At the beginning of the academic year, many teachers want to know if there are simple, easy to use techniques or tools which are sure to improve their teaching, i.e. result in better marks for their students.
These three simple strategies, backed up by solid research, are sure to increase the effectiveness of your classroom:
Start each class with a low-stakes pre-test
The first 10 minutes is the most crucial part of your class. This should NEVER be spent on admin. Start with a carefully structured pre-test and you are sure to increase the efficacy of your teaching. Research has conclusively shown that starting a lesson with a low stakes pre-test leads to better learning and retention. Low stakes pre-tests (assessments) are tests where students know the focus is not so much on their marks (or how it will impact on their final results) as it is on learning. In such an environment, students have been made aware of the fact that by testing them on material which they have never seen before actually improves their understanding and retention of this new material. They also know that the marks they get for these tests are not going to impact negatively on their term or final marks – hence the term “low stakes”.
Although the research is still not quite clear on exactly why and how pre-tests are so effective, one theory is that this initial exposure to material students have never seen before, will help with the initial formation of neural pathways – almost like preparing soil before something is planted. The ultimate value pre-tests provide is well worth the effort. Using technology to deliver and auto mark will ensure that you save time. Set these up once and re-use in different classes and years.
Expect more from each and every student
One of the most difficult things to do as a teacher is to ignore students’ past substandard academic performances. But in an ideal world, each day and interaction with students should be one where there is an expectation of growth and learning. A famous piece of research by Robert Rosenthal and colleagues in the 1960’s has shown that one’s expectation as a teacher has a measurable impact on how students ultimately perform. For example, if you are given a list of names of so-called “gifted” children (as Rosenthal and colleagues did in their experiments) – you are more likely to treat these students as gifted and their marks will improve accordingly. That is despite the fact that these students were randomly chosen and are, in fact, quite “average”. Although reality is obviously more nuanced than just a simple “you get what you expect” or the so-called “Pygmalion effect” as Rosenthal’s theory is often referred to – recent discoveries about the brain and learning do seem to support this.
We now know, for instance, that the brain is not fixed but that it is continually changing as one experiences and interacts with the world. The popular term for this is “neuroplasticity” and it means all our students have an inherent capacity to acquire new skills and knowledge. Unfortunately, if we do not take neuroplasticity to heart, we will typically treat students with a bad academic track record accordingly and they will respond “as expected”. Closely tied to this – we need to ensure our students are aware of the neuroplasticity of their brains and its implications – they need to know and believe that they can also expect more from themselves. In such an environment teaching and learning takes on an entirely different complexion.
Improve learning by flipping your class
The most well-known proponents of the flipped classroom are Bergmann and Sams with their publication “Flip your classroom: reach every student in every class every day” in 2012. Typically a flipped classroom is when a teacher changes around (flips) the typical instruction model by forcing students to first engage with learning material themselves before addressing it in the classroom. Flipped classrooms offer teachers the following advantages:
- It fosters learner agency
- It enables teachers to employ different modes of teaching and learning (videos, collaboration, etc)
- It makes time available for more focused class instruction
- It assists in the process of learning in a similar way to pre-tests and other similar strategies
This last point is often overlooked when talking about the advantages of flipping your class, but it is perhaps the most important of all the items listed above. Not only do the different modes in which students get exposed to the material help with attention and engagement, but it also contributes much better to retention than just presenting the material once-off in class.
No Quick Fixes
While these strategies are sure to make your teaching more effective, experienced teachers will know that there is no such thing as a quick fix or a magic wand that will immediately turn bad teaching practices into good ones. Ultimately it is important that each and every teacher has a solid understanding not only of their subject and what the curriculum expects, but as important – how the brain learns.
Within such an environment, students and their learning are sure to flourish, becoming the critical thinkers and creative students that the 21st-century requires. ITSI offers a course on the Flipped Classroom. To find out more visit our Professional Development page.
Dr. J (Lieb) Liebenberg is a Research Fellow at the Department of Informatics at the University of Pretoria. He has been involved in learning research and development since 2006 and has delivered academic papers on e-learning as well as published on the subject in peer-reviewed journals. Dr Liebenberg is the Chairman of the Optimi Academic Council.
His first mobile learning project was MobiMath which provided Grade 10–12 Mathematics learners with videos and assessments on mobile phones.
As Project Director for the University of Pretoria’s Health Information Systems, Data Capturing Training for the National Department of Health, he was also responsible for the introduction and use of mobiles for post-training support to more than 2500 learners throughout South Africa.
Since 2010, Dr. Liebenberg has been involved in the conceptualisation and development of the ITSI Solution which allows teachers and schools to optimise teaching and learning for the 21st-century. The solution is used by more than 220 schools and thousands of teachers and learners from both the private and public sectors.
He is passionate about connecting technology and the learning brain, making learning visible and removing fragmentation from the classroom in an effort to prepare students for the challenges of the 21st-century.
He is a member of the International Association for Mobile Learning and regularly participates in conferences internationally and locally.