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  • Research Digest – November 2016

    Research Digest – November 2016






    EEF report: Online Reading Support

    For Kids, Learning Is Moving

    The Failure of the iPad Classroom 

    Understanding Evidence: New Guide Explains Four Key Types and How to Evaluate Them

    Positive School Climates Can Narrow Achievement Gaps

    Strong student-lecturer relationships reduce university drop out 

    Children see ‘worrying’ amount of hate speech online

    21st Century Skills Don’t Exist. So Why Do We Need Them?

    Howard Gardner on his ‘multiple intelligences’: the theory is no longer current

  • Independent Learning week 4: Marking and Feedback

    Independent Learning week 4: Marking and Feedback

    In outlining some of the problems with contemporary assessment at the Festival of Education 2016, Daisy Christodoulou noted that the concept of assessment for learning has in many cases, merely become assessment of learning. This summative approach has focussed on things like students simply knowing what grade they are working at and being able to reference abstract exam board criteria without any real practical sense of how to move forward. Valerie Shute defines effective feedback as not just a diagnostic tool but rather as an ongoing conversation primarily focussed on improvement:

    In seeking to help students become more independent and have more ownership of their progress, we might pause to consider the difference between marking and feedback, and whether they are the same thing at all. In some cases, marking a a set of books can mean a huge amount of effort with little reward in terms of students knowing how to progress. In addition, the opportunity cost of marking several sets of books in this way is worth looking at in light of recent concerns about teacher workload. 

    Students need to know where they are going wrong but by simply identifying the deficiencies within a piece of work and linking improvement to abstract assessment criteria not linked to actual examples, students are are not active stakeholders in their own improvement and can become frustrated. Feedback should ultimately be productive but as Douglas Reeves reminds us, sometimes this process is not so much a medical as a postmortem.

    Furthermore, although research on feedback shows that it is one of the most fruitful ways of enabling student progress, not all feedback is the same and some of it can even have an adverse effect. The Education Endowment Foundation notes that:

    Feedback studies tend to show very high effects on learning. However, it also has a very high range of effects and some studies show that feedback can have negative effects and make things worse.

    In terms of thinking about independent learning and engendering students to take a more proactive role in their own progress, it is worth considering Dylan Wiliam’s assertion that this process is more effective when students are working just as hard, if not harder than the teacher:

    The first fundamental principle of effective classroom feedback is that feedback should be more work for the recipient than the donor.” 

    In that sense, we might consider the use of exemplars in encouraging students to take a more metacognitive approach to their own work. A lot of research has shown that students often receive a piece of marked work and simply look at the grade without considering how to improve. One way of addressing that issue and facilitating more independence might be structuring a feedback lesson after an assessment where students have time to properly reflect on their own work against exemplars and common errors pointed out by their teacher. That process might look like this:

    1. Mark work correcting any errors making a note of common misconceptions.

    2. Give students the best three examples of that particular task from the class. 

    3. Explain common misconceptions to the class.

    4. Give students time to evaluate the exemplars and reflect on their own work.

    5. Students write down ways to improve with concrete examples from exemplars.

    6. Teacher reviews the students reflection to inform future planning. 

    This excellent example from Denise Brown features a form where students complete a range of tasks based on a assessment. After looking at how well their answer fulfils assessment criteria, students then look at the best examples of that task from the class and complete the following tasks:

    Now, compare your answer to the exemplar response

    Exemplar response mark out of 20:……….

    Your mark out of 20:………..

    Choose TWO examples that worked better* than your essay, and use the language from the assessment grid to say why and how (e.g. ‘Technical term “X” is relevant and supported by an integrated quotation’):

    Example 1:

    How this works well:

    Example 2:

    How this works well:

    Now, apply what you have learned about better* writing to RE-WRITE ONE PARAGRAPH from your own essay:

    Of course, a vitally important aspect of marking work is not just that the student knows how to improve, but also to provide the teacher with vital information in order to inform future planning. However in moving towards a more independent learning environment we might consider the notion that students should have a more proactive role in the process of feedback where they can see their work as being something fluid within a continuum of progress rather than as a fixed point on a scale. As one colleague eloquently put it, when receiving a piece of marked work, students should be looking in a mirror rather than at a painted picture.


    More reading:

    Marking is not the same as feedback

    Is marking the enemy of feedback?


    Black, P. & Wiliam, D. (1998). Assessment and Classroom Learning. Assessment in Education, 5(1) pp. 7-71.

