Geoff Petty - Get your students thinking not clicking: using technology to learn

It’s not sufficient to get students to use technology, or to display it to them. You must set activities that require the students to think. But which activities? Geoff Petty is author of Teaching Today and Evidence Based Teaching and has trained staff in more than 300 colleges and schools.

It’s easy to be dazzled by technology, and to let it distract you from your main purpose. Then you end up doing what impresses, not what teaches.

To help us examine this issue, please have a look at the following two e-learning assignments, A and B; they are alternatives for the same topic. Assume both A and B make use of the same resources. Which would you choose and why?


E-learning assignment A

“I hope you enjoyed my presentation on the colour-printing process. Below is a list of ace websites, awesome videos, and absurdly great animations on colour printing. You will find these totally brilliant for your essay. Dig in! Tell your mates which ones you enjoy most on our class Facebook page, and on your Twitter feed. I’ll be looking out for deep insights and pics of you working on Instagram. Enjoy!”


E-learning assignment B

Look at the following resources on the colour-printing process and prepare for the following tasks. (You will NOT be shot if you make notes with pencil and paper while studying these resources).

Create a flow diagram that summarises colour printing in your own words, with your own diagrams: include all the key points. Check your work against the success criteria.

Upload your flow diagram to the class’s WorkInProgress page.

Peer-assess three flow diagrams done by others using the success criteria (I’ve emailed you whose to do). Look at the others too, and their peer assessments.

Look at the three peer assessments of your own work, and improve your flow diagram.

Self-assess and improve your flow diagram using my key points, which I will send you when you have done (e) above.

Assignment B involves lots of tasks, making notes from resources, creating a flow diagram, peer-assessment and self-assessment. What is more, there is plenty of feedback available for learners requiring them to improve their understanding, and the goals are clear because success criteria and key points had to be used by the learner. In repeated rigorous trials in real classrooms the activities in bold above have been found to be exceptionally effective.

By comparison, a simple requirement for students to use technology has a very modest effect on learning indeed. Interestingly, John Hattie reports research that shows students learn more if they share computers rather than have their own. (Marzano 2001; Hattie 2009; Petty 2009).

Assignment A (which I hope is a bit of a parody) does not require that the student thinks much about the topic they are supposed to be learning, and they don’t get much if any useful feedback on how to improve their understanding.

The difference between A and B is not the digital resources, which we imagine to be the same, the difference is that in B students had to think about what they were learning, and they get feedback on how to improve their understanding.

Countless professional development sessions concentrate on the technology; it is dazzling I know. But those most knowledgeable about learning with digital resources always concentrate on the learning process and see the technology as a means to this end.

You could replace ‘colour-printing process’ in the above assignments with almost any topic, at almost any academic level, from almost any curriculum area, and the story would be much the same. If you consider an in-class learning session rather than assignment, again the story remains the same.

It is the thinking not the clicking that creates learning. So, my belief is that we should spend more time looking at our use of technology from the student activity point of view. But which activities are likely to create the best learning?

There are thousands of rigorous classroom-based research studies that compare different teaching methods. These show that the same methods tend to work exceptionally well whatever the subject or academic level, which was a surprise to many.

As I’ve mentioned in previous issues of InTuition, the most powerful teaching methods almost all involve student activity. And if you need more persuasion, studies of the very best teachers, from the value-added point of view, find that they keep their students very active indeed (Lemov 2010).

The methods that work best are very adaptable and can be used in e-learning assignments, in class, at home, indeed in any situation where technology is used. What follows is just a few of them, see Petty 2009 for many others.


Effective e-learning tasks when getting students to apply their learning

a) Same and different: This is a task that requires the learner to identify similarities and differences between two or more topics or concepts. Comparing the concept they are studying with one they are already familiar with is useful.[Text Wrapping Break]

Do a ‘same and different’ task on the board with some other topic to show them how to create such a diagram as this is not an easy activity.[Text Wrapping Break]

Students can also be asked to compare an analogy with the real thing, for example a car battery with a water pump (which is an analogy for a car battery).[Text Wrapping Break]

Graphic organisers: Students are asked to create their own diagrammatic representation of what they are learning, for example a mind-map, flow diagram or a same and different diagram. These diagrams are graphic, but also show the organisation of the information, so are called ‘graphic organisers’.

Evaluative thinking: Ask students to look at a couple of websites, PowerPoints, or animations, for example, on the same topic and then ask them to evaluate them. Which one explains best? Which has most information; what important ideas are missing from each? This makes them think carefully about the content.

Self, peer and spoof assessment: As in assignment B, ask students to self-assess and/or peer-assess work, preferably using assessment criteria you have given them. Spoof assessment involves giving all your students the same anonymous piece of work to assess. You can use this to show how to do something well, and/or to give them some common mistakes or misconceptions to seek out. For example, if you want students to see how to justify their arguments, you could show them anonymous work that does this well, asking them to assess it. Ideally, show them three good examples, which all do it slightly differently.

Decisions, decisions: Students physically manipulate cards, objects or symbols that represent the concepts or ideas they are learning about. The same and different diagram above is an example. Students can drag and drop text and diagrams on a Word document to match, group, sequence or sort them in some way.


When presenting new information

a) Advance organisers Give students summaries in advance of what they are about to learn, in graphic organiser form. These provide a means for students to structure the topic in their heads. This is particularly useful if students need to understand relationships between concepts in the new material - you can show these relations in your organiser.

Relevant recall questions: Ask questions that require students to recall any prior learning they need to understand the new topic they are about to study. Then ask them to self-assess their answers against model answers. This brings essential prior learning into the learner’s short-term memory, and checks it before building the new learning upon these foundations.


Further reading

Hattie, J. (2009) ‘Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement’: Routledge

Lemov, D. (2010) ‘Teach Like a Champion’: Jossey-Bass Marzano R. Pickering, D. Pollock, J. (2001) ‘Classroom Instruction that Works’: ASCD

Petty, G. (2009) ‘Evidence Based Teaching’: OUP Petty, G. (2013) ‘Teaching Today’: OUP