the manifestation of cognitive overload

ATC -- Frazzled Cartoon Lady

The reactions people have to cognitive overload are varied. Some get angry, some withdrawn, some somewhere in the middle. What is common to all who experience it though is feeling overwhelmed, feeling uncomfortable, feeling frustrated and sometimes feeling worthless. Imposter syndrome can be common.

Understandably, it’s an experience we want to avoid. It can be exhausting.

How students handle it is largely determined by their temperament, which is affected by a multitude of factors. The more obvious reactions are the extremes: poor behaviour, lashing out, belligerence and compete withdrawal. Of course, poor behaviour and withdrawal is more complex than just cognitive overload, but at times it is certainly a factor, and I find it strange that little to no conversation ever discusses improving behaviour in the same way that we endorse the elimination of academic cognitive overload – through incrementally improving cognitive skills. Inculcating new behaviours surely needs the same level of design and commitment? Perhaps less obvious is cognitive overload in students who externally give few clues that they are experiencing it; perhaps they are not reacting because of compliance to the school’s rules or respect for authority, or perhaps because they don’t want to be seen as not understanding what is being taught; peer pressure is huge in all education sectors. Perhaps they are having a difficult time outside of the classroom, most certainly a factor affecting higher education students who may have lost their employment during COVID. Needless to say, cognitive overload reduces learning.

See the source image

A practical and relatively simple solution to mitigate against too much cognitive load is the design of learning sequences that focus on the building of schema that include lots of formative assessment to check learning. Good communication with students also allows you to gauge how students are feeling in their learning, and this can be an extremely useful form of formative assessment too.

It’s not just students who feel it

It’s certainly not just students who experience it . Any time you are under pressure in a new situation you are likely to experience it to some degree as your mind grapples with the new content and searches relevant schema to connect it to: the more the pressure and the fewer the connections, the greater the load. You are likely to experience it when you attend a conference where presentations don’t adhere to multi-media principles, you are likely to experience it in a meeting when you don’t have the relevant background knowledge on a topic being discussed, and you are likely to experience it when you yourself are presenting/teaching and you don’t fully understand or believe in what you are discussing. Of course, the most obvious analogy is when your practice is being observed. All of these examples are the times when you are effectively a student, a novice learner. As an educator, it is important that you reflect on the feeling of cognitive overload and how easily it can occur, and use that knowledge to consider how you design and shape the learning experiences of your students so they experience it less, and learn more.

I’m Paul Moss. I’m a learning designer at the University of Adelaide. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger

“ATC — Frazzled Cartoon Lady” by campbelj45ca is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0


This is part 2 of an essay based on self-regulated learning, and whether it needs to be taught for students to become skilled in it. Part 1 is here.

In part 1 I discussed how explicitly teaching and modelling to students how to think with knowledge potentially facilitates students being able to self-regulate such thinking. The proposition has implications for the explicit modelling of thinking critically and creatively. In this post I will expound on Zimmerman and Moylan’s 2009 paper that theorises that motivation is inextricably linked to these metacognitive processes, and just like everything else connected to learning, needs to be explicitly taught to students in equal measure for them to eventually be able to use the knowledge independently.

Zimmerman and Moylan suggest that there are 3 differentiated stages in achieving self-regulation. These can be equated with the EEFs appropriated terms: planning, monitoring and evaluation. The diagram below represents the cyclical processes of self-regulation.


IT’S A CASE OF WHICH COMES FIRST, the chicken or the egg, but in order for a student to get their learning off the ground, they need to be motivated to do so. Oftentimes in the school sector, this may not be an intrinsic motivation, with extrinsic rewards and punishments tending to dominate the setting. Upon presentation of a new learning activity, a student will process a range of thoughts evaluating whether they should in fact participate in the endeavour. Students immediately process the expectations against any prior experiences or knowledge, drawing on their schemata to ascertain the extent of having to set new goals and strategies to achieve the new learning, whilst probably concomitantly deciding if they have any intrinsic interest in the task. If they arrive at the conclusion that they don’t possess either of these motivators, your work is immediately cut out for you.

