‘Evidence-Based Teaching: How Brains Learn’ – Charlotte Sivner

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to attend a course entitled ‘Evidence-Based Teaching: How Brains Learn’. This was provided by the Evidence-Based Teachers Network (EBTN), which is an organisation run by retired teacher Mike Bell. The approach of the EBTN is a very simple one: to encourage teachers to use highly effective evidence-based methods in their teaching. The evidence used by the EBTN comes from a range of sources, the most prominent being John Hattie’s Visible Learning, Geoff Petty’s Evidence Based Teaching, and Robert Marzano’s Classroom Instruction That Works . The course involved an introduction to the ‘top ten’ most effective classroom methods, as devised by the EBTN. These ten were selected by combining Hattie, Petty and Marzano’s research and giving each strategy an overall effect size. According to Hattie, an effect size of less than 0.4 would indicate the strategy is not worth trying with a whole class. As well as encouraging teachers to use evidence-based methods in their classrooms, EBTN strongly encourages us to consider the origins of any research we are using, as well as the finer details such as the sample size used and the length of the study.

As teachers it is not necessary for each of us to understand the intricate workings of the brain, but it is important to appreciate the processes involved in learning. The structure of the brain is such that it consists of small, specialist areas. “Intelligence” is what emerges when most of these areas are working and communicating well. Any new learning must link to existing knowledge. Memories require several of these links as well as repetition. If there are no links or repeats, then memories cannot be secured. The more links and repeats we make, the more memories we can secure.[1] Let’s consider learning as a cycle: when we are taught new material, we understand it more easily if we can make links between it and what we already know, our prior knowledge. Learning by rote is possible for students where there is limited prior knowledge, but the learning is unlikely to be deep. When we encounter tasks, if they are too easy then the connections between the new information and the prior knowledge already exist. The task is challenging if the brain struggles to make new connections; in other words we must think hard! The next stage is feedback and improvement. Inside the Black Box reveals that in the UK, teachers tend to give high-level feedback but it is not always effective as students are rarely given time to respond to the feedback. Feedback is effective when students have the chance to improve their work and exercise the neural connections once again. The fifth stage of the learning cycle is repetition, a crucial stage if we are to keep emphasising the links to our existing knowledge.

The top ten methods are outlined below.


Method 1: analogies and similes

Showing learners either what something looks like, or not like, and comes in several parts

  • Use similes, analogies and models in your teaching
  • Students classify things according to their properties
  • Students identify similarities and differences between commonly mixed up ideas
  • Tables
  • Venn diagrams
  • True or false

Method 2: summarising and note taking

Processes by which students discover the ‘big picture’ and the main learning points

  • Doing a précis of a larger portion of text – you could suggest subtitles or give a word limit
  • Students make notes as you talk, or as they watch a video – again provide subtitles or structured questions if needed
  • Making a mindmap at the end of a topic
  • Identify the main points at the end of a lesson

Method 3: Growth mindset

“Learners who attribute their performance to things they cannot change (natural ability, quality of teaching etc) do significantly worse than those who attribute it to their effort” Mindset, Carole Dweck (2012)

  • Use language with students that emphasises effort, not ability
  • Comment on the time spent
  • Comment on the number of sources used
  • Changing students’ attitudes takes time

Method 4: Repetition and practice 

The brain needs repetitions to secure memories. Consider changing the order of teaching to build in the staged repetitions needed to secure memories. These do not have to be time consuming.

  • Starters – recap questions
  • Plenaries – recap questions
  • Peer assessment
  • Quick quizzes
  • Repetition tasks
  • Spaced practice tasks

Method 5: non-linguistic representations

Using any method other than spoken or written words. Visual methods are especially effective. The effect size is only achieved when students create their own graphics and receive feedback on how to improve them.

Method 6: cooperative learning

Not just ‘getting students working together’.

  • Specify ways in which the students should work together
  • Specific co-operative structures so that every student is held responsible
  • Strong motivation for all group members to achieve
  • An individual check on each students learning, but the group is held responsible

Method 7: Setting goals and providing feedback

Setting goals and objectives helps learners see where they are going.

