Independent Learning

  • Feedback, Mindset and Motivation – Linked?

    Feedback, Mindset and Motivation – Linked?

    By Sarah Donarski

    In the lead up to examination season, it is interesting to see different mindsets and ‘self-perceptions’ developing amongst the pupil body. Most notably, patterns of cognitive dissonances seem to appear into our students’ narrative: fragile students perceive themselves to be worse than they are; confident underachievers assert they are ‘fine’; and confident achievers seem too modest to admit they are making adequate progress. As the only feedback they get on their academic progress is through their teachers, it is interesting to consider the ways that our feedback can alter our students’ awareness of their ability. Such thinking has led me to (quite a lengthy) exploration into this question:

    To what extent does feedback affect a student’s mindset and, as a result, their motivation – or self-regulation – of knowledge?

    Or in other words: How does what we tell our students impact what they believe about their own ability? What I have found is that we need to start reconsidering the ways we give feedback depending on the ability of the pupil and the time of the academic course.


    Processing Negative and Positive Information

    It is important firstly to note that we process negative and positive information differently. Positive information enables us to affirm our beliefs about ourselves, and it is the information we often pass on to people that we want to see us as ‘our best selves.’ More complex than this, is that – depending on our emotional state – we have moments where we would much rather receive information or compliments that are positive or self-affirming.

    Moreover, avoidance tendencies towards negative information or threats are often ‘dominant’ and ‘hardwired’ as undesirable information usually coincides with undesirable emotional responses. Elfers and Hlava (2016) put this clearly in their book ‘The Spectrum of Gratitude Experience’ as they assert:

    Information coming into the central switching station of the thalamus is also processed through the amygdala to scan for potential threat or danger. Any hint of threat triggers an alarm bell”.

    Over time, these avoidance tendencies may lead pupils to develop a positive or negative bias about their ability.


    Negativity Bias

    The self-deprecating (re)action to negative information is to draw emphasis to it.   According to Elfers and Hlava (2016) this forces the individual do develop a false positive:

    “There are a lot of false positives to the negativity bias, meaning that we are likely to see a lot of threats where none exist. False positives are an error that our ancient threat detection system is primed to take and so it operates on the principle that it is better to be safe than sorry. One false negative – that is, not seeing a threat when one is there – could have fatal consequences. Uncomfortable experiences have longer shelf life in memory. Learning occurs faster from painful experience, dislikes are learned faster than lines, and it the world of relationships, trust is easily lost but challenging to regain”

    If a student has invested a considerable amount of time and energy into their work, it makes sense that they may focus on the negative feedback you give them. It could feel uncomfortable and, as a result, be more quickly stored into their longer-term memory than their short term. It may explain why our studious students begin to develop the fixed narrative: “I’m rubbish at English” or “I’m never good at maths.”

    – and, as a result, why our students develop a negative self narrative (re: my first blog on the Importance of Understanding Self-Narrative) and why there is the need to equip our students with an awareness of their thinking and mind set.


    Positivity Bias

    However, why is it that students may feel over-confident or self-assured in a subject even when their grades suggest they are significantly under performing? The self-protective (re)action to feedback can cause the individual to develop (bear with me while I use the term) ‘illusory superiority’ – or, that an illusion that they are doing better than they are.

    The pupils who subconsciously ‘flee’ from negative information can develop illusory superiority; they avoid targets and will not remember our ‘critiques’. For them, it appears easier to focus on the positive information.

    But here’s the catch: having this positive bias may also actually be helpful in motivating some of our students to achieve as well.

    A recent study on illusory superiority – or positivity bias – found that it can be internally motivating. A study by Wehrens (2008) that explored how self-perception and bias may affect an individual’s motivation suggested the following:

    Screen Shot 2017-04-28 at 10.27.15

    As you can see above, positivity bias may affect students two fold. Figure 1 shows Student A (with positivity bias – and having repeated an academic school year) still under performing compared to Student B who has a greater understanding of their class ability. On the other hand, Figure 2 reveals the outstanding academic improvements that can be made through illusory superiority for students at the bottom end. In Figure 2, Student A engages with the same level of positivity bias as student B, however, was significantly more motivated by their positivity bias than a pupil who already has good academic performance.


