What works? Let students find out!

Why should educational research be the preserve of academics and teachers?  Let the students have a go!

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Figure 1: Students busy taking part in the Comprehension Comparison Challenge

(L-R: Listening, reading, dual coding, noting)

Engaging with the findings of educational research has become more embedded in the lives of teachers in the UK in recent years.  The ranks of academics are being joined by a growing number of teachers and leaders engaging in research – whether as active creators of projects, or as enthusiastic consumers of the findings of others.

Philippa Cordingley, Chief Executive of the UK’s Centre for Use of Research and Evidence in Education (CUREE), notes that “recent research by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) about teachers’ research engagement in English schools suggested that teachers are willing to engage more with research evidence than was the case a decade or two ago, and many schools are supportive of evidence use” (Cordingley, 2019: 142).

I wonder how often teachers refer explicitly to research in class?  After all, if students are told that ‘research shows that this works’, perhaps they would be willing to trust and engage with certain approaches?  Members of my Year 12 tutor group were certainly interested when they learned of one of the findings of the ‘VESPA Mindset’ model: 20 hours independent study a week strongly correlates with attaining A and A* grades at A Level.

Getting the students involved

This week I also began to wonder how often we engage students in the process of educational research?  I have a particularly compliant and open-minded Year 10 Geography class, so in one lesson I had a go at following a compressed version of the scientific method to try out a snippet of educational research in one 45 minute lesson.

By the end of Key Stage 3, Geography students will have had to “collect, analyse and draw conclusions from geographical data” via fieldwork (Department for Education, 2013) and they would also have had practice in the scientific method in science lessons, so the process would not have been new to them.

This wasn’t the fruit of a long period of pondering – it came from the experience of planning a lesson and realising that it was probably going to be uninspiring for the students unless I added something extra to it.  It also came from a keenness to get the students involved in finding out what learning approaches might work for them.

I had one lesson to play with.  So what did I do and how did it go?

1. Formulating an enquiry theme

I started by asking my students how they might go about assimilating and understanding an unfamiliar double-page textbook spread.  As I hoped for, two responses duly came back: ‘reading’ and ‘noting’.  I then asked the class to refer back to a previous lesson where I had extolled the virtues of ‘dual coding’ (using visuals to aid understanding) – in this case, it was a simple mnemonic/sketch hybrid which summarised the factors influencing tree species in the UK temperate forest biome (see figure 2).

WARS dual coding

Figure 2: A mnemonic/sketch hybrid which summarises the factors influencing tree species in the UK temperate forest biome

I then asked if any of them had tried to revise using podcasts, or had heard of older siblings or friends doing so.  A couple of hands went up.  (When I asked about YouTube videos, a couple more hands tentatively followed.)  So, after a short discussion, we had a theme – which I entitled the ‘Comprehension Comparison Challenge’ – and four approaches to compare: reading, writing, noting, and dual coding!

2. Methodology

I went around the class, asking one person to read, their neighbour to listen, the next person to make written notes only, and the next person to make a combination of sketches and notes.  Instructions were simple:

  • Readers should not show the pages to the listeners, but could repeat content if requested to do so
  • Listeners were encouraged to shut their eyes to focus their attention on the content
  • The written notes and sketch/note combinations could be in any form that the students wanted

After about 12 minutes, the students were issued a 15-mark short answer test (on A5 paper) based on the textbook spread.  I read out the answers (eliciting responses via questioning the students) and students self-marked their test papers.

3. Results

Students called out their results and I filled in a basic Excel spreadsheet table (figure 3); I showed this process on the whiteboard.

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Figure 3: Spreadsheet of marks

4. Presentation

The class swiftly agreed that a bar chart would be the best way to show this discrete data (figure 4).

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Figure 4: Bar chart of results

5. Analysis

The top highest scoring categories were ‘noting’ and ‘dual coding’.  We analysed the size of the margins by which these two ‘won’ the challenge, why the two ‘winning’ methods might work, and why merely reading or listening may be less efficient approaches to learning – at least when carried out in isolation.  We briefly discussed the different types of ‘noting’, but time was beginning to run out at this point!

6. Conclusion

So, what worked?  I easily managed to get the feedback from the class that a combination of methods, focussing mainly on noting and dual coding, may well be the ‘winning ticket’ in terms of strategies to comprehend information.

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Figure 5: Student example of dual coding

7. Evaluation

I will be perfectly honest and say that as the end of the lesson was swiftly approaching, I just said that this survey was an example of the kind of research carried out into learning but that it was unscientific in many respects.  I suggested to the students that they should consider combining notes and dual coding their preparations for future tests and examinations.  But in longer lessons – perhaps you have hour-long periods? – a fuller evaluation process would be achievable.

Reflections

I contend that letting students not only see ‘research in action’, but also helping them to design and take part in it, will give them the following benefits:

  • They can see the immediate results of why some learning methods are more effective than others (again, I must stress the limitations of this very brief ‘experiment’)
  •  They have more practice of the scientific method, which will help them in Geography and the sciences
  • They might be more willing to try new ways of working
  • On a short-term basis, the lesson was more interesting and I hope that the content sunk in (let’s see if it has in the next end of unit test on energy!)

I would love to have handed the conclusion and evaluation sections over to the students.  In longer lessons – perhaps you have hour-long periods? – a fuller evaluation process would be achievable.  Perhaps I will try it again in a double lesson with one of my A Level groups to give the students a fuller appreciation of the whole process.

I should also have allowed enough time to point out that the two ‘winning methods’ can’t be carried out once, but that knowledge of retrieval practice, spacing and self explanation (amongst other methods, as covered by Dunlosky et al, 2013) will be necessary to enhance the chances of longer term retention and application of information.  But effective studying and revision are covered at other times in my school, and as they begin to adopt the VESPA model, this should be covered more frequently and thoroughly.

Have you engaged your students in micro-experiments such as this, or even in more in-depth studies?  Get in touch!

References

Cordingley, P (2019) ‘Collaborative engagement in and with research: A central part of the CPD landscape’ in Scutt, C and Harrison, S: Teacher CPD: International trends, opportunities and challenges (pp138-143) – Chartered College of Teaching, London: https://my.chartered.college/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Chartered-College-International-Teacher-CPD-report.pdf (members-only, paywall)

Department for Education (2013) Geography programmes of study: key stage 3: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/239087/SECONDARY_national_curriculum_-_Geography.pdf

Dunlosky, J, Rawson, K, Marsh, E, Nathan, M and Willingham, D (2013) Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology, Psychological Science in the Public Interest, vol. 14, 1: pp. 4-58: https://journals.sagepub.com/stoken/rbtfl/Z10jaVH/60XQM/full

Author: alcockblog

Optimist, Geography teacher, teaching and learning champion, interested in progress, social and environmental sustainability and outdoor learning. Father, orienteer, fell runner. @DavidAlcock1

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