Compounding this will be the fact that students also naturally draw from that schemata the affective responses they had or indeed have built over time in dealing with similar types of activities or learning experiences. If this audit brings up negative memories, perhaps emanating from a lack of success, or serious disinterest, then this will heavily impact on their motivation to continue. It certainly won’t be the case that ‘If you build it they will come’. A student’s self-efficacy or belief that they will be able to positively engage in the task will most certainly affect their planning, strategy and goal setting capacity. So, besides forcing students to participate, what can be done to break this thought pattern?

METACOGNITION – Make explicit the possible reactions students may have to a new task: ‘You may have had a negative experience with this type of problem before, but this time is different because…’, ‘You may immediately think there’s no relevance to this task, but…’, ‘You may have not achieved the grade you wanted in the last task, but this time we are going to plan the response better…’. By making such reactions explicit, explaining how demotivating factors can arise, and providing explicit strategies that ‘show’ how a different outcome may eventuate, the teacher is training the student to think about the new context in a new way, and mitigating against poor self-efficacy inhibiting impetus.   

Also crucial to setting up learning is making explicit the goal orientation of the task. Plenty of research suggests that ‘performance’ orientated goal setting, where students’ motivations to learn are primarily centered on comparison and competing against others, is tellingly inferior to having a ‘learning’ goal orientation: here. The positioning of a task’s import as being an opportunity to strengthen personal understanding against personal standards has been shown to facilitate a deepening of learning: ‘In this activity, let’s think about how we can incrementally improve our knowledge of the topic…’, ‘I want you to think about what your level of knowledge is on the topic and set yourself a goal of looking to strengthen it by the time we have finished….’, ‘In this task, we are going to concentrate on mastery…’ However, such ambition is made infinitely more difficult in a system predicated on accountability. Nonetheless, a good teacher will explicitly and inexorably focus their students’ attention on setting goals for self-improvement, and that learning is indeed a continuum that takes time and practice to master. When such purpose is part of the learning culture, once the task is successfully completed the student’s evaluation process then positively feeds into and strengthens the self-efficacy required to engage in a new learning context, regardless of how they fared compared to others in the cohort.  

This personal growth rather than competitive epistemology is particularly relevant if you are trying to encourage students who are working hard but not quite succeeding – and observing others around them achieving – in the beginning of a course. These students not only need the explicit discussion of what success means (improvement against your last effort), but precise feedback that articulates what the gaps in knowledge are, and crucially, scaffolded activities that facilitate the opportunity for observed improvement against the last effort. Mastery pathways not only provide opportunity for incremental success, but also the chance to eventually catch up to the expected standard. Because success is the greatest motivator of all, when those achievements are explicitly labelled to the student, s/he will accommodate their self-efficacy to become more positive.


During the task, drawing students’ attention to how they are solving problems and the progress they are making and the motivation required to do so will facilitate the eventual automaticity of such thinking. Modelling self-questioning and verbalisation of thinking processes whilst scaffolding learning through worked and completion examples builds the schema of such processes in students’ minds, and teaching students how to manage time and set up an appropriate learning space should never be assumed to be assumed knowledge. Providing as many opportunities as necessary to facilitate a culture where the student can control these learning strategies and can readily select the most appropriate tools to negotiate the context they find themselves in should be an engrained aspect of a teacher’s curriculum design. When students feel such control over the strategies they employ to negotiate the present task, their motivation and self-efficacy will be strong.

The explicit drawing of attention to higher order thinking processes during the task goes towards developing the schema for doing so in future, independent contexts. As argued in part 1, assuming students will engage in higher order thinking once knowledge is sufficiently acquired is not a good idea, as students may not do this unless they are highly motivated in the discipline or topic in question. Prompting with questions like ‘So if we know this about …., what would happen if …..?’, ‘What is the connection of this idea to the topic we looked at last week?’, ‘What would happen if we combined these 2 ideas?, ‘So imagine this scenario…., how would you solve the problem at hand?‘ If you model this thinking, students will use the model as a strategy when asked to think about knowledge in new contexts, and being able to do so will boost their confidence in engaging with knowledge in interesting ways. This confidence develops self-efficacy, and thus motivation.