  • Challenging goals
  • Set goals in advance
  • Formative assessment

Summative assessment – research shows summative tests have an overall slight negative effect on learning and should be used as little as possible (2x per year)

Method 8: Generating and testing hypotheses

A hypothesis is a testable idea; it can be the first step to developing a theory.

  • Devise and test an idea or explanation practically
  • Use historical sources or literature search to test
  • Devise and answer “What if….” questions based on information already known

Method 9: activating prior knowledge

Students need to be able to link their new learning to something they already know. The current knowledge level needs to be assessed and built on. Old learning must be ‘activated’ to bring it to mind.

  • Link learning to something students already know “What can you remember about…?”

Method 10: advance/ knowledge organisers

Advance/knowledge organisers show students what will be covered in the topic and should be referred to throughout, to make links between the detail and the big picture. Work best if presented graphically, with words and pictures.

  • Overview
  • Simple
  • No more than 6 key elements



[1] How Brains Learn Mike Bell (2012) https://www.amazon.co.uk/How-Brains-Learn-Mike-Bell-ebook/dp/B007B15R0E


Co-operative learning – Amy Hatch

With the increasingly common trend to move (back) to mixed ability teaching, perhaps it is time to reconsider how we can maximise the progress all students make when part of these ‘multiability’ classrooms. The evidence on this is clear, mixed ability works….. but it works best when we move away from the traditional classroom set up and instead mix in a bit of large-scale cooperative learning.

Now, don’t roll your eyes, this is not Kagan again. This is Kagan 2.0 / Kagan on steroids / Kagan as a game changer….. it is ………wait for it…….a group work/ individual work/cooperative learning/backward teaching mash up (I need to work on the name). This snappily named technique (or variations of it) has a proven track record in pedagogical research by Robert Slavin and Johnson and Johnson, as well as many others, for significantly improving the achievement of low ability students, developing the soft skills of all students, and creating a more positive learning environment that engages everyone. Basically, it makes a happy classroom, with (hopefully) a happy teacher at the helm.

So, what does a group work / individual work / cooperative learning / backward teaching mash up actually look like in the classroom?

How to do it

  • Put your students in mixed groups of (ideally) 4. It should be mixed in all possible aspects – ethnicity, ability, gender, handedness, football team they support etc. etc.
  • Assign each student in each group a number. This is for answering questions and carrying out split tasks, but you can do it so that all high ability students get a number 3, lower ability a 2 and so on.
  • Lessons are structured to contain mixtures of group work and individual work and students earn points for their groups as they do the work. NB: This bit differs from Kagan, which states that competition is bad, but Slavin states intergroup competition creates better results.
  • Points are earned for how well students work together, not on their ability. The score sheet sits in the middle of the group and you or other adults in the room can go around and award points throughout the course of the lesson. An example score sheet can be seen in figure 1. Students can use the score sheet for the entire topic, filling a row in each lesson. Bonus points can be used to encourage students to complete homework, bring equipment, or whatever weakness you think the class needs to improve upon.coop-learning-pointsAn example lessonStudents read some information cards about the nitrogen cycle and then have to work together to try and fill in a diagram from the clues they have been given. You casually saunter around the room, awarding points when you see excellent group work going on and basking in the glory of your own ability as an inspirer of young minds. You question the students about their answers and then go through the nitrogen cycle with them, correcting any mistakes in their understanding from the group work. You then given them a set of questions to answer, of increasing difficulty that they then do individually. Again, you roam, awarding points when all groups are doing the required activity. Finish by getting them to check their answers with other members of the group. At the end of the lesson announce the team with the most points and give them a round of applause. Sorted.

    Why bother with it?

    As I previously stated, the evidence of using these techniques is strong, but it does take effort to implement. So what exactly are the benefits?

    • You will see a complete turnaround in the engagement of certain students. Suddenly, a student that is normally completely lacking in motivation and interest will be there and will be keen to be involved. It is a lovely thing to witnesses!
    • Certain individuals will be stopped from dominating the lesson. You know the types I mean, the ones that know it all and stand out of their seats with their hands outstretched, waiting to be picked. They might not like it at first but it is an important lesson for them none the less!
    • Your lessons will be a lot less focused on you and instead you will be able to spend more time getting to know your students. This is more important than ever when in mixed ability groups as you really need to know who is likely to be struggling.
    • Lower ability students will be less likely to feel out of their depth but still improve because they are not suffering from being labelled as a ‘bottom set student’.