    How this affects our feedback?

    Given the tedious and grey line between altering, building or affecting a pupil’s self perception, it seems the most effective way to give feedback has been propelled into the ether. However, I suggest the information above contains three clear implications:

    1. For reflective thinkers at the top-end, clear instructive feedback can be enough.

    Spending a long time on positive and encouraging comments may only be required in younger years, whilst more mature thinkers may ignore and/or be discouraged by vague, positive remarks. If we explore the same illusory superiority picture as earlier, it was clear that a ‘top-end,’ successful pupil was not as encouraged by positive comments and worked just as effectively with clear feedback.

    In fact, with some of my A Level and HL IB Learners, there seems to be a real thirst for clear feedback; they often skip the vague: “Wow! Olivia. What a fantastic essay! You’ve really shown a strong understanding of sophisticated language and writer’s craft.”

    I am not saying do not compliment them on their efforts. Of course, we have seen the detrimental effects that can occur when a student (or individual) begins to perceive that they are doing “nothing right”. However, perhaps we should reconsider how much time we are investing in these comments when all pupils want is intellectual, clear and instructive feedback; perhaps ‘2 stars and a wish’ becomes less relevant for our more academically minded pupils.


    1. For vulnerable learners, you might need to help develop some positivity bias to drive their internal motivation.

    The second implication is that it might be worth being more positive to our more vulnerable pupils. It is why articles like this exist. It is also how Dijk and Kluger (2011) ended up concluding the diagram below. In their study, they found that a student’s ‘Intention to Exert Effort’ was significantly impacted by the positive comments they were receiving. Pupils seemed to generate more ideas – significantly impacted by the level of positive information given:

    Screen Shot 2017-03-31 at 14.01.38

    Interestingly, of course, is that a pupil’s ability to notice when they were making errors decreased. This is where clear, instructive feedback is also important.


    1. All feedback must be engaged with.

    Most importantly, feedback must always be something that our students engage with. This is to stop more vulnerable pupils, and indeed, sometimes our top end pupils, from ignoring feedback and developing any bias at all.

    Pupils see a target as encouragement rather than a threat when they engage with it. It changes how they think about your feedback – it becomes a goal rather than a critique.

    In the paper ‘Making Sense of Assessment Feedback in Higher Education,’ Evans draws on the importance that Braksick (2000) places on ensuring that there is clear delineation between positive, negative and constructive feedback.

    Braksick (2000) proposed that positive feedback is used to encourage desired behavior whereas negative feedback focuses on the “bad side” and does little to improve performance (p. 146). In this sense, negative feedback is likened to a form of criticism and is often directed at the individual rather than to the undesired behavior of the individual. As an alternative to negative feedback, Braksick (2000) suggests the use of constructive feedback. She asserts that constructive feedback is intended to, “discourage an undesired behavior and replace it with a preferred behavior”

     She continues:

    “When feedback merely indicated that a response was correct or incorrect; it resulted in a lower effect than when the feedback in some way informed the learner of the correct answer” (p. 232). The basic feedback and elaborate feedback manipulation implemented in this study closely parallels Bangert-Drowns et al.’ s (1991) definitions of feedback that was corrective and explanatory, respectively. Results from the current investigation suggested positive effects in both the basic and elaborate feedback conditions for each group. That is, improvement was observed on subsequent attempts regardless of the feedback type received suggesting possible practice effects. However, significant differences were identified between the BF Group and the EF Group. Overall, there was a significant difference in performance and learning gain for individuals who received elaborate feedback relative to basic feedback.

    Moreover, there are numerous more articles that confirm the claim that, unless interacted with, feedback can be forgotten. This is most likely due to a student’s reaction to negative information; their need and/or want to develop a positive bias.