From my experience, one of the most difficult things to do is to get students to reflect on their performance and planning after the event. This is especially difficult if the student entered the transaction with a performance goal orientation and wasn’t overly successful. The immediate deflation is palpable. Explicitly discussing this with the students is important at this very moment. But perhaps most importantly, understanding the causal attributions some students may have applied to their success or failure is necessary to ensure that they are able to benefit from the evaluation.

Many students attribute their experience to fixed ability, which is particularly detrimental if they engaged in the activity with a performance goal and didn’t succeed. The comparison against others that essentially results in a defeat if unsuccessful solidifies a negative self-efficacy, which in turn has a negative influence on the planning stage of the next learning moment. If however, the student can be persuaded by the learning continuum theory and that their ability in the task is not fixed and can in fact be improved by application of effort, practice and good revision and study techniques, then the probability of their motivation being secure for the next task is high.  

Unfortunately, over time and repeated negative experiences in learning environments, some students develop entrenched negative evaluations that seriously inhibit motivation to continue or engage in future learning contexts. Procrastination may be a milder symptom of such a state, but more serious and damaging is learned helplessness, a notable defence mechanism employed that prevents a student from trying because they believe that there’s nothing that they can do to change an inevitable failure. Often, such a state becomes an unconscious default, and can only be changed by carefully designed scaffolded learning opportunities that promote success, as well as making the psychological context explicit. Of course it is time consuming, but a well-constructed audit of a student’s performance, including how they approached and revised etc for the task, will likely find a host of issues that could be rectified. A checklist may work in helping students evaluate their performance in a task, and the explicit discussion about how neglect in each element on the list is quite impactful could act as a motivator for a student to alter their preconceived beliefs that they aren’t in control of changing their learning potential.


Teaching students about motivation and how past experiences affect the present, and helping students identify patterns of behaviour, their ‘real’ causes and how they can be adjusted is as imperative as teaching them content. Making thinking explicit can go a long way to positively affect how a student perceives a task and their ability to process, engage with, and succeed in it. The result is that students will willingly drink from the water you have led them to.    

The next post will discuss how beneficial it can be for students to understand how learning actually happens.

I’m Paul Moss. I’m a learning designer at the University of Adelaide. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger

The Necessary

One of the most uncomfortable truths about society is that it needs a necessary proportion of people to fail. It is a condition when we subsume a capitalist ideology. When competition is the ethos of survival, those who thrive are at the expense of those who don’t. Fortunately for most, because of the size of the population, the middle ground, where people are able to comfortably reside, is vast. It is whilst in this middle ground or class that the curse of knowledge can be rife, embodied and entrenched through comfortableness and security. It is the place where lofty assertions are made about morality, what it takes to be successful, and ironically, equality.

Education, whilst claiming to be, is NOT immune to this axiom of society. Whilst the overwhelming majority of educators involved in education want to believe it isn’t true, that their endeavors will eventually result in the success of ALL their students, the reality is unforgiving. The reason is due to the way success is measured.

Summative testing is essential to fairly assess from a domain of knowledge. However, designing summative tests that are reliably consistent from year to year is not easy to do, and to compensate for possible errors in design, examination boards moderate the results: if more than the average number of students have done overly well in the exams, it could be that the exams were easier than last year, and so the grade boundaries are raised. Conversely, if more than the average number of students don’t do well on the exam the grade boundaries are lowered, to compensate for the possibility that the exam was designed poorly. The key word is average. The average is ascertained from a very large sample of students over many years. A norm is established, and all results are referenced to it. When there is deviation from this norm, statistically it is assumed that there must be an error in the design of the assessment.

