Helping students help themselves!

Activities designed to develop learner independence

In recent INSET we have raised awareness of how our students can develop as effective learners, by asking teachers to reflect on how their students approach learning, and putting them in the position of learners in challenging situations. The response to the question below often does not need prompting, but it is a valid way to start thinking about changing the poor learning tendencies of many of our students.

“What frustrates you about the way your students approach their learning?”

By now, just a few weeks in to term, I guarantee even those teachers who have just started their careers will be able to compile an accomplished list!

This section contains a short discussion and review of the recent INSET sessions on developing effective learners and assessment. Some of the classroom activities that were employed can be found, with specific classroom examples being used in each case.

The rationale behind these activities will be revisited as well. Others that merit a deeper discussion will appear in subsequent editions.

Some key aims for the sessions were:

  • To see assessment for learning strategies as integral to student activities rather than as something extra.
  • Look at several activities that are designed to inform teachers of student progress and skills.
  • To see how reflective questioning can reveal student thinking.

“When was the last time you learned something from your students that informed your next teaching step? ”

When considering the tool that follow, look to see how the following questions are addressed:

• What is the role of student work in informing the teacher of progress?

• Self and peer assessment strategies

• What can a teacher do to facilitate self and peer assessment?

• What must students do to make the most of self and peer assessment?

Vocab Grid

A particularly useful activity is the Vocab Grid. This is a simple activity that encourages students to have a go at ‘guessing’ or showing off their prior knowledge of certain words. They do this before being given access to some further information – whether this is text based, a map, a recipe, or video does not matter. This gives the teacher a great idea of where individuals are at the start of the lesson. Having interacted with the new material the students return to the grid and complete the second column.

The example here has been taken from a GCSE science lesson, but this activity, as with each of the following are entirely generic and transferable. The grid does not have to have the titles in this example; depending on the group you have it may be appropriate to change the headings a little.

The vocab grid informs the teacher as the activity progresses of the current level of understanding, allowing carefully targeted support. As students work their way through they chart their progress; this can be motivating as they identify areas of new learning as well as more difficult ideas.

Quality Quantity Graph

The Quality Quantity graph [see below] can be a powerful tool to look at the role of students in both self and peer assessment. On completion of any task, be it a major project or a simple five minute activity, ask students to draw a line from the origin to reflect the progress they have made. A target over time would be for the line to at 45°, meaning a quality product of decent length. A line nearly horizontal reflects more production at the expense of accuracy or rigour, while a more vertical line might indicate one point well made at the expense of the bigger picture.

There are, of course, problems with this, especially if we look too deeply into the semantics of graph construction, as a number of us experienced. The main issue comes when giving feedback on to peers. QQ graphs are highly personal and students should not be comparing them. But they should be able to ask questions of each others graphs. Two pieces of work of very different quality might well have similar QQ graphs depending on the students that created them. This does not mean that these students cannot offer constructive feedback to each other using the graphs as a starting point. Some opening gambits to model for this feedback could be:

“Hi Bert, I see you have placed your line nearer Quantity rather than  Quality, can you explain why.“

“Can you explain why you are happy with amount and the detail Belinda? ”

The very act of being involved in this sort of feedback has implications on the individual. The discussion will lead to the person giving feedback to reflect on their own work more, and this is a centrally important role of peer feedback. Whatever form feedback takes it should be given an appropriate amount of time so students can reflect effectively and adapt / evolve how they do things.

Sort it out Yourself! – Moving on maps

Introduced to us by Jill Flack and Jo Osler from Victoria, down under, this procedure was born from the frustrations that teachers the world over experience when dealing with passive students. Invariably when students get stuck their first course of inaction will be to turn to their oracle of all things (teacher) and in one way or another say ‘I’m Stuck’.

More often than not these low level interactions are time wasting, engaging the teacher in exchanges that need not happen. And worse there is the ‘have you got a sharpener, can I lend a rubber’ phenomenon that has been engrained in young people since time immemorial. The limited amount of time we see each student at secondary level should be of the highest quality.

Well, no more we say! More often than not, and this will apply from year 7 right up to sixth form. This terrible learning tendency should be preceded by ‘before I came to see you Miss I’ve tried these myriad other things and still….’ In other words the students consistently had no strategies when they were stuck except to call on the teacher to fix them up.

This often results in a long queue of students needing teacher help. It also reflects a very high dependence on the teacher and a very low level of metacognitive awareness of learning.

It should be noted that this sort of resource cannot simply be given to students. It becomes effective only when the need for a different way of working is identified and agreed with the students. As Jill says “It is not a recipe, and should not be dumped on a class “cold turkey”. It should be a culmination of what is already known and valued by its users”.

Over time, as your learners become familiar with the notion of active over passive learning, taking responsibility, being reflective and making decisions, they will find the moving on map a useful extra resource that allows them to take further responsibility by giving them a strategy for getting unstuck. A similar procedure, the getting started map can be found on the PEEL in practice database.


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