Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Action Research - Turning a fail into a win

(Estimated Reading Time: 3 minutes)

Action Research is a method used for improving practice. I have taught in several schools where there was an expectation that all teachers conduct at least one action research cycle per year. Some of the most important understandings I have gained about teaching have been gained by this powerful practice.

Action research is a method used for improving practice. It involves measuring or observing, action, evaluation, and critical reflection

In 2014 I had a year 12 class that snowballed into a massive challenge. I felt demoralised after marking the very first test, and even more deflated after the second. I graphed my 2010 class with my 2014 biology class to compare the two cohorts. Depressing!

I chose to make the class the focus of my action research, so I decided to trial exit cards. I used Pear Deck and Google Forms to determine how much the class knew or understood. I retaught anything that was flagged by the exit card, and in some instances I even re-re-taught concepts that students struggled with.

I held great hopes in turning the result around by the third test…

Instead of improvement it was a car crash. I could scarcely believe that the class test average was 50%, that all my increased effort resulted in a worse outcome. I felt like a complete failure. I discussed my results with my line manager, but sadly she was unsupportive. “What could YOU be doing differently?” the words echoed around in my mind. Had she not heard anything I said the hours I spent making the exit cards, researching the best way to teach a concept, reteaching in different ways, all to be confronted with plummeting grades.

Her words prompted me to question my approach which was: “I think I can fix this problem if I have a better understanding of what my students know and understand.”

In my despair I had an epiphany. My approach was all wrong - I think I can fix this problem if I have a better understanding of what my students know and understand. The word “I” featured three times - as if teaching and learning was all about me! Out with the flawed exit card strategy, which I replaced with a more student-focused strategy — self-marked mini tests. The students would complete a mini test (no more than one A4 sheet/20 minutes) and navigate online to the answers. Using a comprehensive marking scheme, they would mark their own work. If they had any questions, they could ask me (e.g. “Do you think my answer is worth one or two marks out of four?”) but I showed zero interest in their result - after all, it’s not about me! 

This approach transferred the responsibility of learning to them. I showed no interest in their performance - they needed to step up and assume that responsibility for themselves. These grades are 100% real. 

Why was this approach so successful? I believe the benefits were many:

  1. Students had instant feedback instead of delayed feedback.

  2. The self-marking increased the student’s germane cognitive load. (increased germane cognitive load = increased retention and understanding)

  3. The test answers were hand written as they would be in a regular test - simulating an actual test better than an electronic form such as Pear Deck or Google Forms.

  4. During the test there is 100% sustained on-task behaviour. 

  5. The word “test” is more anxiety inducing than the word “exit card”. Optimal performance comes from optimal levels of anxiety. 

  6. Students kept the mini-tests as a valued revision resource.

  7. There was a shift in the way students responded to formative assessment/participated in formative assessment. The students viewed the exit cards as feedback for the teacher. The students viewed the mini-tests as feedback for themselves.

Delighted, but curious, I asked students what THEY thought about the improvement and the responses were positive, really positive. What the students said about the mini-tests:

  • They felt the practice was valuable.

  • They felt it improved their understanding of actual test questions.

  • They were annoyed that I had not done it earlier.

Here is an example of a mini-test with answers/mark schemes. You can see the mini-test itself was quick to prepare - just some screen grabs from old exams. The answers took a bit more time. DNA Structure and Replication mini-test ANSWERS 

The time it took to design and implement the mini-tests were more than offset by the benefits gained. This is now an embedded part of my practice.

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Learning Through Collaboration: Joint Construction

(Estimated Reading Time: 2 minutes)  

As a pedagogical coach I help teachers work through classroom issues that may arise. A senior Biology teacher approached me and said “My students suck at <insert task here>. What can I try?”

In the task students needed to investigate a contemporary example of how science interacts with society with a focus on one or more of the aspects of science as a human endeavour (also known as a SHE task) such as Communication, Collaboration, Development, Influence, Application and Limitation. Early in my career, I came across the Teaching and Learning Cycle while undertaking a course “ESL in the Mainstream” that focused on supporting ESL (English as a Second Language) students in mainstream classrooms. The model scaffolds students in unfamiliar genres. To unpack the SHE task I suggested that they use the think aloud strategy in the modelling phase, followed by joint construction which then flows into independent construction. Research by Caplan (2017) showed that in using joint construction a “significant benefit was found … in genre completion and the number of different descriptive adjectives used.” 


The teaching and learning cycle can be encapsulated in the saying “I do, we do, you do”. Starting with direct instruction of teaching content and concepts, this flows into task modelling and deconstruction. The next step is joint construct where students work collaboratively supporting each other, followed by independent construction.

Modelling and Deconstruction

By using a similar task to the set task, the teacher outlines how they will tackle the various aspects of the task, constructing an exemplar outline on the board. The teacher uses the think aloud procedure whereby they describe their cognitive actions, the strategies they employ and the rationale behind their choices. This models the task so the students feel confident for the next step.

Joint Construction

The class then tackles a similar task - various chunks of the task are given to groups of students. I usually use a collaborative google presentation so student groups can assemble their notes addressing their “chunk” of the task. I usually set a time constraint, e.g. 20 minutes, after which the groups present their slide to the rest of the class. I encourage students to create a class ethic of collaboration.

Independent Instruction

Through the think aloud procedure they have internalised the cognitive processes that are required to do the task. In the joint construction, they have tried it for themselves, discussed with their peers, and given and received feedback. Additionally, they have critiqued their classmates' work and made judgments of how their work has met the requirements of the task. The students now have the confidence and skills to tackle a task independently. 

The Outcome

The teacher reported back this approach was successful the students were more confident and the quality of their work and submission rates improved.

Caplan, N. (2017) The contributions of Joint Construction to intermediate-level ELS students' independent writing: a mixed-methods analysis, Available at: (Accessed: 11 March 2023).

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

What are the Attributes of an Exceptional Teacher?

(Estimated Reading Time: 1 minute)

As a pedagogical coach, I had the privilege of observing many teachers and classrooms which made me wonder what differentiates the top tier of teachers from the rest. This is my list so far: 

Qualities of Exceptional Teachers include:Design learning to maximise student engagement, Focus on student activity as opposed to teacher activity Check for student understanding Have high expectations of  all students, Actively cultivates positive student relationships, Possess a growth mindset, Are reflective practitioners, Are intentional and explicit, Are collaborative, Teach generic skills required for learning, Use high quality learning materials

  • Which attribute would you rank as the most important?
  • Are there any attributes you feel that are missing from this list?
  • Which of these attributes would you consider to be your greatest strength? 

Continue the conversation below in the comments.

Monday, March 13, 2023