The issues with this are several: if teachers work harder to ensure that more of their students improve, it won’t be reflected in grades, as the grade boundaries will rise. If teachers share resources to assist others achieve, the grade boundaries will rise. When teachers learn from books how to improve practice, grade boundaries will rise. But perhaps the most pernicious reality of the norm referenced system, is that effectively your success in your students passing is at the expense of another colleague having students fail.

So when teachers quite rightly effuse with successful results, and by God I’ve done that, it’s important we demonstrate humility with the knowledge that it couldn’t have been possible without students who:

  • couldn’t access the curriculum
  • didn’t revise
  • had information processing difficulties
  • were badly taught
  • were excluded from school
  • had poor attendance
  • panicked in exams
  • have dyslexia
  • have little cultural capital
  • weren’t flagged to receive exam access arrangements
  • disengaged during KS3
  • had emotional issues that obfuscated attention to academic content
  • have low IQ

The illusion that education is equitable is considerably evident when we discuss vocation with our students. How many of us suggest students should aspire to be cleaners, rubbish-truck drivers, or work in low paid jobs? Yet, by statistical definition, some of our students are destined to do them – and society needs them. No matter how much we try to inspire with high expectations, it simply isn’t possible that everyone wins. There is no middle class without a lower class.

This has implications for the way schools communicate their successes. The recent euphoric correlation made between academic success and zero tolerance needs further context: excluding students facilitates the conditions for a cohort of below average students, somewhere else, someone else’s problem. I’m not suggesting that this is the motivation for the exclusions; understanding of the ideology is discussed here, but it is most certainly a by-product. The same can be said of any selective school – if you weed out the cohort destined to fail, those who remain will always be statistically better off. So I ask you, is that something to sing and dance about?

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger and follow this blog for more discussions about education.

Wise men, and rushing behaviour policy

Once upon a time, in a small isolated village of just 2000 people in the south of Utopia, there existed a single school, and in this school they decided that enough was enough with poor behaviour. They were fed up with the loss of learning caused by recalcitrants simply not following the school’s expectations, and their disruptive behaviours impinging upon others who either wanted to learn, or at least had some sense of it being good for them, if not now, but for their future. It was reflecting in poor results, which seemed to entrench a self-fulfilling prophecy plaguing the town that it would never amount to much, but it also just wasn’t fair to those who deserved a good education. This school, unbeknown to the general community, had an epiphany: it would implement a utilitarian policy, and weed out the negative influence, brand it as ‘operation engage’, aware of the obvious ironic possibilities with such a title, and follow the policy unwaveringly to its natural conclusion when students refused to cooperate with it. Contentedly, and assuredly, the school believed it had found the solution to its behavioural problems.  

Suddenly, in a short amount of time, the village found itself with 5 students who had been excluded from the school. This was a shock to the villagers, who had never witnessed such a situation before. A community meeting was urgently called, and at the beginning of the meeting residents expressed a wave of near hysteric concern: what would these students now do? Who would educate them? What would be the price for the community in terms of what these students wouldn’t be able to contribute to the village considering their now lack of education? Who would look after them during school hours? Who would counsel them in coming to terms with the blatant message that they were now different from the rest of the village, and who would be there to guide and monitor the inevitable emotional fallout from this awareness? Why were they behaving as they were to result in the exclusion? Why did they react to the enforcement of the rules differently to the other children? And how did a relatively minor infraction escalate so quickly to an expulsion for 2 of the students?   

Some in the community then turned their discussion to more philosophical considerations, and about what it meant to be an educator. They inquired whether the village was happy enough to believe that the children, who by definition required learning in every context, were mature enough to truly understand the consequences of their behaviours? or whether they had the skills or indeed capacity to modify and reflect on that behaviour when it was challenged? and whether the popularity of a progression model of curriculum to assist academic learning seemed contradictory when not being applied to behavioural and emotional learning, especially considering the contexts and family life of the 5 excluded children? They enquired as to whether the exclusion would create a culture of cyclical deviance, with the child likely to seek other forms of deviance or people stigmatised with the same label, and if so, what measures would then have to be put in place to prevent, or worse, manage those subsequent behaviours? And finally they wondered whether such an inflexible approach to infraction would produce a happy community in the long run?

