An action research project at Solihull College & University Centre aimed to engage maths learners from a variety of backgrounds with independent study ahead of upcoming lessons. Holly Bayliss MSET explains how they did it and the difference it has made.
During the last academic year, our college took part in an action research project funded by the Outstanding Teaching and Learning Group on behalf of the Education and Training Foundation.
The aim was to enable learners to engage successfully in online learning between maths lessons, and thus show them how independent study can positively affect their learning in the classroom and their overall progression with maths.
In further education, we emphasise the importance of attendance and progression on achievement. Unfortunately, it is not enough. Learners need to have a combination of good attendance and study skills to ensure success. We need to be aware that many learners aged 16 to 18 have never been taught how to study outside of the classroom and do not possess a toolbox of independent study strategies. The project aimed to equip them with straightforward resources and realistically timed tasks to encourage them to develop these skills and monitor the impact they have on their learning.
The project focused on public services students from Level 1 to Level 3 who attended maths lessons together with their vocational BTEC group. To gather evidence, I focused on the Level 2 public services group. These learners had a range of GCSE maths grades from U upwards, allowing us to reflect on a broad spectrum of students with different abilities and educational backgrounds. Many of the 16 learners had come from a mainstream secondary background, but some came from alternative provision.
We knew what we wanted to achieve but were unsure of the best approach, so we trialled and evaluated different resource types:
In September 2020, students were set up on Mathswatch and encouraged to independently try a range of activities over two weeks, which included consolidation, preparation and/or watching method videos. It was clear after this that the uptake of preparation tasks was a route to investigate further, due to their structure and design. At this stage we found learners were more likely to actively engage in tasks that were short, easily accessible, and held purpose and value to them.
The preparation tasks were launched and assigned to learners on Mathswatch on a weekly basis before their lesson took place. The tasks were designed to take no longer than 20 minutes. They incorporated previous skills that were to be used in the forthcoming lesson and allowed learners the chance to try skills that were about to be taught. Also, learners were able to watch videos that explained the methods alongside each question.
Once a routine was established, we gathered the first feedback from students in November 2020 to find out how they felt about the preparation tasks, including their structure, the time they were set and the impact they felt they were having in the classroom.
The tasks were altered in response to finding that some learners thought they were too simple. A system was implemented to remind learners about their preparation 48 hours before the lesson.
It became apparent early on that if I asked learners at the start of each session which of them had completed their preparation tasks, it encouraged more people to do them. This strategy inspired those hanging back to start completing the tasks, which was a positive step to take. In class discussions, the confidence of those completing the tasks was obvious and their self-esteem was taking a real boost. Comments included “I know this because I’ve just done this before the lesson” and “I never understood this topic before I watched the video clips in the preparation task”.
Asking which learners had completed their preparation tasks encouraged more people to do them
This simple technique changed the group norm from not doing work outside the classroom to doing it and feeling proud about it. Learners were then aware of the ‘preparing’ group growing and the benefits of carrying out the work. As more learners joined the ‘doing it’ norm, so the normative pressure to conform increased.
Learners found new ways of studying independently. The fact that the Mathswatch tasks were easily accessible provided them with structure and support material alongside each question. This enabled them to see how they could study on their own and their traditional view that they had to sit down and learn at a desk was completely thrown out and new study approaches adopted. Learners realised they could study on the go with their mobile device – some of them completed their preparation tasks on the bus coming into college.
All I now had to say when I arrived at a lesson was “Who’s ready for the lesson?” and learners understood that this question related to their preparation and wanted to be one of the ones to raise their hands.
Attendance remained at an all-time high, at an average of 89 per cent throughout the project. Learners made their feelings clear that in preparing for the lesson they were more likely to attend to demonstrate what they knew. The element of anxiety was removed for those completing the preparation tasks, as they were able to identify what was about to happen in the lesson and they felt they had more control over the delivery.
We shared these findings with the rest of the maths teachers in our department and the ‘preparation’ approach was adopted by the adult-learner teachers. Most adults have been out of education for many years, and they found that refreshing their knowledge before a lesson increased their success. The teachers saw a difference in their confidence levels immediately.
Learners need to have a combination of good attendance and study skills to ensure success
As motivation levels increased, learners started to query what more they could be doing in addition to lessons and preparation to support their progression. Changes to our delivery model were put in place to support the demand for additional maths learning.
To mitigate the impact of Covid, the Department for Education offered the further education and training sector catch-up funding to provide learners with additional learning opportunities to bridge the gap. In response to our project and learners’ desire to take on more study outside of the classroom, ‘exam skills’ lessons were created. These online lessons meant learners could study additional content from home and fit it in around their current timetable. New relationships were forged between teachers as the structure of these sessions was discussed and monitored to support both styles of lessons running simultaneously.
By December 2020, learners could see the impact the additional study was having, and many took up the additional online learning on offer each week, including the Maths Hub support sessions and exam skills sessions. This took their maths study time up to 4.5 hours per week, back in line with their secondary education.
Overall feedback was positive. Many now understood the importance of carrying out work outside the lesson and how they could use this new set of independent study skills and implement it into other areas of their programme.
At this point in the research, the learners’ overall attendance as a group had not dropped below 88 per cent and the retention rate was 100 per cent. At the start of the academic year, we noted the average grade for the class, which sat at 2.1 and, with our current targets set to raise standards for each learner by one grade per year, the target was to raise the average group grade up to 3.1.
The element of anxiety was removed for those completing the preparation tasks
At the end of the academic year, when all grades had been submitted to the exam board, the group’s overall average grade was 3.2, exceeding the target. Within this group of 16, eight learners went up by one grade, five by two grades and one by a staggering three grades. This learner engaged in the full 4.5 hours of maths per week from January up to May 2021.
Many other teachers were setting tasks that were a mixture of consolidation and preparation, but the engagement was minimal. We feel that this was because they lacked some, or all, of the following key elements:
There is one key area where this independent study was clearly not working and that was with our Level 1 vocational group. A lot of these learners arrive in further education and training with low self-esteem, behaviour issues, undiagnosed learning conditions and a sense that the education system has let them down in the past.
Asking them to engage in independent study was far too much for these learners, and they had many other barriers to education that we needed to address primarily. Planning for these learners with the view that one day they will be able to take onboard independent study requires further thought, investigation, and perseverance.
Holly Bayliss MSET is maths teaching and learning coach at Solihull College & University Centre.
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