    It seems that feedback is not only crucial for ensuring that our students to not develop any positive or negative bias but can further assist the motivation and self-regulation of our students. Biases that occur are a natural reaction to the way we receive negative information; some people will ignore it, and others will reflect too strongly on it. As a result, it becomes increasingly clearer that the level of positivity or negativity we use in feedback may differ depending on the ability, age and emotional maturity of our class. Most vital, however, is that feedback is engaged and interacted with as may assist all students in developing a more accurate awareness of their ability.





    Further reading:

    Making Sense of Assessment Feedback in Higher Education Author(s): Carol Evans Source: Review of Educational Research, Vol. 83, No. 1 (March 2013), pp. 70-120 Published by: American Educational Research Association

    The Role of Student Processing of Feedback in Classroom Achievement Author(s): Ellen D. Gagné, Robert J. Crutcher, Joella Anzelc, Cynthia Geisman, Vicki D. Hoffman, Paul Schutz and Lloy Lizcano Source: Cognition and Instruction, Vol. 4, No. 3 (1987), pp. 167-186 Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd.

    The nature of feedback: how different types of peer feedback affect writing performance Author(s): Melissa M. Nelson and Christian D. Schunn Source: Instructional Science, Vol. 37, No. 4 (JULY 2009), pp. 375-401 Published by: Springer

    Task type as a moderator of positive/negative feedback effects on motivation and performance: A regulatory focus perspective Author(s): DINA VAN DIJK and AVRAHAM N. KLUGER Source: Journal of Organizational Behavior, Vol. 32, No. 8 (NOVEMBER 2011), pp. 1084-1105 Published by: Wiley

    Wehrens, M. J. P. W. (2008). How did YOU do? Social comparison in secondary education s.n

  • Independent learning and coaching

    Independent learning and coaching

    By Iain Henderson

    If there were a competition to find a concept most consistently misunderstood or misrepresented in education, independent learning would have a good chance of a gold medal.  Until recently, coaching might well have beaten it.

    So what do we mean by independent learning? 

    Firstly, it is far, far wider than just learning.  Narrowing the focus simply to learning is self-defeating.  It is about becoming more independent and able to be self-sufficient in all parts of life: independent thinking and coping as well as learning.  The concept of independence per se, or independence in a more holistic sense, seem far more realistic and productive ways to view it.

    Secondly, the development of that independence is a carefully supported but often unpredictable journey.  It requires teachers, tutors and leaders to be trusted to have a significant degree of autonomy, making decisions moment by moment in their classroom or in the way that they support those whom they lead, how best to help them both short and long term.

    It is not pupil-led enquiry, “go off and learn it yourself”, making the teacher redundant, or the utterly fatuous idea that, since most have the entire world in their pocket (the internet on a smartphone) they don’t need to “know” anything.



    What do we mean by coaching?

    The terms coaching and mentoring were almost interchangeable for many until even 2 years ago, and while many still don’t know the difference, there seems now to be a growing appreciation of the role of both.  Coaching is a dialogic process in which coaches raise awareness in coachees, shift their perspectives and enable them to take action.  This happens via excellent listening; effective, powerful, open and often challenging questions; and intuition.  Coaches hold their coachees accountable to themselves in completing those actions.  The shift, change, progress or transformation is powerful and lasting by being fully connected to the coachee’s own motivations, values, dreams, fulfilment and passions – what is, in other words, important to them.  There is no advice given, and the coach must often consciously leave aside their own experience in order to be most effective.  Indeed, it can often be helpful for a coach not to be an expert in the area that their coachee wants to improve.

    Mentoring is also dialogic, supportive, respectful and developmental, but it requires the mentor to be able to pass on useful suggestions, advice, wisdom, experience or idea.  It is valuable in many spheres, and it is successfully used for new teachers, new subject leads, and new heads.  In some organisations, especially tech companies, reverse mentoring is used successfully too.  This is so that the young newcomers with fresh ideas educate those at the top of the hierarchy who might otherwise be out of touch with the newest trends.

