Making Invisible Visible – Student Study Habits

One of the biggest challenges in teaching – particularly in terms of the more independent levels of work required at A Level – is supporting students to do work for themselves. This is a bigger challenge than working in lessons, or doing a homework task, because I have far less control over the outcome and the process.

And yet, this kind of independent work – reviewing notes, or consolidating knowledge and understanding, and ‘reading around the subject’ – these are all vitally important skills for a great student to have. I think that my biggest challenge is making this work ethos and approach visible and transparent, without writing off huge amounts of my lesson time.

Student Behaviours – a description

I tend to have students whose approach to work falls in to one of four categories:

  • Students who will only do exactly what I tell them, and even then, not always that. For these students, turning up to lessons, and being present in school – and paying attention – is enough. They often are more interested in something else: maybe it’s a new hobby, a new boy/girl friend, or their part time job and social life. The idea of working is “lame” and they don’t really want to do it – other things just matter more. They are explicit and unashamed of this – they have “grown up” and want to be treated as adults.
  • Students who are “spinning their wheels”. They are doing what they are told. They are also doing a lot of other things to “work hard”. Often, it’s ‘make work activities’ which look like strategies they have been taught, or seen other students use – but they are not quite utilising effectively. The best example of this is the student who spends all their time ‘making flash cards’ – but once made, doesn’t know what to do with them, other than to flick through them aimlessly. Whenever there’s a discussion about results, it is almost a despairing cry of “but I’m working really hard”.
  • Students who are working hard, and are honest and clear about what they are doing. Often, this comes with social penalties for the student – they might have to tough out a “geek” or similar label, if they are in an environment where effective and extensive work is not the cultural norm. They have learned some techniques, refined them, and don’t mind getting coaching or advice. They are working very hard, and are prepared to accept short term pain for longer-term gain. Sometimes, these students exhibit anxious tendencies – they have always worked hard, and when the challenge steps up, they respond by trying to do the same. This doesn’t always end well. I have a lot of sympathy: I think this is probably the best description of my own approach to academic work when I was a student, let alone my teaching!
  • Students who make it look effortless. In perhaps one or two cases in my whole teaching career, this has been the result of a genuinely super-talented student. In the vast majority of other cases, it’s not that at all – they are group three students, but they just don’t tell anyone. They do weird behaviours – will chat and socialize until 9-10 pm so it looks like they are chilled and relaxed, but then will work late in to the night without telling anyone. These students are usually socially mixed, quite popular and confident – but for some reason, they feel like they can’t be honest about how much work they are putting in.

There are challenges with each student type – ranging from actually getting work and results, to mental health and wider health concerns.

Student behaviours – what am I trying to change?

For my Group 1s, I’m worried about whether they are going to have the knowledge and understanding from only superficial engagement. I have control over this – whether it’s structuring knowledge, or forcing them to work through punitive/sanction systems – but what I want is them to shift up in to a different category. To do this, I need them to understand how hard “everyone” is working, and to make them feel that not doing work isn’t acceptable or okay. Here, I face the problem of peer group comparison!

For my Group 2s, I’m worried about massive effort/achievement disparities and huge disappointment: they need a longer and cultural shift through cognitive science, learning skills. In theory, an excellent study skills programme – or PSHE – could shift this on, but I’ve never seen one work as well as it could.

However, the struggle is that I need to ensure that the behaviours are not just happening, but visibly happening. My Group 2 students are normally copying the actions of a Group 3 students – “if that person is working like that and getting those results, then obviously if I make flash cards, then I’ll be great too”, without understanding what happens with the flash cards, or how the learning and understanding is embedded. Like Mark Enser’s (@EnserMark) great analysis of the “Rituals of Teaching” (Link), which leads to a culture of doing (Link), students often understand the rituals of learning – we make lists, we make pretty posters, we make many flashcards – All hail the flashcards! – and then… poof! Results happen! – without really knowing how and why they are doing it.

… we make lists, we make pretty posters, we make many flash cards – All hail the flashcards! – and then … poof! Results happen!

I love the work of the Learning Scientists in this regard (@AceThatTest), but I think their analysis is woefully under-applied to many schools – perhaps there’s room for it in a nationally mandated framework, somewhere, to ensure that understanding learning is a key part of how students are taught and prepared?!

My Group 4 students present a different challenge. By making their work invisible, they tacitly give permission to the Group 1 and 2 students to do less. They don’t talk about how much graft, repetition and hard work is going in – so the other students “have permission” not to do it, either. They can also make the Group 3 students worry – how can I keep up with someone? They’re so talented, and not working – I have to work harder!

Student Behaviours – the real world impacts

What fascinates me, though, is the role that the mixture of these students can play in contributing to the overall outcomes of success in a class. The dominant culture can shift behaviours of other students, and it can make a significant difference. In my most recent A Level cohort, I had a real split between my two classes – one dominated by group 3 and group 4 students, and the other with a mixture of 1, 2 and 3. It does not take a huge leap of imagination to guess which of the classes performed better overall. Students, too, are narrow focused. They will look around *their* class, and identify and seek out behaviours and patterns. It’s a rare student who can conceive of the idea that there are hundreds or thousands of students studying the same exam, and they need to be working as hard as the top ten per cent of *them*, not just of their class.

My challenge, then, is not just to recognise this – but to actively influence and do something about it. My biggest hurdle is that I can’t model excellent study habits for them, and I can’t normalize that. For it to be socially acceptable, it must be driven by their peers – otherwise they are just still responding to the extrinsic motivation of my actions.

As ever, I don’t have the answers. I think a whole school culture is critical – teaching all students to have high aspirations, to work hard, to understand how to learn well; but I don’t have the tools to do that easily and effectively.

So, I’d love to hear from people who have got reading, ideas or had success in making this visible, effective, and clear!


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