Myths’ presentation at the first ResearchEd devoted to Further Education.

Below are the slides from the presentation and Oliver kindly put together the presentation notes in his blog here and here.

The first part of the presentation explored a range of myths and while it is acknowledged that the jury is still out on some of these, it is important to remember that we were attempting to be contentious in order to spark debate. The second part of the presentation explored a range of effective learning strategies which are supported by both classroom experiments and cognitive science.

10 tips to maximise learning support

This is the first of what I hope will be many guest posts on my blog. It is written by my good friend and experienced Learning Support Assistant (LSA), Paul Warren.


Rarely do teachers have the opportunity to explore how to work effectively with LSAs (or equivalents) in their classrooms. Both ITE and ongoing staff development sessions often fail to emphasise the importance of, and methods to enhance, the working relationship between teacher and LSA, resulting in ineffective utilisation of this key role (not in all cases, but many).  In this post, Paul highlights the pivotal role that LSAs play and he provides teachers with 10 great tips to maximise their use:

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‘At some point during their career, many FE lecturers will have an opportunity to work alongside a Learning Support Assistant (LSA). Usually, but not exclusively, LSAs are tasked with providing 1:1 or small group support to students with learning difficulties and/or disabilities by offering learning strategies which help them to access the curriculum. Above all, however, the ultimate aim of most LSAs is to promote independent and autonomous working for the students that they support.


The most effective LSAs are those which seek to work closely with the lecturer and the student to gradually reduce the need for support with a view to ultimately removing it altogether. This can create a range of possible issues – not least of which being that the LSA should expect to make themselves redundant – but the overall impetus is on helping the learner to maximise their potential to work independently.


Of course, some learners will require support for the entirety of their time at college, but there is no harm in working with the expectation that all students will be able to work more independently before their course of study ends.


Often lecturers may not have had any in-depth instruction or training regarding how best to work with LSAs. Finding information isn’t always easy. FE-specific literature or research relating to working with LSAs is scarce, but there are some schools-based studies (see the excellent Deployment and Impact of Support Staff (DISS) Project) or smaller scale FE research (see LSIS/Natspec’s highly valuable Enhancement of Learning Support) which may prove helpful. Excellence Gateway have also produced a really useful guide which can be used to gauge the impact of support staff via their Working With LSAs Audit Tool. In addition, a search on the Education and Training Foundation’s website will yield a range of resources for working with students with SEND who need support. Other additional useful and relevant sources include The 2010 Equality Act, the 2014 Children and Families Act – including Education, Health and Care Plans and The FELTAG report which, in part, highlighted the importance of providing assistive technology for FE students who need it. More current FE-specific research and general awareness is needed, however, which promotes the benefits and value of using LSAs to promote independent and autonomous working in Further Education.


In the meantime, the following suggestions may be useful to lecturers to help kick-start a collaboration with LSAs with a view to reducing support and increasing learner independence:

  1. Work with LSAs to review current records of student needs – particularly pinpointing any known learning strategies which encourage the learner to work independently.
  2. Cultivate high expectations of the learner by immediately working with LSAs to try to identify what independence from support might ultimately look like. Use what you find in conjunction with your identification of student needs as a guide for each session and review regularly.
  3. Agree an absolute maximum level of support that LSAs can provide before an issue or difficulty must be referred directly to the class tutor. Be clear with LSAs (and the learner) that the LSA should never do the work for the student.
  4. Identify an early target for the learner to interact directly with the lecturer at least once during every session. Increase over time in order to reduce reliance on LSAs and gradually prepare the student for the time when the support is withdrawn.
  5. Produce a measurable method of identifying the impact of support. This could be a chart or record of work that records instances in which the student does a task independently or requires minimal LSA input. If possible, actively involve the student in evaluating their own need for help and use the data to plan future support.
  6. Encourage, praise and reward students when they work independently and use successes to promote future independent learning
  7. Work with the LSA and the student to produce a portfolio of independent working strategies which the learner can take with them to further study or employment.
  8. Liaise with teacher trainers, quality managers and senior leaders to share successes of promoting learner independence and reducing LSA support.
  9. Work with your Learning Support team to build a database of what works for learners in your subject and use it to inform future individual student support needs.
  10. Share ideas and successes via social media platform such as Blogs, Twitter or YouTube (remembering to respect individual student confidentiality and identity) and get in touch with other colleges to find out how they reduce support and promote learner independence.’


So there we have it. Why not consider how you can develop each of the above points. Thanks go to Paul Warren @paulw_learn for this excellent post.

Why use visuals?