    How can coaching help?

    There are three obvious ways in which learning how to coach effectively can improve practice and develop independence:

    • You arrange to coach someone in a formal or semi-formal way. That person has something that they would like to improve or move forward, and the conversation may take anything from 5 minutes to 2 hours.  Being able to unlock untapped potential in your peers or students is of great value to them, to the school, and ultimately a big part of the reason why many teachers even entered the profession: they believe in the capacity of others and want to make a difference.  Beware of hearing things like “S(he) needs coaching to improve X” this might be mentoring, or it could be telling with a couple of questions thrown in to make it appear less directive, but it’s not coaching.
    • You have more coaching interactions, where rather than telling people things, you learn to ask questions so they go off and do it themselves. Seeing a student around school and having a moment to ask one question, listen to the answer and ask one more question takes no longer than telling them something.  The impact is greater if they are beginning to think more effectively for themselves.
    • You become more coach-like in what you do. Your heightened sense of the nuances of language when asking questions, your appreciation of the impact of silence, and your intuition about what is unsaid, become significant assets in interactions with parents, students and colleagues alike.  This is, for most who learn how to coach, the way that coaching integrates into their classroom practice.  Harkness teaching is one of many areas where the quality of questioning has a direct and obvious impact, but, as a Biology teacher, the benefit of coaching to the interactions I might have with a group doing a practical on enzymes is equally significant.


    The helping continuum

    In improving our coaching training of hundreds of teachers and leaders, both at Wellington and in many other schools, we have made explicit a notional continuum of human helping.  On one end, there is pure directional instruction – “this is what you do”.  At the other, would be coaching in its cleanest form, where there is no advice or guidance, but only questioning.  The best teachers and leaders are to some extent intuitive about where they are along that continuum at any one time, answering for themselves the endlessly repeated question “what do I need to do for this person/group/class right now that would help them the most?”

    To illustrate this, the analogy of learning to drive a car works for many.  Drivers need to learn to control the car, the laws of the road, how to read the enormous number of fleeting stimuli every second, and how to respond safely and appropriately.  There is a reason why we learn from a driving instructor: at the beginning, we must know some seriously important information.  The consequences of getting this wrong are so serious that we must have it explained very clearly, and good instructors bring clarity and simplicity to something very complex.  They know when to give which information, how to relate things together, when to slow down delivery or add more detail.

    However, the number of possible situations that you can encounter while driving is infinite, because the number of variables is so high and almost all of those are continuous.  Therefore, to rote learn responses is impossible, and the best driving instructors navigate seamlessly into asking questions to enable their pupil to start learning the skills of self-sufficient driving proficiency. They also – and this is a critical parallel with what we might hope to achieve in schools – instil a desire and humility to want to learn further once the test is passed and the ties are cut.

    If the analogy is valuable, it shows what we know to be true about education.  It is a lengthy and complex process, in which huge quantities of important knowledge and understanding are developed, and strung together to make connections.  The ways in which we do that must be relevant to the learners in front of us, and we have a desire and responsibility to help them become more self-propelled beyond that as well.




  • Independent Learning week 6: Why Implement Harkness?

    Independent Learning week 6: Why Implement Harkness?

    By Sarah Donarski


    Teacher-led approaches are a vital step in a pupil’s learning process but they should not be our sole focus in the classroom.  As educators, we also have to enable our pupils to develop skills that help them to adapt, manipulate and actively apply their information; we want to encourage higher levels of thinking and allow them to gain accessible, long-term understandings of academic material. Our classrooms must be tailored to promote these learning behaviours and the dialogical classroom – Harkness – plays a fundamental role in this.