    Words of caution

    • Don’t reward students with over materialistic and elaborate rewards. No one will learn any decent life lessons if they get a shiny new bike every time they do something that they are actually just expected to do. Have a trophy display on the wall with the current winners’ names in giant letters above it, make everyone else in the room give them a round of applause, let them have a go in a lucky dip where they might win some chocolate or they might win a new pen! Make it fun, let them feel valued, but don’t go over the top.
    • Students don’t always explain it better to their peers than we do. If they did, we wouldn’t be needed. Always make sure there is a time where you are clarifying the content with them.
    • You have to consciously build in activities that push higher ability students. This is not difficult, but everyone panics that only lower ability students improve in mixed ability classes so it is best to cover your back! Although, it should be highlighted that it must be harder to monitor the progress in high ability students in these sort of research studies because A grade students can’t really improve by much, there aren’t enough letters!
    • Reward as a group but sanction as individuals. You don’t want people being outcast because they have caused the group to be punished. Never take points away from groups.

    There will be some topics throughout the year, and some classes, that are more suitable to doing this technique with than others. It can also take a bit of getting used to, and a bit of effort in planning at the start but, the benefits can cause a true revolution in your classroom. Give it a go, what is the worst that can happen? If you want any more information or fancy seeing how I do it with my groups, just get in touch!

Alternative Marking: comparative marking – Victoria Littler

An interview with Charlotte Goodchild, Team Leader KS3 English, Wilmslow High School

Why did you decide to use nomoremarking.com?

Following the removal of KS3 levels, our school recognised that this was a golden opportunity to evaluate the way in which we mark work and assess students.  Over the course of the last 2 years, we have spent considerable time as a school wrestling with how to respond to the changes in the KS3 curriculum and the disappearance of levels. This summer, we are in a position to launch our approach, which makes a clear break between formative and summative assessment and considers the idea of ‘Fluency Learning’.

Fluency Learning, and the language we have attached to this, considers how effectively students have learnt and practised the material being taught, and is based on an assumption that, at the end of a sequence of lessons, all of our students are capable of having a ‘complete’ knowledge of the taught subject content. This means we are moving to a model which assesses the quality of a student’s learning. It no longer considers where a student has come from (their prior attainment) and where they’re heading (a GCSE target) as we have concluded that this is a very limiting approach, which means we do not have sufficiently high expectations of all of our students.

As an English team, we were therefore looking for a way in which we could summatively assess our students’ knowledge (and application) that was reliable, removed the tendency for biased judgement and was not beholden to vague criteria and rubrics; nomoremarking.com appeared to answer all of these requirements and had the added advantage of reducing the workload that English teachers often face in exam season!

What were the practicalities of using the site?

The site was easy to use and Chris was extremely helpful in supporting us through the setup process.  I would very much recommend paying for the £60 subscription if you are thinking about trialling the software with a small group.  As we boldly decided to trial this across all our KS3 classes, we ended up marking near on 1000 scripts, which is quite a large trial!  I think moving forward, we will be signing up for the £300 subscription so that we can use the barcoded answer sheets as this will reduce the admin time spent scanning in the documents etc.

What advantages and disadvantages did you find?

One of the biggest advantages is that all of our teachers have now seen over 600 pieces of student work across KS3, in the space of about 3 hours.  As a team leader, this is really quite fantastic! We have already been able to identify specific strengths and weaknesses across the cohorts and this has made for some excellent discussions about ‘closing gaps’ and strategies moving forward next year.  Of course, the fact that we are not spending hours marking is an added bonus!  My team has been very positive about the software and, in my opinion, it’s a really good form of CPD as we are all able to see the standard across the board and evaluate the effectiveness of our own teaching/students’ progress in relation to this.

What are you planning to do next?

We are going to sign up for the £300 subscription and use comparative judgement in our two KS3 summative assessment windows.