    Reeves, D. B. (2008). Leading to change: Effective Grading Practices. Educational
    Leadership, 65(5), 85-87.

    Wiliam, D.B.(2011). Embedded Formative Assessment. Solution Tree Press: Bloomington, In.

  • Independent Learning: ‘Desirable Difficulties’ part 2

    Independent Learning: ‘Desirable Difficulties’ part 2

    In the last post we looked at the importance of retrieval and the testing effect. In this week’s post we will look at spaced learning and interleaving as ways of enhancing the long term retention of learning.

    In 1885 Herman Ebbinghaus conducted a series of experiments on himself to test memory and recall. He studied the memorisation of random syllables, such as “WID” and “ZOF” by repeatedly testing himself after various time periods and recording the results. He plotted these results on a graph creating what is now known as the “forgetting curve”.


    The Forgetting Curve.

    His research indicated that total recall (100%) for him was achieved only at the point of learning. Following that, the retention of what had been learned fell away very quickly:

    • Within 20 minutes 42% of the memorised list was lost.
    • Within 24 hours 67% of what he learned had vanished.
    • A month later 79% had been forgotten.

    Typically students study a unit or topic for a term (massed practice) are tested on that and then move on to a new unit only to revise that material leading up to an exam. This often takes the form of revisiting material the week or even night before in the form of cramming.

    Put aside the fact that this kind of approach can lead to severe stress around exam time, cramming the night before the GCSE exam might yield good results in the short term but will probably not lead to the kind of long term retention of knowledge required for the independent study of subjects in the 6th form and beyond.

    It is common sense that when we want to learn information, we study that information multiple times. The schedules by which we space repetitions can make a huge difference, however, in how well we learn and retain information we study. The spacing effect is the finding that information that is presented repeatedly over spaced intervals is learned much better than information that is repeated without intervals (i.e., massed presentation). This effect is one of the most robust results in all of cognitive psychology and has been shown to be effective over a large range of stimuli and retention intervals from nonsense syllables (Ebbinghaus, 1885) to foreign language learning across many months (Bahrick, Bahrick, Bahrick & Bahrick, 1993).

    Another way of thinking about the delivery and revisiting of topic material and of engendering long term retention of knowledge is through the process of interleaving where instead of delivering topics through massed practice, material is spaced out and interleaved with each other to induce regular forgetting and retrieval. This process is usually more difficult for students in the short term and requires greater responsibility and independence but leads to great gains in the long term, one reason why Bjork refers to this as a’desirable difficulty.’


    What does this look like in the classroom?

    There are a variety of ways to harness these benefits. Here are a series of examples from some practitioners are redesigning curricula in extraordinary new ways including this advice from Joe Kirby (who was taught by our very own Tom Wayman):

    Over the last decade, eleven cognitive psychologists have taken over a hundred years of laboratory research and applied it to classrooms and subject curricula. Here’s what they recommend:

    • Use frequent quizzing: testing interrupts forgetting

    • Roll forward into each successive quiz questions on work from the previous term.

    • Design quizzing to reach back to concepts and learning covered earlier in the term, so retrieval practice continues and learning is cumulative.

    • Frequent low-stakes quizzes in class helps the instructor verify that students are in fact learning as well as they appear to be and reveal the areas where extra attention is needed. Cumulative quizzing is powerful for consolidating learning and concepts from one stage of a course into new material encountered later.

    • Simply including one test retrieval practice in a class yields a large improvement in final exam scores, and gains continue to increase as the frequency of testing increases.

    • Effortful retrieval makes for stronger learning and retention. The greater the effort to retrieve learning, *provided that you succeed*, the more learning is strengthened by retrieval.

    • In virtually all areas of learning, you build better mastery when you use testing as a tool

    • One of the best habits to instill in a learner is regular self-quizzing.


    Further discussion:

    – Is spacing and interleaving more pertinent to some subjects than others?

    –  Would teaching students to harness the benefits of independent self quizzing improve wellbeing in the long term?

    Further reading:

    Improving Students’ Learning with Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions from Cognitive and Educational Psychology. Dunlosky, Rawson, Marsh, Nathan & Willingham 2011.  

    Repeated Retrieval Is the Key to Long-Term Retention. Karpicke & Roediger 2007

    Retrieval practice is critical in long-term retention. Roediger & Butler 2010

    Test-enhanced learning: Taking memory tests improves long-term retentionRoediger & Karpicke 2006

    Retrieval practice with short-answer, multiple-choice, and hybrid testsSmith & Karpicke 2013

    Repeated Testing Produces Superior Transfer of Learning Relative to Repeated Studying Butler, 2010

  • Independent Learning: ‘Desirable Difficulties’ part 1.