    In a comprehensive study on the ways dialogue enhances a lesson, Gillies (2015) asserts:

    There is no doubt that talk, albeit by the teacher or peers, has the capacity to stimulate and extend students’ thinking and advance their learning. Teachers do this when they encourage students to engage in reciprocal dialogues where they exchange information, explore issues, interrogate ideas, and tackle problems in a cooperative environment that is supportive of these discussions. In turn, students learn to listen to what others have to say, consider alternative perspectives, and engage critically and constructively with each other’s ideas by learning how to reason and justify their assertions as they cooperate together. (Gillies, 2015)

    In fact, there are many articles stemming across the International Journal of Educational Research (Alexander, 2008; Mercer & Littleton, 2007; Webb, 2009) that demonstrate the importance of dialogue in the classroom.  All of which prove the following 3 benefits of implementing dialogic strategies in lessons:

    1.     It encourages pupils to apply their judgements explicitly and logically.

    2.     It encourages pupils have to make effective arguments; this involves using subject terminology correctly.

    3.     It promotes engaged and sustained interactions where knowledge is challenged, altered, shifted and confirmed.

    Therefore, knowledge in the dialogic classroom does not become something that is a fixed or transferred entity.  Rather, it is a process of learning that is both fixed (core knowledge) and adaptable. A dialogic classroom and pedagogies such as Harkness can actively encourage pupils to explore learning gaps and systematically close them.


    Moreover, pedagogies such as Harkness further enhance subject memory recollection and higher-order thinking, as pupils must manipulate knowledge immediately to take part in Harkness style discussion.  It was cited by the Consolidation Guidelines FNQ Explicit Teaching Team that:

    Students demonstrate understanding by applying [knowledge] to other contexts. ‘Information learned and processed through higher-order thinking processes is remembered longer and more clearly’ 

    (Brophy, Jere. “Probing the Subtleties of Subject-Matter Teaching.” Educational Leadership (April 1992).

    Our pupils are given a greater chance to master subject knowledge if Harkness and other dialogical approaches are implemented in our practice.  Without dialogic pedagogies, we risk that a pupils’ knowledge may become limited to knowledge regurgitation, as they have simply learned to transfer information without developing a coherent or holistic understanding of it. A teacher must deliver outstanding content but should also seek lesson time to promote conversation, questioning and discourse.  This gives pupils a greater opportunity to remember information and to strengthen their ability to use and adapt it successfully.



    How to Harkness

    Strategies and Advice to Assist in Implementing Harkness into Educational Practice.


    Without dialogic pedagogies, we risk that a pupils’ knowledge may become limited to knowledge regurgitation, as they have simply learned to transfer information without developing a coherent or holistic understanding of it. A teacher must deliver outstanding content but should also seek lesson time to promote conversation, questioning and discourse.  This gives them a greater opportunity to remember information and to strengthen their ability to use and adapt it successfully.

    So, how do you effectively implement Harkness? When do you start it and when is the best time to trial it?  This blog simply takes you through these questions.

    When do you effectively implement Harkness?

    The following diagram is something I have touched upon in a few of my pedagogical talks.  It is a summary of our purpose in the classroom and presents a visual map of how our methodologies must change as our pupils aim to master their subject knowledge.  Harkness is a teaching strategy that can be implemented effectively into practice when you become a coacher (stage 3) and/or a facilitator (stage 4) of your pupils’ understanding. It is not always effective earlier as modules and topics may require a basic understanding of core material which you might have to explicitly teach them.



    I initially felt most confident implementing Harkness when pupils were consolidating their knowledge at the end of a topic or section from a literary work. However, I recently observed a Harkness between Phillips Exeter and Wellington students on Hamlet that demonstrated how Harkness can work to coach pupils into understanding the work.  For this, teacher still needs slight input.

    The audio below was recorded during this and demonstrates Harkness in Stage 3 where the teacher effectively coaches the students into their knowledge development. You can hear in the following recording that pupils are working through the extracts of Hamlet.  Here, the teacher is still steering the conversation by asking questions to evoke the discussion and facilitates it towards language.  The coaching style is non-threatening and the teacher is clever in his approach: he asks pupils what they do not understand to open the table up to the idea that there might be gaps in their knowledge at this point.  What is most effective here, however, is that before answering the questions himself, he enables pupils to explore it.  Therefore, the teacher plays a minor role.



