Helping students think more deeply

helping students behavioral insights

This article was taken from Behavioural Insights for Education: A practical guide for parents, teachers and school leaders, published by Pearson as part of our Open Ideas series. You can download the full guide here.

Some of the most rewarding experiences for teachers can emerge when students think deeply about the problems they are trying to solve, work collaboratively with their classmates and most of all, are being creative, trying one new approach after another, undeterred by failures because they are so inspired to succeed. These are the skills that students will need for the 21st century. Sometimes classes seemingly take on a life of their own and students will behave this way of their own accord, but it’s more likely they will need a little steering from their teacher. Here are some strategies teachers can use to help students truly engage and think a little more deeply about the material being taught.

Seeing the relevance … ‘why?’

Not everything that contributes to the development of valuable skills is fun to learn. In a recent US survey, 44% of 10-to-14-year-olds said they would rather take out the trash than do their maths homework, even though 58% of them thought maths would be important for their future. Students often struggle to see the relevance of what they learn to their broader life goals. For example, a student might reasonably question why they have to study trigonometry when they want to work in the media.

One effective way for students to understand this relevance may be to help them find and define it for themselves. A study in the US explored whether prompting students to reflect on the relevance of their coursework to their lives has an impact on achievement. Students first summarised what they had learned in science class that day. They then considered how they could apply this new knowledge to their own life or the life of someone they know. Students who completed this exercise and perceived themselves as low performers went on to do better by roughly two thirds of a letter grade. They also reported being more interested in science class at the end of term compared to students who did not do the exercise.

In a similar study, students considered not only how their coursework benefits their own life, but also the world beyond themselves. For example, a student might work hard because they want to get into a top university, but they may also be motivated by the fact that they could use their knowledge to help others in the most disadvantaged areas of their country, or indeed the world. The results show that this ‘purpose for learning’ exercise improved STEM grades overall for those who completed it, and that students with low baseline performance benefited the most. Seeing the relevance of what you do also has impacts beyond formal education – research suggests that people with repetitive and relatively low status jobs (e.g. waste collectors, prison guards) find their work more meaningful and perform better when they reflect on the benefit they provide to society.

BIT and Pearson are working together to test this purpose for learning exercise with computer science students in the US. One group of students reflect on how their course work is relevant to their own lives and the lives of others, whereas another group will simply summarise what they learned in class that day.

Learning to learn

The Philosophy for Children (P4C) programme has been around since the 1970’s and promotes metacognitive skill development by encouraging children to not merely accept information as it is, but to question and debate material in order to gain a deeper understanding. Lessons usually start with teachers and students watching a video or reading a piece of text around a philosophical concept such as ‘truth’ or ‘fairness’. Students are then given time to reflect and come up with questions. Each student chooses one question and discusses it with their teacher and others in the class. Teachers help to ensure that all students feel comfortable contributing to the discussion so that it is not dominated by the opinions of one or a few students. The core of the programme is to encourage diverse opinions, to question assumptions and to support reasoning.

Recent evaluations of P4C have shown positive impacts on learning outcomes. The European School of Madrid started using the programme in 1994, integrating it into their regular curriculum with one class a week for all students between the ages of 6 and 18. Students who took the programme were more likely to help others, developed personality characteristics associated with success and demonstrated improved cognitive ability.

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) also funded an evaluation of the programme in UK schools and found that it had a positive effect on the attainment of students between the ages of 7 and 11 – equivalent to approximately two additional months’ progress in reading and mathematics. Importantly, the programme had the largest impact on disadvantaged pupils (those eligible for free school meals).

Affording students the time to reflect and question accepted assumptions can help them critically think about the world around them. Young people can get really excited when discussing life’s big questions and that enthusiasm and engagement can transfer to other aspects of their coursework. Many teachers will already facilitate this type of reflection and discussion in their classrooms, and there are several online resources to help teachers start or extend these activities.

Giving effective feedback

Quality feedback has been shown to be one of the most efficient ways to improve learning outcomes. And, as you might imagine, the key to effective feedback is understanding why the student got it wrong – it might be that the student is making a systematic error in the way they’ve interpreted the material, or it could be that they’ve simply misunderstood what was required of them. Either way, it’s important to take time to understand the root of the error as this can be the difference between a student grasping the topic or disengaging entirely.

Sometimes when a test paper is returned to a student, they pay more attention to the overall grade than to the errors they made. To counteract this, teachers could give students two grades – their true grade and a ‘possible grade’, much like the Energy Performance Certificates (EPC) issued on buildings in the UK, which show their current energy rating and what their rating could be were the property owner to make adjustments. Visually representing this on a feedback form could help students to better understand their potential in a given subject. Teachers could then talk their students through what they need to do to reach their ‘possible’ grade. Although we are not aware of any current studies testing this theory, teachers could try it out in their classrooms to see if students nd it useful.

Of course, effective feedback can also just take the form of a conversation between teacher and student. Informal feedback is fine, but experienced teachers report that it works best if it is specific, timely, challenging and sets out clear guidance on what to do next. For example, imagine a teacher is giving feedback to a student on an essay they’ve written. They might mention some features of the piece that were particularly good before highlighting some systematic errors. Teachers could then work with the student to summarise their feedback with two or three actions they can do to avoid such mistakes next time round. This could be using a ‘mental checklist’ to make sure they don’t forget certain important points, or giving them tips for how they can improve their writing.

Teachers will know that their feedback has really hit home when they see students taking specific steps to improve on what they got wrong last time. Sometimes, teachers might even find that students not only correct themselves, but help others too. The most effective teachers have shown that giving quality feedback is not just giving students the right answers or telling them what they got wrong, but helping them to understand how they can improve their understanding in the future.

Many teachers will have heard of Lev Vygotsky who is considered one of the ‘founding fathers’ of modern psychology. Like Professor Dweck and the other psychologists mentioned in this guide, Vygotsky believed that intelligence can grow with effort. He also proposed that children learn through their interactions with one another – a child’s potential lies between what they can accomplish by themselves and what they can achieve when helped by a ‘more knowledgeable other’, like a classmate.

Teachers can encourage helpful social interactions in the classroom by pairing students in a way that allows all of them to spend time working with someone slightly above their current ability. Prompting students to review each other’s work regularly could help students to think more critically about their own work and the work of others. Moreover, teaching students how to give effective feedback is a valuable skill in the modern workplace.

Behavioural Insights for Education: A practical guide for parents, teachers and school leaders was written by Fionnuala O’Reilly, Dr Raj Chande, Bibi Groot, Michael Sanders and Zhi Soon. It was published by Pearson as part of our Open Ideas series. You can download the full guide here.

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