Wednesday, April 26, 2023

Mandating Outlines as Part of an Assessment

(Estimated reading time 2.5 minutes)

Quite some time ago ( >10 years) I was sent to a Professional Development day that featured John Hattie. Although I was not in agreement with everything he had to say, there were some takeaways that changed my practice, and one of those was the use of outlines.

In his list of effect sizes was: Making an outline before writing a paper, effect size .85. (that’s good :-)

Benefits of Outlines

It made sense to me - if students are forced to make an outline they think holistically about an essay/paper/assignment instead of obsessing over the first sentence or paragraph. They are more likely to sequence the information logically. It helps students who are usually paralysed by the thought of an assessment get started, which increases submission rates. Ensuring there is a cycle of feedback on the outline increases the quality of the final submission.

More importantly, in the event that the student does not submit the essay/paper you could assess the outline for elements such as discussion, analysis or evaluation, even though it is not a fully fledged essay they can often meet parts of the assessment and sometimes even scrape through with a C-. At worst they can usually meet a D which enhances their grade point average in comparison to an NA (Not Assessed).

Outlines mandatory done in class (open browser) dot points only hyperlinked to exemplar contains success criteria (rubric) feedback given before the next lesson   Benefits include   improves quality of final product improves submission rates gets students started helps students sequence their essays provides inter

The Process

This is an example of an outline. To prevent students from trying to write the entire essay I restrict them to a maximum of one page. Apart from the dot pointed structure of the outline, I include a rubric so students can reference the success criteria, I also include a hyperlink to an exemplar outline (an A example of a similar task). 

It is important to present the task in the lesson before the outline lesson, I give the students the task sheet and set research for homework. Most students get started on their research, some almost finish the outline, and yet others don’t do anything before class. 

Just before the class (usually a double lesson) I push out documents for the students to write in, via Google Docs. By using Google Docs I can monitor all the outlines as they evolve and see who needs assistance getting started. If any students have completed the outline before coming to class I can give feedback on it and grade it during the class, they can then get started on their essay.

By monitoring the folder in my Google Drive I can order student work by “last modified”. By seeing that Johnny hasn’t edited for the last 15 minutes is very effective at identifying students that are stuck.

By monitoring the google folder you can see when students have last modified their document.

Through the use of Google Docs not only can you have greater support and supervision of student work, but it can also be used as a tool to detect plagiarism. If plagiarism is suspected, the Chrome extension Draftback can be used. It can play back the version history of any Google Doc as a condensed video, this shows edits and detects slabs of text flying in. I have used this tool before and it can provide the proof you need to establish plagiarism. Outlines and apps like Draftback are probably even more important in the era of websites that can automatically paraphrase (e.g. and AI tools like ChatGPT. Usually if you advise students that you have access to this tool they are less likely to plagiarise in the first place.

Wednesday, April 19, 2023

Activating Prior Knowledge

(Estimated Reading Time: 3 minutes)

New learning is constructed on prior knowledge and understanding. It was Jean Piaget (1896-1980) who suggested that new ideas are incorporated into conceptual frameworks in the mind known as schemas. By activating these schemas, new information can be assimilated and logically organised, in a way the brain becomes “sticky” and new information is more likely to be stored for later retrieval. For the why, when and how, read on...


  1. Neuronal pathways that contained previous information and related information are activated. By activating previous pathways, you make them “sticky”. New information will more likely stick.

  2. Recalling previous knowledge, especially when a student surprises themselves with how much they know, releases dopamine. This enhances motivation for learning.

  3. Finding out what students already know gives teachers a starting point for differentiation.


Every new topic, every time. 

How to conduct an Elicitation 

An elicitation is the act of drawing out information from the learners. There are many ways of eliciting information from students, teachers should mix it up to keep it interesting! These are some examples from my own practice as a science teacher.

  1. Mind Map

This can be completely free form. As an example the students are directed to put the word “Light” in the middle of a page and write down all the things they know about light. Then get students to share back something from their mind map, or conduct a gallery walk so students can see what others came up with. Collecting up the mind maps gives the teacher an idea of each student's prior knowledge which aids in differentiation.

  1. Title Page

Students in my lower secondary classes seem to love the title page. Give them some coloured pencils and encourage them to include diagrams or add some words relevant to the topic. For instance a title page on light could include drawings of the sun, light globes, lenses, light rays, rainbows. 

  1. Visual Prompts

When starting a chemistry topic in the middle years, I place visual prompts to elicit previously stored information. I find information less connected to their lives more difficult for them to recall. One year I tried “Write down all the chemistry knowledge can you remember.” yielded a dismal amount of information. With the same questions and this visual prompt, students write down information about the periodic table, elements, atoms and subatomic particles, chemical reactions and so on.