    But Where to Start?

    It is important to remember that scaffolding is key.  In order to make Harkness as effective as possible, you must train pupils on how to do it. It is essential to remember that they are not used to leading prolonged academic conversation and (in a surprisingly scary admittance), we usually haven’t taught them how to ask good academic questions.  As a result, you cannot expect them to understand this level of independence instantly.

    When first starting, it is useful to the follow three key steps: Preparation, Practice and Praise and Direct.

    1. Preparation:  You have to guide them to the accurate material that will assist them in building a conversation around a subject.

    I recently taught my Year 10s How to Harkness.  This involved 2 lessons of ‘set up’ or Preparation before we organised the official Harkness lesson.

    Lesson 1 involved gathering knowledge and material for the Harkness that they would bring to the discussion.   Normally, I find this is much easier if you quantify the knowledge they need to prepare and give each pupil a role.

    For this activity I asked one pupil on each table to find different knowledge of Macbeth.  Pupil #1, for example, was asked to explore what they consideredthe most significant 3 sections of Lady Macbeth’s character.  This encourages their own personal view – which might differ from their classmates.  It also forces them to individually reflect on and actively critique the text; it involves them personally refining their knowledge and understanding.


    Preparation for this task is vital.  It is also a good homework activity to give them.  You could put a few leading questions at this stage depending on the independent ability of your group.  For example, you could further break down each section: Find 3 key images from each section and be able to explore the devices used by Shakespeare in these.  It will depend on how comfortable with the task you feel your group are at this stage.

    1. Practice: You have to allow them space to vocalise their knowledge for an extended period of time.

    The second lesson for this group that I gave was a Harkness practice lesson.  It involved each pupil leading a ‘mini-Harkness’ on their tables (groups of 4) for 15 minutes.  This encouraged their tables to add any information or key vocabulary that the pupil leading may have missed but also built their confidence in vocalising their ideas to each other before the whole class.


    screen-shot-2016-12-09-at-15-15-26  screen-shot-2016-12-09-at-15-15-59


    1. Praise and Direct: You must stop every now and then to praise good, intelligent ideas and direct where pupils may have a gap in their knowledge – or are applying their knowledge incorrectly.

    In my 5th form, I intervened every 20 minutes just to guide pupils to really vital information that had been raised.  I would stop the discussion but still took a minor role when I drew attention back to something mentioned.  In this following audio, you can hear how a quotation was mentioned in discussion and I coerced the pupil who had made the point to highlight it again to the class.  In this sense, it was student led – I simply acknowledged that it was effective knowledge to have.


    Extra Tips?

    Don’t implement it too early: Ensure students have enough preparation time.

    Don’t be afraid to give them a week to get their information together.  It would be a superfluous exercise to implement Harkness if students do not have the groundwork to develop their understanding.  As mentioned in my previous blog, classroom discussion is effective in heightening subject knowledge; it furthers critical thinking skills and forces students to adapt what they knowinto a coherent, cohesive argument.  If they do not know anything, the impact of Harkness is arguably threatened.  In such a case, the pupils may simply continually repeat their previous knowledge without deepening their understanding.


    Don’t feel threatened by silences:

    One of my outstanding colleagues, Tom Hicks (blog: here), said a student once told him:

    “Sir, don’t worry about our silences… that’s when we are thinking.”