    Independent Learning: ‘Desirable Difficulties’ part 1.

    “The most fundamental goals of education are long-term goals. As teachers and educators, we want targeted knowledge and skills to be acquired in a way that makes them durable and flexible.” – R. Bjork

    One of the more counterintuitive things about learning is that when we consider matters in the long term, the kinds of activities we do in the short term might not be as effective as we think. A ‘desirable difficulty’ refers to a learning task that may prove difficult initially but that leads to greater learning and mastery over an extended period of time. Independent learners are characteristically very good at embracing desirable difficulties and view the process of retrieval or having to generate information from memory as an effective method of consolidation.

    The term was coined by Robert Bjork in 1994 when he made a helpful distinction between learning and performance. Performance is something that is easily measured through cues and engagement while learning is only something we can infer. Activities like cramming, re-reading material and highlighting information can give the impression of learning but these kinds of activities are often illusory as Bjork explains:

    “Basically, current performance, which is something we can observe, is an unreliable index of learning, which we must infer. Massed practice on a task, for example, often leads to rapid gains in performance, but little or no effect on learning, as measured by long-term retention or transfer.”

    In helping students to become independent learners who are able to access and use a broad range of knowledge in a wide range of contexts over a long period of time, there are a number of approaches supported by evidence that are useful but can often be met with initial resistance from the student who can feel that by being ‘busy’ they are learning something when in fact they may not be using their time as productively as they could be.

    The importance of retrieval: 

    An effective way of students consolidating learning is to engage in retrieval strategies which require the student to search their long term memory for information as opposed to using their working memory to do ‘busy work.’ Reading over or highlighting material is not as ‘difficult’ a task as trying to retrieve it as the students feel engaged and the material is often already familiar them. This paradox is explored by Graham Nuthall who writes:

    “Our research shows that students can be busiest and most involved with material they already know. In most of the classrooms we have studied, each student already knows about 40-50% of what the teacher is teaching.”

    Nuthall’s work shows that students are far more likely to get stuck into tasks they’re comfortable with and already know how to do as opposed to the more uncomfortable enterprise of grappling with uncertainty and indeterminate tasks. A good example of this, as Alex Quigley has pointed out is that engagement in the form of the seemingly visible activity of highlighting is often “little more than colouring in.”

    The Testing Effect:

    The testing effect is a well established phenomenon that has been replicated many times in cognitive psychology. This process doesn’t have to be high stakes and actually works better when students get into a regular pattern of active recall through flashcards or self quizzing in an independent manner.

    “Varying the context, examples, and problem type engages processes that can lead to a richer and more elaborated encoding of concepts and ideas, which can, in turn, support transfer of that learning to new settings.”

    Many of these findings are somewhat counterintuitive when considered in terms of traditional methods of learning where typically students study a unit of material, say a half term and then are tested at the end of that unit.


    Bjork’s research found that in the above model, no. 4 was actually the most effective method of retaining knowledge over a longer period of time. He suggests that engaging students in a process of ‘non-threatening’ retrieval through low stakes testing on a regular basis, and harnessing that process as part of covering the content is a far more effective way of consolidating learning.

     “difficult but successful retrievals are better for memory than easier successful retrievals”

    So having students generate answers rather than just re-read or highlight material, having them regularly engage in self-quizzing through the use of flashcards or multiple choice questions and ultimately have them step into the liminal space of ‘desirable difficulties’ means they will be far better prepared to remember and transfer knowledge in classroom discussions, presentations and formal exams.


    Further discussion:

    – What does the concept of ‘desirable difficulties’ look like in your subject?

    –  what are the barriers to students embracing difficulty and challenge?

    1. Bjork, Robert ‘Desirable Difficulties Perspective on Learning’
    2.  Pyc, Mary A.; Rawson, Katherine A. (May 2009). “Testing the retrieval effort hypothesis: Does greater difficulty correctly recalling information lead to higher levels of memory?” (PDF). Journal of Memory and Language60 (4): 437–447. doi:10.1016/j.jml.2009.01.004.
    3. Roediger, H. and Karpicke, J. (2006) ‘The Power of Testing Memory, Basic Research and Implications for Educational Practice’, Perspectives on Psychological Science Volume 1—Number 3
    4. Nutshell, Graham ‘The Hidden Lives of Learners,’ (2007, p.24)
  • Teaching to the Test

    Teaching to the Test

    By Julian Thomas, Master of Wellington.