When these questions were put to the school, the principal looked up with sincerity, and explained that even though the decision to implement their policy seemed harsh, that providing firm and consistent boundaries was a necessary strategy for all children, but especially for those children with the most troubling of behaviours. In fact, he suggested it was the most effective strategy to prevent this type of student from falling further into deviance, because what many of the students who have behavioural issues have in common is a lack of control of their emotions and a lack of experience and exposure to the application of consistent boundaries, boundaries that he hoped everyone would agree were important in raising a child. He said that the repeated behaviourist approach to ensuring rules were followed was in fact incrementally training students to take more responsibility for their own behaviours, the ultimate and collectively understood goal of citizens in the town.

He said that since the exclusions the school’s results had improved. In terms of the 5 who were excluded, the principal explained that after attempts to bring the students into line with expectations had failed, the school simply didn’t have the necessary resources to assign to the explicit and substantive training the handful of students, who for some reason or another couldn’t emotionally engage with what the school was offering, realistically needed. In terms of what the excluded students would now do during regular school time, again, the principal highlighted the need for him to be pragmatic, that the exclusions had resulted in substantial benefits to the majority of students now learning more, and reiterated that it was not in his capacity to be able to manage the outcomes in what now eventuated for the 5.

In terms of the philosophical concerns, he added that it was a utilitarian society by nature, in how capitalist ideology naturally excluded villagers from certain privileges and opportunities, and how exam grade boundaries reinforce this natural division and in fact require certain percentages of children to fail for it to work, and that as a corollary school life could be no different.  When one of the villagers rebutted about the cyclical deviance, the principal highlighted the notion of having high expectations, and that if you tolerate and thereby accept the deviant behaviour of the few, the whole suffers. He also said again that it was beyond his remit and that prospective offenders would be a matter for the law.

The principal’s message was assertive, and charismatic, and ostensibly logical, and the crowd of villages found themselves eventually acquiescent to it. Except one. Seated in the middle of the now encouraged and practically effusive group, she rose to signal their attention. Whilst respectful and understanding of the points presented, she had several queries: she was unsure as to why it hadn’t been a community decision to implement the utilitarian policy, and why the school had taken it on without consultation since it most certainly had ramifications to the community having 5 uneducated children wondering around; she wondered why the exclusions had been made before any significant researched remediation process had been designed; she wondered why preparations had not been made before exclusions were carried out as to what provision was on offer and how these children would now be educated, as it being a small village, the children couldn’t be passed off somewhere else; she wondered why, despite the acknowledgement of the utilitarian ideology, why people were content with it, and whether their complaisance would alter if they indeed found themselves to be one of the necessary few who missed the positive boundary, and what long term psychological effects this sense of failure may have for those subsequently branded; she wondered how proactive the school had been in ‘teaching’ behaviour, and whether school staff suffered from the curse of knowledge, unaware of the challenges that some students, and most likely the excluded 5, face in conforming to the expectations when they haven’t had sufficient practice in learning them; she wondered whether staff in the school had been given sufficient training to handle contexts where students were presenting behavioural cognitive overload, and whether they were adequately skilled in de-escalating those contexts and not exacerbating them, which usually resulted in the (unintended) entrapment of the child, pushing them into an emotional corner, and ultimately affecting the ramping up and accumulation of misdemeanours when reacting to that overload.    

To her there seemed a great many unanswered questions that made her surprised at the assertiveness of the principal.

