David Alcock – 15 September 2017
Do you ever wonder what the secret ingredient of learning is? What is it that successful pupils do that makes them perform so well?
Of course, there is no secret ingredient. I am going to attempt to offer a clear summary of what has been shown to work, together with examples that you can try. Some of them you might already do, some you might not.
Why now? Exams are ages away, surely? But it’s important to START the year by learning effectively – not to leave it until exams and coursework deadlines creep up later on.
Learning how to learn is almost as important as what you learn, but we don’t pay much attention to it. Educational researchers have been looking into how learning works for decades. Some of their insights are being adopted by teachers.
But some of them can be adopted by you.
I am asking you this morning to consider which ones you should concentrate more on, and then in form time, you will be given time to narrow down your aims to fit your circumstances – for example, a Year 8 learning words for a French vocab test might use different techniques to a Year 13 preparing for a Geography exam.
Let’s START. What does effective learning entail?
- Make things stick
Effective learning involves making things stick. What does this mean? It means making learning memorable and interesting.
For example, you could make a mnemonic. Everyone knows ROYGBIV and Never Eat Shredded Wheat. Why not make your own up? Professor Paul Dukes refers to the three aspects of a superpower as being the ability to destroy, transmit an ideology, and have economic influence. Boring? Not if you remember it as DIE.
If it’s a simple key word or vocab test, try visualising words as part of a story. Walk through an imaginary high street, picking up, holding, or even eating the items you have to learn.
Draw it, model it, chant it, sing it, act it. How do rivers erode land? Abrasion, attrition, hydraulic action and corrosion. If this sounds too ‘dry’ then why not act it out [rub, bash, splash and sizzle]?
And as well as talking about what the building blocks of a superpower are, why not draw them as pillars of a superpower temple?
Finally, you could make it funny or unusual – e.g. what’s the pizza recipe for fascism in 1930s Italy? Take a base of populism, add on toppings of racism and propaganda, and cook in the heat of recession-era discontent for a decade or so… You get the picture.
- Test yourself
Effective learning involves testing yourself.
One of the best ways to learn something is to teach it – so make a quiz for your friend, and they can make one for you. Make them frequent, short-answer, and low stakes – e.g. points, pennies, sweets, etc. They could be True/False, multiple choice, or slightly sneaky.
Use Kahoot – don’t just let the teachers do it, you can make your own game for free.
- Be aware
Effective learning involves being aware.
Keep your eyes and ears open.
Follow a range of media – commit to following a news app; sign up to news updates from a reliable source; don’t just let news come to you via Facebook. Instead, spend time reading good quality newspapers, and you could follow YouTube channels on topics that interest you
A potential medic in my form even watches surgical operations on You Tube in her spare time.
You should also make connections between your topics…and between your subjects – this will save you time (I love it when someone includes a relevant point from another subject in Geography – it might be recognising that epiphytes are plants (‘phyte’) that grow on top of (‘epi’) others; or that studying transnational corporations in Business Studies or Economics just might be relevant to globalisation).
Also, use photos as stimulus material – Looking at a picture of greenhouses in Almeria, Spain, the issues could be food miles, local food sourcing, employment, climate, energy, and so on. If you were studying Spanish it could be the basis of a role play, if it was biology it could be considering how to grow plants indoors.
Photograph of greenhouses in Almeria, Spain
Source: Getty Images https://www.gettyimages.co.uk/detail/news-photo/an-aerial-view-taken-on-october-23-2009-in-the-coastal-area-news-photo/92319234#an-aerial-view-taken-on-october-23-2009-in-the-coastal-area-of-where-picture-id92319234
- Revisit content
Effective learning means revisiting content.
Cramming all of your revision into the last few days before an exam has been proven to be an ineffective way of learning. Instead, stagger your revision, starting as near to the end of each lesson as you can.
Revising does not just mean re-reading. It does not just mean highlighting. It does not even just mean noting and summarising. It means engaging actively with the content.
When making notes from your work or from a textbook, why not try the ‘Cornell method’, which is to write key words or questions to yourself in the margin, and summarising the notes at the end of the task at the bottom?
Or start a learning diary – I am trying this with my Year 13s – and then having an end-of-week recap of your notes, then looking through your notes at the end of every half-term, and finally in the weeks leading up to your exam.
This links in with the last part of the START strategy:
- Make time to learn
Effective learning means making time to learn
I have talked about staggering the times that you revisit content. But there are other ways of managing your time too:
Firstly, have a timetable and stick to it!
Source: Ryburn Valley High School https://www.rvhs.co.uk/revision-help/
Take a break during bouts of revision too,
Mix it up with sport, other types of physical exercise or another pursuit. e.g. a musical instrument; art; …
Have an away day – revise in different locations
So we are asking you to START this year off by learning more effectively.
Read the card again.
Think of some concrete actions that fit into the START programme. Then write 2-3 of these down. Then act on them, and later in the term you will revisit your action plan to review your progress.
Contact David at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information and for the slides that go with this assembly.