    I wonder if you noticed the recent study conducted by researchers at Oxford University. It should have rung a loud alarm bell and yet seemed to slip by largely unnoticed in the Christmas rush. The findings of the study suggest that the UK are among the world’s worst (or best) at teaching students to pass the exam at the expense of nurturing deep and lasting knowledge and understanding. According to the leader of the research, Professor Dorling, UK schools focus on short term knowledge acquisition to help pupils to pass tests; knowledge which is quickly forgotten.

    Then in recent days, the World Education Forum focused its conference around what it calls The Fourth Industrial Revolution: the digitisation and automation of the workplace over the next five years and the changing skill set that will be needed to thrive in the new landscape. The WEF thinking resonates with a view I expressed in a recent article for the Sunday Telegraph (hyperlink here), in which I argued that the UK education system, which began to take on its present form in the mid-19th century, has stopped evolving, and the result is that we are failing to fully prepare the young people of today for the world they will live in tomorrow.

    It is clear that all schools have to genuinely commit to an education which goes way beyond simply the acquisition of grades A*-C. We have to equip our children with the skills and aptitudes they need to live, thrive and survive in the future. Skills such a critical thinking, problem solving, independent thinking and learning, leadership and creativity.


    Fears over GCSE exam shake up...File photo dated 10/6/2005 of school exams in progess. Teenagers will no longer be required to sit all their GCSEs after two years of study, under radical plans to break courses into 'bite sized' modules. PA wire

    It all sounds very seductive so why does it seem so hard for schools to adopt this approach? It is perhaps easier to understand when we remember that our examination system – established in 1858, and little changed since – does not fully recognise these attributes but instead seems to place higher value on the recall of information and the application of the standard methods required to satisfy an overworked marker.   I believe that it is time for government and leading educators to come together to create a new strategic vision of how school and student assessment could evolve to meet the needs of current and future generations.

    The problem is compounded by the annual beauty parade of newspaper league tables, in which schools are numbered and ranked based on statistics which take little or no account of a school’s context or its success in creating well-rounded, interesting, inspired students. The same students who will be happy and successful in their lives beyond school.

    Schools, driven by the need to hit targets, satisfy stakeholders and compare well with their competitors, are often tempted to withdraw to the safest and easiest method of achieving good grades – “teaching to the test”. Worse still, there is often a temptation to make educational decisions which maximise grades at the expense of the students’ best interests. The greatest betrayal of all.

    All of which makes the school league table – at least in its current form – much worse than an unnecessary distraction but, in fact, a key driver for poor educational practice.

    Who is to blame? J’accuse….me (and probably you too). Anyone who has ever used the tables of raw results to compare one school over another. Anyone who has ever thought that School A is better than School B because it is 30 places higher in the list. We should recognise that there are exceptional schools outside the top 200 just as there may be mediocre schools inside the top 50. We simply cannot tell from the information provided. Yet we all collude in this harmful merry-go-round through our seemingly unquenchable fascination with measurement and comparison.

    I have higher aspirations for Wellington College students than top examination results on their own, which is why we will no longer be conspicuous by our presence in the newspaper league tables. This simply means that we will not be providing data on request to newspapers in the immediate aftermath of the exam results season. At the same time, we will make sure that our results are clear for all to see, no more than one click away from the home page of our website. If people wish to make comparisons they are welcome to do so, but our own focus will be on other, more important, indicators of educational success.

    The irony of all of this is that outstanding results and outstanding education do not have to be mutually exclusive. Changes to the curriculum and assessment procedures would be welcome but with the will, it is not impossible to provide a great education within the current system. What is required is for UK schools to approach teaching in a way that truly nurtures and inspires every child’s all-round potential. Excellent examination results will follow naturally. It is a bold step away from the comfort blanket of “teaching to the test” but one that all educators must take if we are to fulfil the Secretary of State’s vision of the UK as a world leader in character education. We still have a long way to go.


  • Pilot Study: What is the impact of explicitly teaching Growth Mindset theory?

    Pilot Study: What is the impact of explicitly teaching Growth Mindset theory?


    Despite the weight of evidence around Growth Mindset as a strong indicator of student achievement, there remains a lack of hard evidence as to how exactly affect that disposition. The EEF trialled various interventions in 2013 and found that the results were not statistically significant. Whilst researchers may be able to observe Growth Mindset as a valid psychological state, how to actually have an impact on that state remains somewhat unclear.

