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Peering into the Black Box of Achievement

Written by: Ryan Craze
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8 min read

“I couldn’t remember what to write.”

“Some people make it look easy.”

“I gave up. My mind went blank. I didn’t know what to write.”

These were just some of the comments that faced me after giving back Year 10’s mock history examination results. As you can imagine, there were some disappointed students who had just missed the mark or had fallen well short of achieving their best! However, there were also some successes: there was a minority of students who throughout Year 10 had consistently written well in timed assessments. These students were obviously very able learners and I started to reflect carefully about how their superior writing skills could be transferred to their peers.

This led to quite a lot of reflection and conversations with other teachers. The consensus appeared to be that since 2015 the introduction of 9–1 GCSEs had, on the whole, reduced written coursework and increased timed examinations, which has led to writing under examination conditions becoming much more important than it was previously.

I wanted to find out more about writing and formulated the following research questions:

  • What challenges do students face when learning to write in history?
  • What is it that able writers do to achieve in history?

This led to a final question designed to translate research into action:

  • Can achievement in history be raised if able writers share what they do?

I explored these questions into my final year MSc and by the end of the project, had developed a process that other practitioners can follow (Figure 1) in order to understand learning challenges in their classrooms, capture the wisdom of students who have already overcome these challenges and offer practical solutions to help close the achievement gap.

Figure 1: How to take achievement out of its black box

Figure 1: How to take achievement out of its black box

After identifying the target skill, I moved to Step 2, which is focused on investigating the learning challenges to understand what the students were up against. It is worth noting that an overarching theme of the literature I explored was that writing has been hugely understudied, with one systematic review able to find only eight relevant studies (Smith et al., 2005). However, thankfully, the literature did reveal strategies to overcome challenges associated with writing. Because researchers had so forcefully argued that teachers unwittingly caused a loss of motivation to write (Graham and Perin, 2007) and that teacher perceptions of ability, race and gender can create barriers that stop writing interventions being successful (Peterson, 2006; Croft and Schmader, 2012), I decided to investigate the concept of peer-tutoring to bypass any unintended teacher bias. I knew about the power of peer-teaching from traditional assessment for learning (AfL) strategies, but the literature explained that peer-tutoring was characterised by short, focused sessions modelling how to prepare for writing tasks rather than teaching subject knowledge (Graham and Sandmel, 2011). The subject literature also showed that models were frequently used to analyse the features of historical writing (Massey, 2016), although many of the solutions tried in the practitioner research were teacher-, rather than student-led.

At this point I decided – given the time constraints of this small-scale project – Memory was identified as the most significant writing challenge (76 per cent agreed or strongly agreed), as well as motivation. The vast majority of students also said that they strongly agreed that , including, surprisingly, English, and that good writers had innate ability.

Step 3: Taking achievement out of its black box

Having investigated the potential challenges and tentative solutions, I identified able writers with my colleagues – these were students who had attained their target grade in the mock exam. I suggest that teachers think carefully about how to identify students who are considered to be ‘already able’ in the target skill.

Next, I unpacked what these able writers did by using a combination of semi-structured interviews and ‘think aloud protocols’ (TAP). TAP was first mooted as a research method in the social sciences in the 1970s and it essentially involves asking someone to verbalise their thoughts when approaching a problem (Payne et al., 1978). After coding the semi-structured interviews, several themes emerged that could shed light on how students could overcome the challenges of motivation and memory. For example, it was clear that good writing was merely the tip of the iceberg and that lots of hidden work went on beneath the surface to allow this. Usually this took the form of revision, reading around the subject and practice testing. It was also clear that some level of planning was used when faced with a ‘live’ examination question by recalling the features of ‘good’ answers (i.e. writing conventions) and recalling relevant knowledge, which they told me wasn’t always necessary to write down because they had learnt it through thorough revision.

Step 4: Facilitating meaningful learning conversations

A ‘plan-do-review’ action research cycle was followed over a course of four weeks. At this point, it should be noted that the strategies described below were designed specifically to address the challenges identified. I essentially drew on what I had learnt from the literature, from my own experience and from the able writers.

The purpose of the first two-week cycle was to address the challenge of memory. Each history lesson was started with a low-stakes test (Donaghue, 2014) to enhance teamwork: 12 words or phrases were presented to the students, who were told that they had to recall two facts for each word or phrase. The discussion element was important as peers could help one another to recall fingertip knowledge, with the idea being that the retrieval time would improve with practice. Next the students discussed writing in history and it was here that the able writers acted as peer-tutors to pass on their wisdom about writing, with special reference to how they improved their memories. Finally, I repeated important messages found in the literature about effective revision techniques designed to improve understanding rather than overly relying on memorisation.

The results of the first cycle were encouraging. The low-stakes testing was a popular element of the intervention, with many engaged conversations taking place. Over the two weeks, the students improved their knowledge recall, with 24 facts initially recalled in three minutes 10 seconds (Session 1), dropping to two minutes 15 seconds (Session 3). The peer-tutoring aspect was a popular element to begin with. The conversations were structured and were animated in most groups – however, in each group there was at least one peer who was not fully engaged and I discreetly spoke to these students in order to reiterate the purpose of the session and the benefits of listening to the peer-tutors. The students’ reflections were captured on exit slips and many commented on how they saw the benefit of early revision using different techniques to improve their memory but were still unsure how to actually apply their knowledge to a writing task.

The second cycle saw the students work together to analyse the features of effective writing in history (Massey, 2016; Black et al., 2003). The able writers were encouraged to lead the planning in order for them to share their approach through verbalising exactly what they were thinking to everyone else in their group.

I observed that, as the task progressed, students in each group gained confidence to discuss the knowledge that they would include and how it would be articulated on paper. This was a clear sign of success and showed that the students felt more confident, as they ended up advising the able writers what to write!

A third cycle was designed to get the students to write and reflect on their progress but this had to be cancelled due to a whole-school intervention focused, funnily enough, on revision techniques to improve memory and to fire the students up for the Year 11 summer exams!

However, the post-intervention questionnaire completed just after the second cycle indicated the following results:

  • On the whole, students had abandoned their use of low-impact revision strategies such as rereading and highlighting notes, and consolidated their use of moderate and high-impact strategies such as practice testing and elaborate explanation (Figure 2). This also suggested to me that the students had accepted that good writers can be made and that making better choices about how to revise could equip them with the fingertip knowledge that the able writers said was necessary to improve their memories in a timed-examination environment.
  • Student perceptions about motivation to write had also improved: pre-intervention, many strongly agreed that writing demotivated them; post-intervention, they were likely to be more neutral or more positive about writing in history. Comments mentioned on exit slips indicated that being shown by their peers how to apply knowledge to a writing task reassured them that it really could be done by people of their age.

Figure 2: Which intervention strategies would you be most likely to use

I highly recommend other teachers reflecting on the learning challenges faced in your classroom and seeking the wisdom of your able students. If used sensitively, students will feel more confident to climb the mountain of learning and walk in the footsteps of those who have already found the best path to the summit of success. 


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