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 Some get angry, some withdrawn, some somewhere in the middle.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

the incredible power of analogy


This is the third instalment of a 4 part series aimed at assisting an educator in designing a sequence of learning that drives towards the ultimate goal of knowledge transfer. The intro post is here and the post on the first stage of developing a context of transfer, acquiring knowledge, is here

PT 2: Analogous examples 

The importance of presenting analogous examples to students to facilitate transfer is made apparent by Gentner and Ratterman (1991), who purport that people learning from a single example of content tend to encode it in a context-specific manner, with the result that later remindings are often based on more obvious surface aspects. Applying knowledge to a new context from only seeing one example of the learning is significantly harder compared to providing an analogy for students, but as Reeves and Weisberg suggest, it is not enough to simply provide a single analogous examples to your students. 

The beginnings of analogical reasoning

 Karl Duncker was a quite remarkable German psychologist.

He dedicated considerable energy into exploring how learners approach problem solving, and his thesis on how it happens is here. His candle problem highlighted the notion of Functional Fixedness, which highlighted that once a learner has established a schema for a certain function, it is difficult for the ‘function’ to be applied in another context. Before his tragic death, suicide at 37 years of age, Duncker created the ‘radiation problem’, where he established that learners asked to solve the problem could only do so 10% of the time. It is this very low number that paved the way for considerable research into how to assist the problem solving dilemma of functional fixedness.

Gick and Holyoak are perhaps the most notable of researchers to shed light on how to mitigate functional fixedness. They found that when students were given an analogy to the Duncker tumour problem that had the same underlying structural properties, the number of students who were able to solve the problem rose from 10% to 30%. Incredibly, when they experimented by providing a 2nd analogy prior to exposing students to the radiation problem they found that 80% of students could then solve the problem. When they provided a underlying principle to students, when only a single analogy was used it did not assist students, but when 2 analogies were given, the underlying principle increased student success to 82% with a verbal principle, and 92% with a diagrammatical principle.

Of particular note however, was Gick and Holyoak’s attention to the quality of a student’s schema when applying the analogies to the problem. What they found, consistently, was that when a student presented a good quality schema, found by having students articulate the similarities between analogies, 100% of students were able to solve the problem. This has enormous implications for the need to ensure that a well-developed schema is present when asking students to apply or transfer knowledge into a new context.

It highlights the fact that it is the bank of mental models and patterns that a student has that allows them to search and seek connections from the schema to the new learning context. If they have a good understanding of the general principles of a problem, characterised by identifying the deeper relational structure of a problem, then it is more likely they will be able to see the same structure in a new problem. As Duncker states, ‘one can transpose a solution only when one has grasped its functional value, its general principle, i.e., the invariants from which, by introduction of changed conditions, the corresponding variations of the solution follow each time.’

Gick and Holyoak’s work has been validated by other researchers. Alfieri, Nokes-Malach and Schunn conducted a meta-analytic review of research using comparison examples to assist problem solving, and found conclusive evidence that analogical reasoning using several comparisons benefits the transfer of knowledge. Jacobson et al report that providing students’ opportunity to search for the similarities of analogy structures improves problem solving and transfer capability, and adding to the weight of evidence, Markman and Gentner suggest that directing students to the structural similarities is what eventually builds the schema that the student will use to connect to new learning contexts.

So, analogy greatly assists students in being able to transfer knowledge into a new context. Providing at least 2 analogies and explicitly pointing students to the similarities appears to be the optimal context for developing the relevant schema for transferring and applying knowledge.

How to exploit this ability to transfer and apply knowledge will be the basis of the next post.


Language and the career of similarity. Gentner, D., & Rattermann, M. J. (1991). In S. A. Gelman & J. P. B yrnes (Eds.), Perspective on thought and language: Interrelations in development (pp. 225-277).New York: Cambridge University Press.

Learning Through Case Comparisons: A Meta-Analytic Review. Louis Alfieri,Timothy J. Nokes-Malach &Christian D. Schunn. Pages 87-113 | Published online: 20 Apr 2013

Schema abstraction with productive failure and analogical comparison: Learning designs for far across domain transfer. Jacobson, M., Goldware, M., Lai, P. 2020.

Structural Alignment during Similarity Comparisons. Markman, A.B., Gentner, D. (1993).

The role of content and abstract information in analogical transfer. REEVES, L. M., & WEISBERG, R. W. (1994). Psychological Bulletin, 115, 381-400.

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


Participation is crucial in any learning environment, and a Zoom session is no different. Participation encourages attention, which is a requisite for learning. If students aren’t attending to the content or discussions on offer, they have no chance of encoding that content and then being able to use it at a later time: in other words, learning it. Being skillful in ensuring participation is therefore imperative.