  1. Guided Questions

I call them starter questions. Here are two examples

Example 1: The Skeletal System Starter Questions

Example 2:  In this example introducing an electricity topic for a year 9 electricity unit I used a video as a “hook” to promote curiosity about the topic.

 Extreme Jobs - High Voltage Power Line Inspection

Students then answer questions, some of which are based on the questions. These could be done individually or in pairs.

  1. Hot potato

Give a sheet of paper to each group of 3-4 students. They have one minute to write down words related to the topic. Then all the groups pass on their paper and then they have a minute to brainstorm to build on the previous list and so forth. This process continues until the sheets arrive back at their original groups, and everyone reads what new terms have been linked.

Activating Prior Knowledge makes the brain sticky for new information, releases dopamine, basis for differentiation.  You can use a Mind Map, Title Page, Visual Prompts, Guided questions, Hot potato

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

Hands up vs Hands on Heads

(Reading Time: 2 minutes)

How do you get all students engaged in classroom questioning? How can we provide support for students that need more thinking time, lack confidence or need prompts?

We know the drill - the teacher asks a question - “What is the capital of France? The question is very closed but I am keeping the example simple. They may even preface it with “Hand up if you know the capital of France….” (which is better because it is more explicit and will reduce calling out). 

Teachers will get the same volunteers on most occasions, there are always students that rarely (or never) put their hands up. Those students don’t bother thinking because other students will do the thinking for them.

Instead of “Hands up” shift to “Hands on heads when you think you know the answer to….” Then only field answers until all students have thought of an answer. While waiting for all students to think of an answer I circulate around the class and then I assist students that don’t have their hands on their heads. I may whisper it starts with a P…. or “it has five letters”. Or perhaps I go to students that rarely participate and ask them on the downlow “what do you think the answer is?” They whisper back their answer and it gives me the confidence that if I call on them they know the right answer. I also make sure I check on students that I suspect are just following the herd and placing their hands on their head under the pressure of conformity. I try to make sure I call on all students at least once in a week. It is important to point out that being wrong is part of the learning process. I explain to the class that if you get an answer wrong, research has shown that you are more likely to remember the right answer in the long term. Being wrong can be a good thing!

Why hands on heads? As this protocol takes more time, students who have an answer can rest their interlocked hands on their heads. Additionally it signifies a shift from what they have been used to (hands up), when I say “Hands on heads” they learn quickly exactly what is required of them.

After only a few lessons you have set the scene - you require everyone to think - everyone to participate. Since I have started this practice I have not gone back to “hands up”. I require all students to think!

The hands on heads questioning technique enhances student engagement and participation.

Wednesday, April 5, 2023

Supporting Students Revising for Tests & Exams

(Estimated Reading Time: 2 minutes)

Most teachers who have been in the game for a while lament that students' ability to retain information long enough to be tested is decreasing. By leveraging technology you can help support students in their revision.

I have found that over the years students seem less organised, perhaps a byproduct of the digital age. Students with patchy attendance miss learning materials, and in the covid age it is ever more important to ensure students have every opportunity to access learning materials. So what can we do to help students?

I use Google Drive to store all my resources, so every resource has a hyperlink. By sharing a single Google Doc that collates the hyperlinks of revision materials, all learning materials are organised and collated. The example below is a revision document I generated for my year 11 Psychology class. 

By collating the hyperlinked revision materials into a table sorted by topic and type of resource, makes the resources more accessible to students.

This strategy scaffolds students that struggle with organisation, such as students with ADHD, so by using this strategy you are being more inclusive. For those that may feel as if I am doing student work for them, that students should be organising their own materials, I counter that this model provides the blueprint for organising learning materials beyond my class and into university. This document in itself is a lesson I want my students to learn - hyperlink everything!

I usually couple that with an email home to get parents and caregivers onside to remind the students to prepare for the test. I had child of my own that would predictably say “I don’t have any homework” and I know I would be very grateful when teachers did message home to keep me in the loop. An email home is made even better by giving parents access to the revision materials, it encourages them to be a participant in their child’s revision.

For example:

Emails to caregivers should always be BBCed, short, with vital information such as dates and hyperlinks to resources to assist them in supporting their child. Always thank parents for their support in advance!

And one more tip, when you have crafted a good email, put it in a document (for me always a Google doc) with the filename of "Parent Email". I then accrue a bank of emails for different occasions that I rejig and reuse, saving time in crafting important correspondence. Even better - share the document with other teachers in your teaching team and encourage them to add their emails. That way everyone can jump on board your initiative.