    Many Growth Mindset interventions take the form of superficial interpretations of the original research in the form of posters, assemblies and simplistic tasks. This appropriated approach can often lead to students switching off to the core messages behind the research and the interventions not having any real impact.

    After our initial year 1 study which sought to get some larger baseline data on exactly what dispositions our students had in these areas, we wanted to ‘zoom in’ and test a specific approach with a smaller group, and look closely at the effect of teaching this theory explicitly as opposed to tangentially.

    This pilot study proposes to evaluate the impact of teaching an intervention group of students the theory around Growth Mindset in an academically rigorous way using research literature and articles in the form of a course designed by Harvard faculty of education researchers.

    Harvard project year 2.001


    Control and intervention groups comprising of year 12 students selected randomly will take a baseline test using Dweck’s scales before and after the study. The intervention group will receive a term’s worth of weekly sessions looking closely at the research on Growth Mindset and applying it to their own context. These sessions will feature explicit instruction of the theory in its raw form, and follow-up coaching conversations with individual students.

    Previous studies have shown the efficacy of ‘stealth’ interventions where students were not made to feel stigmatised by being singled out for interventions based on poor attainment, enabling the students to bring more of an open mind to the project. This was an important consideration in this project.


    Harvard project year 2.002

    Next Steps:

    This pilot study was trialled in the winter term and will be evaluated by researchers from Harvard GSE in the spring with the results published later this year. If successful, a larger trial may be rolled out to other year groups and time built into tutorials to use the same approach. This same course is also being run at Highbury Grove under the supervision of head of research Sara Stafford and head teacher Tom Sherrington to be able to test the impact in different contexts.


  • Cross-subject extension in French and History: a brief reflection on practice

    Cross-subject extension in French and History: a brief reflection on practice

    By Alastair Dunn.


    As I have noted in a previous post, there is no single effective way to deliver extension teaching, especially in the Humanities. One model that has long interested me, as a History teacher, is the potential for cross-subject extension. For many years the debate that has pitted skills against content in teaching and learning has perhaps excluded an even more important issue – the interdependence of academic disciplines. While I am far from uncritical in my view of some university teaching, the tertiary sector (partly impelled by research needs) has for decades been more open than many schools to cross-disciplinary work.

    The capacity to frame an argument, to interrogate evidence, to draw together materials, and to derive broader conclusions are, of course, all important skills, but the historian must also be adaptable to operating in the territory of other disciplines.  There is no single discrete and self-contained set of skills for the historian due to the diversity and heterogeneity of the subject. Languages, both modern and ancient, are of critical importance to the work of so many historians. All sixth form history study should include the use of material in a language other than English, and teachers from these subject areas should collaborate to make this happen. Of course, the flow of knowledge can go in many directions, and MFL teachers should make use of historians, art historians and economists to give context to their study of French, Spanish and German, or of any other language.

    Over the past year I have been working with a group of sixth form students of French to explore the historical context behind some of their texts, and also to give some general background. This was delivered through four extension sessions on: France’s revolutions, 1789-1958; the Dreyfus case; France under occupation and Vichy Rule; and French politics since 1945.

    The sessions were structured as presentations followed by questions and discussions, and the supporting materials such as images and texts were shared via Office 365. In future I would hope to make direct use of original printed sources and examples of material culture during the sessions.

    Resourcing the sessions required some creativity but only limited expense. Trawling the brocante (France’s own unique take on the car-boot sale), can – with patient dredging – yield up extraordinary treasures at little cost, including bundles of cheaply priced news magazines such as L’Illustration and Le Miroir, from the two world wars, and even original Second World War documents such as curfew passes signed and stamped by the German police. A second fantastic resource for French-language history, at all levels of difficulty, is the charity Emmaüs, where an entire box of books may only cost a few Euros. However perhaps the finest resource of all is the extraordinary Gallica digitisation project of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BnF), now in its eighteenth year, and a very well established tool in university teaching and learning.

    Laissez-Passer 1

    Using original primary sources in Extension teaching – Curfew pass in French and German, issued in Le Mans, 1941

    In terms of impact the course was delivered to a fairly small group and so it has not yet been possible to track the input against public exam results or university offers. However if this mini-extension course does result in any of the participants reading History in French beyond the literary set texts, then my objective will have been fulfilled.  I would hope to extend this programme through further sessions, such as on the social and political context of French art at key moments in its history.