Varying the way students are asked to participate is a powerful way to encourage engagement. Zoom can encourage participation in several different modes, which sometimes is not possible in a regular face to face session. Here’s how a teacher/tutor can engage students in a Zoom session:

  • Immediate quiz/questions
  • Explaining your method
  • Non-verbal feedback
  • Verbal questions
  • Written questions
  • Polls/quizzes
  • Breakout rooms
  • Screen sharing
  • Using the whiteboard
  • Modifying content


Because of the way our memories function, recapping content from previous sessions is essential to help the knowledge move into the long-term memory where it can then be recalled automatically to assist in processing new information. Students who arrive on time to your Zoom session should immediately be put to work, either doing a 3 or 4 question quiz on previous learning, or producing short answers to a question or 2. Both of these are shared from your screen. This then does 2 things: firstly, it activates prior knowledge that will assist in today’s learning, and secondly, it gets the students involved straight away. Late comers also won’t miss the new content. Answers to the quiz etc are briefly discussed and then the current session begins with students’ minds active.


By articulating the strategies you will employ in the session up front you are likely to alleviate students’ anxieties about some of the processes they’ll experience during the session, and therefore encourage participation. Explaining why you are repeating questions, why you are talking about things from previous sessions, why you are asking for different types of responses and feedback, why you are insisting everyone responds before you move on, why you are using polls and why you are so keen on student participation and its effect on learning will help students feel more comfortable during the session and feel more able to participate.


You will have to turn on NON-VERBAL FEEDBACK in the settings:

Getting students to indicate a yes or no or a thumbs up encourages participation. Whilst you can’t guarantee such an assessment for learning truly proves students have understood your question, as students could just be guessing or indicating to avoid being asked why they haven’t, it still gets students involved. Even if a student answers to try to avoid a follow up question when the tutor sees they haven’t responded they are still actively listening, which is a condition of learning. Varying the type of questions can also generate some humour and fun in a session – asking if students are breathing, or if they know that Liverpool football club is the best team in the world for example. Non-verbal feedback is best used in triangulation with other assessment for learning options, such as verbal questions:


Effective questioning is a powerful way to assess for learning and guarantee participation. The key to effective questioning is to ask, wait for students to process the question, and then check a number of answers before saying if the answers are right or wrong. Repeat the questions at least 3 times during the processing stage. Keeping the questions ‘alive’ is important to encourage participation because as soon as you provide an answer the majority of students will stop thinking about the answer – they have no need to keep thinking: allowing time for students to think about the answer gets the retrieval process activated as they search their minds for connections to previously encoded information. By randomly choosing students to answer you not only get a sense of their levels of understanding which allows you to pivot the next sequence if necessary, but it also keeps students on their toes as they realise that they may be called on next. This random selection of students will even work in a very large tutorial.

Sometimes it’s the little things. Be aware that you might naturally tend to favour interacting with those you can see in the session. Those without their cameras on, as in the image below, may not get asked as many questions, so an awareness of this and conscious questioning of unseen students will encourage a broad participation in the session.


Using the chat section to elicit answers to check for learning encourages participation. It is a variation on simply just listening and answering verbally. Having students write down an answer proves they know or don’t know the content. Dedicating a time in a session for this process not only varies the type of participation, but can be a great indicator that students have the required knowledge to continue. Opening up the chat lines for student to student interactions also encourages participation as some will answer questions and feel empowered in the process, and some will just enjoy the interactions. It is important though that the chat area is monitored as it can lead to the wrong kind of participation – like students just chatting in the classroom/lecture theatre which means they are not paying attention to the content. You can’t write/read and listen at the same time. I write about that here.


Using the poll function in Zoom is easy. You have to ensure it is turned on in the settings:

Once you’ve designed your questions, preferably before the session, you can then launch the poll.

Students then participate by responding. You then share the results, which at this point are anonymous, with the whole group. This serves as an assessment for learning opportunity, and you can pivot the session based on the answers if necessary. In answering the questions, students’ minds are activated as they search for knowledge in their schemata. There is an art to designing effective polls and multiple choice questions, and I discuss that art form here.  

Canvas quiz can also be incorporated into the Zoom session. The advantage of this is that it has a variety of question types that further encourage participation. There are many other apps too, such as Quizizz, Kahoot, and Mentimeter, but should be used with caution if not supported by your institution, as students may not want to sign-up for such platforms that essentially require them to surrender their data.


Sending students into groups to discuss a concept or problem is a fantastic way to encourage participation. Homogeneous groups tend to work best, because those with vastly different levels of developed schema tend not to engage with each other as well as those with closer skill levels. It is sometimes of benefit of the more knowledgeable student to help another peer, but this then relies on effective teaching skills to work, and in reality that is a big ask of a student. So setting them up before a session may be your best bet.