Ethic of Excellence

In his book ‘The Ethic of Excellence’, Ron Berger states that excellence is a way of thinking, a shift in culture and perspective: “if you’re going to do something… you should do it well… sweat over it and make sure it’s strong and accurate and beautiful… you should be proud of it”. According to Berger, we have to make our students view their work as pieces of art, crafted and redrafted, not merely ‘done’.

Unfortunately, there are no ‘quick fixes’; Berger states that simply ‘quizzing’ won’t make our pupils better or more intelligent. The ‘Ethic of Excellence’ is a long-term commitment, but there are some things we can do to make a start.

Berger posits making student work ‘public’ in order to improve it: “we can’t build students’ self-esteem and then focus on their work. It is through their own work that their confidence will grow. All the praise in the world won’t make them proud until they do something which they can value.” He does this by using a critique board. Here, students must display their work ready for constructive comments from their teacher and peers. Berger stipulates that comments must be:

  • Kind: a critique environment must feel safe; it is the teacher’s role to guard against personal and negative comments including sarcasm
  • Specific: comments must be rooted in what peers do and do not like and the reasons why. Students are encouraged to focus first on the positives and then the negatives. Comments are often framed as questions such as: ‘have you considered…’ Critique must be about the work and not the person.
  • Helpful: Berger works with a rubric or mark scheme to ensure that comments are relevant; he also encourages reiterating the project aims before work is critiqued to make sure comments are focused
  • Modelled on success: before a project commences, Berger provides his class with models of outstanding work which are aspirational for his pupils

Berger is a huge advocate for project based work and often teaches the basics like literacy and numeracy through topic that enthuse both teachers and pupils: “teachers should have freedom in the curriculum… when you’re excited about [what you teach] the students get excited about it.” While this may not always be possible in the secondary setting (Berger teaches in the primary phase), using group and project work and spending time on an individual topic, redrafting and perfecting pieces, will help students to build up the ethic of excellence and promote high expectations by demanding quality work which has been crafted over time.

It is also suggested that ambassadors within subjects are cultivated. By having positive older role models, students in earlier years are taught that trying and taking pride in what you produce is the way of the school.

Finally, students can only take pride in what they do if they are proud of their school. We can make sure that students are proud of their school by: investing time and money in its appearance and resources; involving our students in projects in the wider community where they can see the difference it is possible to make and having a rich extra-curricular time table. If the school community is positive, students will see school as a ticket to a better life – a place where it makes sense to try.


Boosting Concentration: revision tips

“Most students do not find it difficult to plan their work for the day, the week, or even the semester ahead. Where it all gets a bit more difficult is when they actually have to sit down with their books and actually study.”

Dr. Phil Race: Teaching & Learning in Higher Education, Part One (University of Manchester), p.18

The main issue is that the ‘gap’ between KS4 and KS5 is, arguably, too wide in terms of the amount of work we seem to expect students to carry out independently, both in and out of the classroom. It could be argued that the more ‘interventions’ we put in place at KS4, the less we expect students to carryout independently. However, schools cannot afford to take the inevitable impact upon their results that reducing the interventions in place would have (it takes time to effect that type of change in school culture and OFSTED are always on the horizon).

However, we are not effectively preparing our sixth form students for higher education if we do not help them to study effectively, and this includes their concentration both in and out of lessons.

A 2013 joint study by Which? and the Higher Education Policy Institute found that, despite a nine- fold hike in tuition fees, the average university student has fourteen hours contact time per week and an average workload of thirty hours per week; therefore approximately sixteen hours are spent in ‘independent study’. They need to be equipped to carry out this independent study.