    In the audio below a silence in the Harkness of my 5th form occurs.  I do not intervene and you can see how a more confident pupil decides to move the learning forward:

    At times, as practitioners, silences are the moment we are taught to intervene as it signals alarm bells for a lack of knowledge.  If pupils fall silent throughout a Harkness, let the silence happen.  It often happens that another pupil will add onto a point, complete their point or move the conversation along.  Teach them to do this by giving them the sentence starters:

    • ‘Now we have seemed to finish that point, I’d like to draw everyone’s attention to…’
    • ‘I have a question for the group. I’d like to ask everyone what they thought…’
    • ‘Do you agree that…’
    • ‘I would like to raise a new point discussing…’
    • ‘I would like to add on from that point to mention…’


    Allow Debates to Happen:

    We have also unlearned the healthiness of a good debate in our classroom.  We believe it demonstrates rowdiness, or that pupils are out of our control.  In Harkness, when pupils feel more comfortable, there will be times they appear to talk over each other.  You will most likely find that this is diffused quite quickly.  It should also be a good indicator that students are clearly passionate about the subject material enough to explore it in depth.  If it does not diffuse, do not underestimate your ability to step in.  Again, praise and direct pupils to vital points and give them time to explore how or why an argument occurred – all of which can be extremely interesting!

    Below is an audio clip of a Harkness debates. It is quite interesting as it shows how passionate the pupils feel about the content but the debate is also very quickly diffused as pupils begin to reason with each other:


    Anything else?

    Harkness is a great tool to assess a student’s understanding of content.

    Some students have a good knowledge of content material but simply need work in the skills to apply this knowledge in an exam format.  Harkness is a great way to build the confidence of these pupils and also identify whether it is examination skills they’re missing or subject knowledge.

    Finally, teach them that Harkness is not answering a question, it is about exploring it. Knowledge is about knowing the ‘right’ answer but also knowing why something is ‘not the right answer’ and accurate knowledge is an ability to understand in depth (and width) rather than simply on the surface.

  • Independent Learning week 5: Mindset and Motivation

    Independent Learning week 5: Mindset and Motivation

    A key determinant in student success is the inherent beliefs they have about themselves in terms of their ability and how they learn. The two major areas to consider here are Carol Dweck’s work on Growth Mindset and Angela Duckworth’s on Grit. However we might also pause to consider the broader areas of engagement and motivation and whether they are even a good proxy indicator of learning at all, and whether these approaches can be taught explicitly or whether they should be seen more as a overarching philosophy as opposed to an intervention.

    Growth Mindset

    Carol Dweck’s work over many decades claims that some students have an ‘entity theory’ of intelligence, more commonly known as a ‘fixed mindset’ which means they believe ability to be set and that no matter how hard they work they are simply stuck with their level of intelligence. Other students have an ‘incremental theory’ of intelligence, known as a ‘growth mindset’ which means they believe intelligence to be malleable. As Dylan William notes, “smart is not something you are, smart is something you get.”

    We were lucky enough to have Carol Dweck speak at the Festival last year and she kindly gave an interview to some of our student research council which you can listen to here:



    Angela Duckworth’s work over the last decade on ‘grit,’ which she defines as “passion and perseverance towards long term goals” seeks to ask an important question, namely why do some individuals accomplish more than others of equal intelligence? Individuals high in grit are able to maintain their determination and motivation over long periods despite negative experiences with failure and adversity. One of the interesting assertions by Duckworth is that this facility of grit is more predictive of long term success than intelligence. While there are some issues with the very definition of this trait, it does raise the question of how we might affect that disposition in students.

    Two years ago we worked with researchers from Harvard graduate school of education to explore the extent to which students at Wellington had ‘grit’ and to what extent they felt they were able to persevere towards long term goals.  You can read the published working paper on that study here.