Providing guidance on what to do when students are in the session is crucial, and it is worth popping in to each group to see how it is progressing. As Tim Klapdor, an online expert at Adelaide University suggests, ‘Encourage discussion by promoting the students’ voice. Use provocation as a tool for discussion. Ask the students to explain and expand on concepts, existing understanding and their opinions on topics. Get students to add to one another’s contributions by threading responses from different students. Promote a sense of community by establishing open lines of communication through positive individual contributions.’ Attributing a member of the group to be a scribe is also worth doing, so that when the group returns to the main session they are able to share their screen and discuss their work/findings/solutions etc.


Getting students to share their screen encourages participation. This is especially effective coming out of a breakout room, but can be used at any point in a session. A student may be asked to demonstrate their workings of a problem, an answer to an essay question etc and the tutor can use it as a model to provide feedback. Of course caution would be used here, and only positive/constructive feedback provided.


Sharing the whiteboard and getting students to interact with the content you or they put on there is a great way to encourage participation. You could model your thinking process in this medium and explain or annotate examples to discuss how students could gain a better understanding of the content. You could also have students annotate the board, asking them to underline key words, complete equations etc. Getting multiple students to add their own annotations is probably more beneficial with smaller groups, such as in the breakout rooms. Unfortunately in Zoom you can’t paste an image on the whiteboard, only text.


I firmly believe that there will only be a very small percentage of students who are genuinely unwilling to participate in this medium. Such students would be expected to use the chat option and only ‘send to the host’ for example to ensure they are still participating. If you have tried all of the above strategies and your students are still not really getting involved, it is likely that they just don’t know the answers. As humans, we naturally want to succeed, and non-participation may indicate to you that you need to strip it back a bit, and come back to some foundational knowledge. It doesn’t matter what you think students should know, it is about what they actually do, and the relevant development of their schema. It is better that you facilitate the construction of knowledge, and provide questions that students will know answers to so they can build up their confidence in participating, By doing this, you will slowly, but surely, build their schemata so they will want to get involved consistently.

Online participation is essential for the session to be effective. If you have other tips and advice how to engage participation, please let me know and i’ll add to the list.

I’m Paul Moss. I’m a learning designer. Follow me on @twitter


In the previous post, I introduced the rationale for implementing a range of strategies to help students start strong in their University courses. The implications for failure extend further out than we might imagine, and can have severe effects on students and staff alike. In this post I introduce the first of 3 teaching and learning strategies that lecturers can use to assist students in being able to make a more informed decision about their academic aptitude in a course.


Effective and precise design of a learning sequence is imperative if students are to succeed in a course. Clear and manageable learning outcomes must drive the design of learning activities and assessment. Whilst it is not necessary to cater to the whims of students’ interests, it is necessary that a student sees a purpose of taking the course in relation to their personal aspirations. One way to begin the design of the sequence that covers these demands is to develop a visual curriculum map. Such a map shows a student how the topics within the course are intertwined and how the accumulation of the knowledge taught within the course leads to future opportunities. 



‘The scientist must organise. One makes a science with facts in the way that one makes a house with stones. But an accumulation of facts is no more a science than a pile of stones is a house.’ Henri Poincare

As the expert, trained for many years in your respective field, you would have built and developed a large web of interconnected ideas (schema) for your subject. It is this schema, or parts of it at least, that you will teach. As the expert, you understand how the parts of the schema fit together, how they feed off each other, and the sequence of learning required to arrive at such a full and complex understanding. But the novice learner arriving into your lecture theatre has little of this knowledge. To them, everything will initially appear very abstract and disparate, particularly pre-census. The abstraction makes it difficult to make connections that will lead to the acquisition of schema, an essential determinant of further learning.  

The visual course map serves as a model of your thinking, an explicit representation of the processes required to create relevant schema. As Clark and Mayer (2008) suggest, this immediately offers some context and orientation to your students, and facilitates what Willingham believes to be an essential need in learning in making the abstract more concrete. Such a process is easily recognised considering our own learning – we naturally convert the abstract into meaningful concrete information. Showing students the journey they are about to embark on and providing an otherwise closed window into your mind, and into the course’s structure, helps novices to transform the abstract into the more digestible concrete.



Once made visible, walking students through the schema is the next step. Explaining how each piece of the puzzle fits in with the next is crucial in a sequence of learning. Focusing on the connections and links between disparate ideas is how we move from a pile of stones to the building of a house. Ensuring each connection is secure through formative assessment, particularly through the online supplement, is necessary to avoid the ‘curse of knowledge’ and to know that your students are able to move onto the next component of the course. The curse of knowledge is the idea that when you know something well it is difficult to imagine that others don’t, and so we tend to brush over simple but important links and connections between content. Often, these links are actually vital for a novice to develop their own schema on a topic.  This 1976 cartoon by James Stevenson visualises the issue well:


Shortly, I will be able to provide you with an example of this map being interactive, where students will be able to click on a relevant section and be taken to the relevant learning associated with it. This can be done using H5P and then utilising mastery pathways (more on this soon in the 2nd strategy post).