The principal retorted that ideally he would be able to provide a mediation phase for students who were struggling for one reason or another to follow the school’s rules, a phase that was supported by trained counsellors who could help the student unpick where behaviours have emanated from and provide appropriate strategies to help students negotiate the feelings that have previously caused deviant reactions. He would love to able to provide several teachers who could assist students to catch up with missed content, so when they returned back to class they didn’t feel overwhelmed by their lack of knowledge and understandably feel inadequate, often resulting in a negative, almost defence-like reaction that often perpetuated the behaviour cycle. The reality was, according to the principal, that he simply didn’t have the funds to create such a pathway, a restorative pathway that would ultimately prevent exclusions from occurring. He also added that sometimes that within a school context the restorative path was in fact untenable, with some students, blighted by family context, essentially needing one to one counselling for extended periods of time, especially if homelife behaviours were continuously deleterious. And how could you only have one or two teachers working full time as ‘gap’ fillers? Would they be trained in every subject for every year level, and how would they know what has been missed, and what if there are 10 students out of classes at any one time?   

The woman, initially immovable at the seemingly rash direction the school had taken, now, with more information, felt a greater understanding of where the principal was coming from, but was still not completely convinced. She too conceded that the situation was not straightforward, understood the need for pragmatism and that there were no easy answers, but that this only reinforced her concerns that the policy had actually been enacted. Because of this, she wanted to reiterate again that the school should have thought a great deal more about the mechanics and logistics and responsibilities involved in implementing a radical behaviour policy. It would need to think considerably more about training teachers and students to engage with it. It would need to think considerably more about the amount of time needed to train teachers how to minimise behavioural cognitive overload. It would need to think considerably more about providing students with sufficient opportunity to learn and practice what is learnt in how to react to behavioural challenge, and especially how to react when faced with behavioural cognitive overload. It would need to think considerably more about what would then happen if a student still couldn’t respond to these learning opportunities, and have provision in place that facilitated that learning with the goal of getting the student back to mainstream education as soon as possible, where appropriate. After all, in such a small town there was no brushing the issue under the carpet.

The principal conceded that possibly the decision had been a little rushed, and vowed to adjust the current approach and initiate more training for both teachers and students. The community conceded that more funding HAD to go into the school to support such an initiative, and that it would need to design the necessary infrastructure for the students who were excluded. The meeting adjourned, and the folk of Utopia went home satisfied.

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger and follow this blog for more discussions about education.


Poor student behaviour would have to be one of the biggest obstacles to successful teaching. There are almost infinite permutations of students being able to disrupt the learning environment, and if it becomes an on-going issue, it can take years off your life: it’s thoroughly exhausting, damages your self-esteem, and makes the job incredibly unenjoyable.

Some teachers have it luckier than others – their SLT have a clearly articulated policy in place that they utilise to deal with disruptive students, a policy that consistently and without failure informs students that repeated infractions will only result in negative outcomes. Regardless of the class, the exact same rules apply, and will be enforced every time. This characterises schools who have, or are close to, ‘zero excuses’ policy. The lure is seductive – consistent good behaviour in lessons. However, schools such as those run by HannahWilson also promote consistent behaviour, and are just as alluring.

One would imagine these policies would have a restorative aspect inbuilt, effectively training students to adapt behaviours that are getting them into trouble. (I wonder how many schools actively teach recalcitrants how to react more appropriately in specific situations?) But the key is that students, as they move from class to class, know that disruption will have the same consequence, regardless of their protests or histrionics. 

For those teachers who don’t feel that their school’s behaviour policy is a support, and there’s lots as this Teacher Tapp result shows, their experience is akin to something the egregious Axel Rose shrilly exhorted: welcome to the jungle! 

In these school environments Darwin’s theory literally becomes the polity: survival of the fittest, king of the jungle, dog eat dog etc. In these classrooms, you WILL BE EATEN unless you take charge. 

So can you survive in such a school? 

In order to take charge, you have to show students who’s the boss, the expert, the facilitator of their success. But without any shadow of a doubt, the absolute key to survival is your own understanding of why you want specific behaviours in your classroom. You have to reconcile with yourself why good behaviour is required, what it will do for the students’ learning, and consequently their futures. If you don’t have this 100% understood in your mind, you will always have problems maintaining good behaviour in your lessons, because without this epistemological underpinning, you won’t be able to maintain the first rule of behaviour management: consistency. 