    Working with the student research team and Harvard yielded some unique perspectives, not least how both growth mindset and grit can work synergistically to great effect and also how students can ‘switch off’ to direct attempts to try to motivate them. If students are taught explicitly about the value of Growth Mindset, Grit and the notion that ability is not ‘fixed’, does that cause a cognitive dissonance in the face of a culture of fixed target grades and league tables? As one student wrote:

    If the students are aware that their perception of their own ability is being directly “targeted”, the majority will refuse to accept the concept in any quantity. A particularly significant idea that arose from our research demonstrated that many students achieve very high levels of academic success, but possess fixed mindsets. Since such pupils achieve consistently good grades, they feel comfortable with the manner in which they are working, and deem it appropriate. Education has been one of the only ‘constants’ in the lives of students, so to admit that one has not been learning as well as they potentially could have for a number of years will be unlikely to yield an effective response. The very patient nature of what growth mindsets appear to be may, in some cases, cause a student to lose focus as their final aim does not seem instantly achievable. This is where the idea of ‘grit’ becomes a necessity. Perseverance and resilience in the face of adversity combined with a positive attitude towards learning (as demonstrated by the Growth Mindset) will bear for greater individual performance, and thus also higher levels of personal satisfaction and feelings of achievement. This is likely to be one of the most encouraging factors in the development of a student, both academically and emotionally.

    The problem with ‘engagement’

    So how might we gauge whether students are indeed motivated and persevering towards long term goals? One of the most common signs of motivation and learning is seeing that students are ‘engaged’, however there are some real problems with this as a proxy indicator. As Rob Coe points out, engagement is one of the most misleading indicators of learning.




    Now these all seem like key elements of a successful classroom, so what’s the problem? and more specifically, why is engagement is such a poor proxy indicator – surely the busier they are, the more they are learning?

    This paradox is explored by Graham Nuthall in his book ‘The Hidden Lives of Learners,’ (2007) in which he 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.” p.24

    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 other difficulty is the now constant exhortation for students to be ‘motivated’ (often at the expense of subject knowledge and depth) but motivation in itself is not enough. Nuthall writes that:

    “Learning requires motivation, but motivation does not necessarily lead to learning.”p.35

    Motivation and engagement are vital elements in learning but it seems to be what they are used in conjunction with that determines impact. It is right to be motivating students but motivated to do what? If they are being motivated to do the types of tasks they already know how to do or focus on the mere performing of superficial tasks at the expense of the assimilation of complex knowledge then the whole enterprise may be a waste of time.

    Learning is in many cases, invisible as outlined many times by David Didau and is certainly not linear but rather more nebulous in actuality. As Prof. Coe reminds us, ‘learning happens when people have to think hard’ but unfortunately there is no easy way of measuring this, so what does he suggest is effective in terms of evidencing quality?

    Ultimately he argues that it comes down to a more nuanced set of practitioner/student skills, habits and conditions that are very difficult to observe, never mind measure. Things like “selecting, integrating, orchestrating, adapting, monitoring, responding” and which are contingent on context, history, personalities, relationships” and which all work together to create impact and initiate effective learning. So while engagement and motivation are important elements in learning they should be seen as part of a far more complex grouping of factors.

    A key question to consider then is whether students can be taught to have a growth mindset or grit by teaching those concepts explicitly and whether students are motivated at all if they are merely doing ‘busywork’ that they already know how to do, or the kinds of activities that learn to superficial understanding. Are students engaging in the kinds of ‘desirable difficulties’ such as spacing, interleaving, self quizzing and the broader aspiration of intellectual curiosity that might be more difficult in the short term, but lead to greater mastery and motivation in the long term? The paradox of this field is that mastering a difficult concept through hard work, failure and eventual success may well motivate a student far more effectively than ‘motivation’ itself.

    Final advice:


    1. Encourage students to see mistakes as opportunities to learn rather than as a lack of ability.
    2. Praise effort rather than ‘cleverness.’
    3. Encourage them to view intelligence as something that can be affected by hard work not as a fixed entity.
    4. Emphasise current progress rather than past performance.
    5. Encourage students to view grades as temporary performance indicators not measures of fixed intelligence.
    6. Discuss student’s long term goals as intrinsic rather than extrinsic.



    Growth mindset: It’s not magic

    This much I know about…developing a Dweck-inspired Growth Mindset culture

    Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals

    To Grit or not to Grit: That is the Question

  • 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)