Along with the other half a dozen books I am working my way through, I am coming to the end of Ruth Clarke and Chopete Lyons’ book on Graphics for Learning. My fascination for this sort of thing is borne out of admiration for my good friend, Oliver Caviglioli’s work (if you haven’t seen this, you’re missing out). For information, in this post I will be using graphics and visuals synonymously.
In their book, Clarke and Lyons spend a chapter (4) exploring how learning happens and how graphics can be effective in supporting this. Here is a graphic they use to show human cognitive architecture which aligns with Baddeley and Hitch’s Working Memory Model.


They note that because of the importance of long term memory, those with little domain knowledge (novices) suffer when information is not presented effectively to them, as their working memory (WM) becomes overloaded. Using visuals with auditory information during instruction can work to reduce this burden on WM however, as two pathways into WM are distinctly separate – one visual and one auditory.

Essentially, the working memory is like a bottle neck. If we pour too much into the bottle neck, much is lost… now imagine having two bottle necks into the same bottle, we’d keep much more information (yes a very simplistic way of looking at it). Better still, imagine if the same information went in both visually and auditory… this is what Paivio calls dual coding – a really useful approach to providing new information to learners.

Dual coding in action?
Using graphics benefits learners in numerable ways, not just the above. Here I will discuss some of the reasons outlined by Clarke and Lyons:

1. Graphics help to direct attention

They suggest that almost any ‘visual will attract attention’. Attention is key to learning anything new, but in a typical classroom, in addition to the information being taught, there are other stimuli which can distract learners. Having a visual for learners can provide the focus of attention, however, they should be used with caution:

  • The visual should not be irrelevant to what information is being shared (random clip art images should be avoided).
  • The visual, if complex, should also have signals to direct attention to component parts such as small circles or arrows.
  • Simple visuals are better for more novice learners.


2. Graphics help to activate prior knowledge

Learners ‘know stuff’ already, but it will be in the abyss of long term memory and it is important for us to draw it (no pun intended) into the working memory in order to link new knowledge. Clarke and Lyons tell us that ‘a visual provided before the main lesson content can help to build an effective base knowledge structure. This skeleton structure provides a frame on which the learner can attach additional lesson details.’ This is corroborated by Marzano’s work on classroom based instruction, whereby non-linguistic teaching methods such as graphic organisers have a startling effect on achievement (0.75 Ave. ES)

In spite of this, a graphic that activates inappropriate prior knowledge will depress learning according to Clarke and Lyons, so there is a need to ensure clarity and order with the graphic that is used.


3. Graphics help to manage mental load

‘Since working memory is the site of active processing, good instructional materials must preserve its limited capacity for learning.’ I have blogged before about the use of storyboards to assist with delivery of new information. This is one example of how to manage the mental load. Simple visuals (line drawings) are said to be better than more complex visuals. For instance, when drawing the heart, for novice learners it would help to draw a simple boxed line drawing as opposed to a cross section of the heart, which is often seen. As learners become more competent with the content, visuals can increase in complexity.


4. Graphics help to build mental models

Where Clarke and Lyons refer to mental models, they basically mean ‘schema’, or patterns of knowledge and skills in the long term memory. The more expert one becomes, the more complex and organised our mental models become. We learn by linking new information to existing mental models and in using graphics, abstract information can be made more clear with how new information links to current knowledge.


5. Graphics help with transfer

Clarke and Lyons argue that with all the knowledge in the world, unless we can retrieve it and bring it back to WM, we won’t be able to transfer it to alternative situations. They distinguish between near and far-transfer in their book, both requiring different types of graphic to maximise the type of transfer.

Near-transfer is the type of thing we will do more frequently, like a following a process for sending an email – the difference being that there will be different content to include.


Far-transfer requires the use of concrete and abstract examples – Clarke and Lyons inform us that in developing far-transfer, ‘graphic illustrations that build mental models, use varied context, transition from concrete to abstract, and provide a work context for immersive learning environments’. I feel that this warrants an entirely separate blog post, so will look at this further in the new year.


6. Graphics can optimise motivation

Clarke and Lyons highlight motivation as the key to effective learning and that visuals can play a huge role in motivating learners. They recommend using visuals that help learners see the relevance and value in the learning and trigger interest for learners. It is important to note that while visuals can interest learners in the learning material, the ‘edutainment’ that often comes with instruction can actually impede learning (guilty of this your honour). So try to avoid eye candy and instead focus on relevant graphics.

In addition to this, a recent post by Greg Ashman caught my eye, arguing that by reducing cognitive load, we increase the motivation of our learners. If we look back at the purpose of using the visual pathway to WM – to reduce load, then we find additional benefits to using graphics.


So that’s it, six reasons why we should consider using more visuals in our instruction. If you do use them though, please heed the advice of Clarke and Lyons.