1. Consistency

Humans thrive on boundaries, and students especially. If students know where you stand, and that if they cross the line you’ve established there will ALWAYS be consequences, then you increase exponentially the chance of keeping control in your classroom. Cognitive science informs a great deal of pedagogy, and I think applies to behaviour also. The cognitive load of students can be constantly at capacity in lessons, and unpredictable admonitions or capricious insistence on adherence to the rules can tip cognitive load over the edge, and cause huge disruption to the thinking processes of students. If students aren’t thinking about the learning, they are likely to disrupt the learning. Disproportionate and variable consequences also leads to students feeling indignant, with the strong sense of injustice and unfairness in behavioural consequences likely to dominate their thoughts, regardless of any learning you insist on happening.  

It is especially important for ‘usual suspects’ to see consistency across the room. The rules MUST apply to everyone, and even when a student never in trouble infracts, they must be held to account. Interestingly, this serves as a powerful lesson to frequent violators, seeing the same rules being applied to all, and that there isn’t some conspiracy against them. Sending a top student out of the room for disrupting after being warned can act like an antidote for those who are usually on the receiving end of consequences. You will likely hear their vocalisation of such an unusual occurrence: ‘Wow, can’t believe …….got kicked out!’ A certain amount of pride in staying in the room may ensue. 

Knowing the boundaries takes pressure off behaviour management, because students don’t have to think whether certain behaviours will or won’t be allowed. The result will be less indignation, less cognitive overload, better behaviour. 

2. Seating arrangements

Inefficient learning environment

 Having your room set up where students face each other is going to cause problems, for their concentration, and for their behaviour. Many teachers may fear the idea of students being in rows as potentially being labelled as some sort of draconian Gradgrind regressive teaching practice, but again, if we consider the science behind maximising concentration, having students facing each other immediately makes it harder for them to listen to you, because their minds are having to compete with two stimuli: their peers, and you. If their peer moves, makes a face, is doodling something, basically anything at all, the concentration on the lesson content is compromised. Compromised information makes it harder for activities to be carried out when required, which leads to poor disruptive behaviour; after all, they won’t know how to do the task, because they weren’t listening to the content delivery. Having students in rows eliminates almost all of their distractions as students’ focus is solely on you at the front. 

Carefully seating certain students next to others is also powerful in helping reduce unwanted disruption. Some students are naturally more inclined to talk, so allowing friends to sit next to each other can lead to problems, especially low-level disruptions. Again, your philosophical intent will be challenged here as it appears as though you are actively reducing the joys of learning in your lesson, but these types of disruptions can be thoroughly exhausting to manage, and so in the end you’re not doing yourself any favours by allowing it to continue. If it is happening and getting in the way of learning, then positioning students strategically is essential. You may decide to allow movement of seats for certain activities where collaboration is required or possible, but the default would always be for what maximises concentration, not what students prefer. 

3. Breathing in and breathing out

Designing your lessons so students have opportunities to speak, to release sustained concentration, or to interact with peers about the content is important to manage behaviour. In most lessons, students are required to manage concentration on the delivery of content. Depending on your class, this length of time will vary. With top sets, it will often be significantly longer. Whether we like it or not, there is no avoiding this; some students haven’t yet had the training to sustain their concentration for as long as we would ideally like. This is made infinitely more difficult in a school without consistent learning expectations in every classroom. Understanding this, and knowing that it will be a ‘slowly but surely’ approach that will eventually increase their ability to hold their focus, will inform the design of your lessons. If you know where the limit will be reached for tricky classes, changing the activity at that point will eliminate behavioural issues arising from frustration, tiredness, or boredom.

For example, asking students to immediately begin writing in silence after having been actively listening to you teach for 20 minutes may miss an opportunity to let some breathing out happen, where students could discuss the topic at hand, or draw a representation of what was taught, thereby switching modes of thinking momentarily, and allowing their minds to refresh. The concept of dual coding could very much be more utilised in providing such spaces, which will likely result in students being able to maintain focus in the next task, and so on, and reducing the likelihood of getting into trouble for the natural need to release from sustained concentration.   