Ten top tips for better concentration

  1. Eat breakfast. Statistics show that around 60% of teenage boys and 70% of teenage girls regularly skip breakfast; complex carbohydrates release energy over the course of the morning and could have a beneficial effect upon study habits. A mixture of complex carbohydrates, fruit and protein is ideal.
  2. Don’t listen to music … or if you must, make it music without lyrics. Your brain will process information more slowly if it is trying to process song lyrics at the same time. Also remember that a lot of what you are revising is going into your subconscious mind – however, this is no good if the lyrics to “Saturday Night” by Whigfield are also in there.
  3. Space out study sessions – research carried out by the Sutton Trust suggests that cramming too much into one session (especially right before a test or exam) is not beneficial and increases stress levels with little or no gain.
  4. Put your phone away – easier said than done, but even if you are not using it, its very presence means that you are keeping a small part of your brain alert for the text message or the ring tone – this is brain space that could be saved for important learning.
  5. Drink water – but don’t wait until you are thirsty; your concentration levels have already lapsed by then.
  6. Fresh air/ exercise – natural remedies for stress. You don’t have to run the London Marathon – 20 minutes spent wandering in the park will improve your mood, lower your stress levels and enable your brain to transfer what you have learned from short-to-long term memory (or from conscious to subconscious).
  7. Keep a diary – study can lead to anxious thoughts including fear of failure or a sense that this is your ‘one chance’. Writing down your thoughts and recognising them for what they are is a meta- cognitive process which reduces their ability to alarm you and help you put things into perspective.
  8. Regular bed time and 8-10 hours sleep a night – Research into teenagers and sleep patterns suggests that teenagers who have erratic bed times and not enough sleep are more likely to fall ill. Sixth formers need more sleep than adults, not enough sleep has been linked to poor decision making, poorer short term memory and shorter attention span.

I conducted some qualitative research amongst our returning Year 12 students to try to establish what the ‘barriers’ are to effective study, but also to find out the good practice that already exists amongst our sixth formers. The following questions were asked:

  1. When you know that you have a test to prepare for (short term) – how do you go about revising for this test?
  2. When you are planning longer – term revision (for the final exam of a particular unit) – how would you go about studying for this?
  3. When you are studying, which of the following do you prefer (please indicate as many as are applicable):
  • Alone
  • With friends
  • In the LRC/ Pavilion Learning Area
  • At home in a family area
  • At home, in a private area
  • In silence
  • With earphones in
  • With background noise, i.e. television or music on (not headphones)
  1. Which of the following is most likely to distract you from your study? Please indicate one:


  • Someone talking near you (not to you)
  • Hunger
  • Mobile phone
  • Social networking sites

The last two questions are optional:

  1. Do you have a designated area at home for study? (Yes/ No)
  2. If the answer is ‘yes’ – where is this area and how is it set up?


Year 12 questionnaire results

  1. When you know you have a test to prepare for (short term) – how do you go about revising for this test?
  • “Learn all the information in the topic”
  • Past papers
  • Reading through class notes
  • Revision guides
  • Cue cards
  • Test myself
  • Text books
  • Cram the night before
  • Start as soon as possible
  • Podcasts
  • Mind maps
  • Get other people to test me
  • Youtube videos
  • Teaching it to others
  • Quizlet


  1. When you are planning longer – term revision (for the final exam of a particular unit) – how would you plan for this? (anything different from the above)
  • Use the mark scheme to assess my own learning
  • Group revision sessions
  • Make my own test questions and mark schemes
  • Plan around my coursework deadlines
  • Long term plan – space out revision accordingly
  • Timed exam responses
  • “I buy revision guides and then tell myself I have lots of time”
  • Keep on top of classwork from the start!
  • Build up the amount of time I can concentrate up to fifty minute blocks
  • Make a timetable


  1. When you are studying, which of the following do you prefer:
  • Alone 55/60 (92%)
  • With friends 10/60 (17%)
  • In the LRC/ Learning Area 13/60 (22%)
  • At home, in a family area 10/60 (17%)
  • At home, in a private area 47/60 (78%)
  • In silence 26/60  (43%)
  • With earphones in 25/60 (42%)
  • With background noise, television or music on (not headphones) 11/60 (18%)


  1. Which of the following is most likely to distract you from your study? Please indicate one:
  • Someone talking near you (not to you) 9/31 (29%)
  • Hunger 8/31 (25%)
  • Mobile phone 8/31 (25%)
  • Social Networking sites 6/31 (19%)


This is out of 31 as 29 students ticked more than one response so could not be counted in the data. What is interesting that we would assume that social networking sites are the biggest cause of distraction when there are actually other environmental factors that prove more distracting.

The last two questions identified that 31 out of 60 students also specified that they had a space in their house to work; most of them had a desk in a bedroom but five students specified that they worked in a communal area, i.e the kitchen table.