4. Frequent assessment 

Success breeds engagement. Carefully designing opportunities for students to succeed in your class will always lead to better behaviour. Difficult classes needn’t wait for faculty assessment dates, which usually only serve to re-inform these types of students that they are incompetent in the subject. Set assessments in the form of quizzes in every lesson, and then larger weekly assessments in the same format but with perhaps a larger writing component. Design the quizzes so success is likely, and repeat the questions many times to strengthen memories and facilitate retrieval at later dates. These take little time to develop, but are powerful in not only helping learning, but also behaviour. 

The added bonus of weekly assessments is that it keeps a routine culture in the classroom, but importantly also serves to increase the time students work in silence, because every student knows that assessment means working in silence. You can class mark them also to avoid extra marking.

5. Know what you’re teaching

It may seem obvious, but people respect knowledge, and expertise. If you come across as someone credible in your classroom, most students will bow to this. So work hard at improving your knowledge of the subject and your general knowledge, know how your curriculum links, become expert in questioning, and provide quality feedback that allows students to access more frequent improvements.


Being calm but assertive in your demeanour, even in truly difficult circumstances, is the most effective way to handle situations. Sometimes this is almost impossible, but disassociating yourself from the behaviour of a student is the way to maintain your control. The behaviour of the student is often caused by immaturity. Stay above it at all times. Again, refocusing on why you insist on good behaviour in lessons will support your assertiveness, prevent the incident from taking over your whole life for days afterwards, and ultimately be respected by the vast majority of those in your care. On occasion, you won’t be able to reach a certain student, but almost always, this will not be isolated to your classroom, and the school will eventually have to take stock. 

If the classroom rules are infringed upon, there has to be a consequence. Keeping students back at the end of the lesson will take up your time, but it is a small price to pay if it stops repeated offending. Asking students to leave the classroom is sometimes the only option you have to continue the lesson’s learning for others. If this happens, it can have a big impact on the next lesson, as the ejected student will have missed what could be key content for the next lesson, and thereby not know what to do, which could result in further disruption. At this point you could be stubborn and not provide the opportunity to catch up, but you would be potentially opening the door for further issues. As said, success breeds engagement, but conversely, failure breeds disengagement too. In the next lesson you may need to spend more time with the student, or if they have gone to a designated space, they could continue with the work there. If you have maintained calmness when the decision is made to eject, the chances of them being able to settle after a short time is increased, so the work may be able to be done. 

It doesn’t happen in my class

…is one of the most damaging statements you could ever hear. If you know that certain students are going to be intransigent to the new established routines you are creating, you may need to consult with your head to pre-warn of the likely ejections from your room, so no one is able to incorrectly create the perception that you don’t know what you’re doing in terms of keeping control of your class. There are few worse feelings than when you know you haven’t got the backing of SLT when poor behaviour is wrecking your classes, but discussing your plans will go some way to reducing this outcome. 


Good classroom behaviour is achievable. It takes experience to get it 100% right, but if you truly believe in why you insist on it, you can make quick gains by following the advice above. 

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger , and follow this blog for more of this type of discussion, and others around English teaching and education in general. 

the voiceless

Let’s take an example of a teacher collaborating with students on a set of class rules. Is this increasing student voice? Not really, and here’s why. The rules that inevitably are arrived at and posted on the wall for all to clearly see are essentially contrived by the teacher, regurgitated school rules that have been indoctrinated into students for years. Coercing students into asking them to take ownership of those rules and then creating a system for punishing themselves for breaking them is hardly increasing student voice, but more a sinister manipulation of their desperate desire to have some voice.

I’ve done this myself. Convinced students that a cooperative classroom is more productive and beneficial to learning which is what students need when they leave school. The rationale is precise, but is seriously compromised if what the students are learning is not actually what they need when they leave school. The irony is of course that in that classroom there is a handful of students that aren’t connected to the learning on offer. These are the ones who break the rules, the ones who see no relevance to their own lives, the ones who despise the other students in the room who have conspired against them in towing the teacher’s line.

Student voice? Hardly.