There is an enormous amount of research (Clark and Mayer 2008) validating the effectiveness of modelling your own thinking and processes to students to move them from novices with immature schemata to experts with developed, sophisticated schemata. The novice is indeed a different type of learner to the expert, their less developed schemata severely impacting the cognitive load on working memory, and thus having significant implications to the types of questions and activities you engage them in. The table below illustrates the need to understand the learning continuum when planning a sequence of learning.

Actively explaining the ‘glue’ that binds topics and how you arrived at your understanding provides a model for students to learn and use in subsequent learning, learning in which they are more likely to make their own independent ‘glue’ as they will have more knowledge to draw from and more automaticity in their working memory.


Not only is it useful to highlight to students how each topic fits together to form the schema in a course, but it is also useful to show students how the course fits into a larger picture of learning. A course map should also articulate to students the possible exit pathways that acquiring the knowledge in the present course facilitates. The TEQSA framework for teaching (3.1.1) is clear in this being required:

 The design for each course of study is specified and the specification includes: g.  exit pathways, articulation arrangements, pathways to further learning.

Research has found that students are often ‘… not aware how different elements of courses functioned as building blocks in the development of their research skills and knowledge.’ An increased awareness of the connections between courses within a program would serve to provide greater opportunity for students to think more about them, and consequently develop the necessary schemata. The visual course map is ideally suited to provide the context and purpose of a course in relation to others in the program. Seeing possible overlaps in outcomes by viewing colleagues’ maps provides opportunity to identify the connections and make them explicit in your teaching sequence. This will deepen learning as the explicit connections will strengthen students’ memory of the content through the continuous retrieval process that such a strategy affords.

This then further encourages students to participate in your course as they will revisit/need the content in other courses too, and the overlap will reduce pre-census cognitive load.


STUDENTS: The visual journey map allows students to self-evaluate their own understandings of each section, and source extra information, resources and practice to fill any gaps. This is particularly important in the first 4 weeks of teaching, even though the schema at this point would be only partially complete. I will provide lots more advice on metacognition in the 3rd strategy post.

YOU: The added benefit to this strategy is that it helps you fine tune your course, ensuring that there is a logical sequential flow to the sequence of teaching. It will help you define the key aspects that you want students to focus on, and give you direction on how to structure resources and assessment based around those.


  1. Create the map as a rough mind map articulating the key components of your course.
  2. Work backwards and add in assessment (see part 2) at key junctions
  3. Then either on your own, or with help from a learning designer, create a series of visuals that sequence the growth of the schema.


  1. The map would be displayed as the first image in your first lecture, as well as the dominant image in the online supplement.
  2. The first teachings would then highlight the section of the map currently being addressed, with the remaining sections faded out.
  3. Crucially though, the map should be continually referred to as the learning continues and builds on itself. This not only provides context, but assists the retrieving of knowledge, as students make stronger neural connections to what has already been taught from the map because of it being continually referred to and thus recalled. The students are then beginning to build the schema in their own minds.
  4. The final lectures would display the map and encourage learners to fill in the links. This could form an excellent formative assessment task prior to exams to help students identify areas of weakness. 

The next post will provide strategies for designing the support presented to students in terms of scaffolding cognition.

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter (@edmerger) or on LinkedIn for more discussions about learning design.

Cover image: Credit: ©




the data suggest that students who start strong finish strong

Enabling students to make educated decisions about whether or not they should continue with a course post census is of paramount importance. Poor decisions have large financial, social and employment implications that are inextricably tied to them, and they also weigh heavy on the conscientious lecturer. This is the first in a series of posts designed to support the capability of faculties in the application of 3 strategies to help reduce the number of students who drop out after census without being able to formulate precise understandings about their aptitude for learning in a particular course.

The numbers in black represent hypothetical, but likely familiar, attrition of 1st year undergraduate students in respective faculties filtered by low participation in online engagement. Since modern higher education is very much characterised by a blended learning experience, where the online component is used to address the lack of personalisation in the face to face offering, the data suggest that students who start strong finish strong, and conversely, those who don’t won’t.  

This leads to the burning question: why aren’t these slow starters getting involved? There could be multiple reasons, but what this resource proposes is that it is not simply that they don’t like the look or navigation of a page, but that dis/engagement is also affected by the sequence of instruction and perhaps most critically, by the levels of support embedded in the sequence specifically dedicated to the development and building of schema

Modern learning design then needs to be considered on several fronts:

  • the sequence of learning and its purpose
  • the support presented to students in terms of scaffolding cognition
  • the user experience  

I suggest that attention to these factors would increase the participation levels of these disengaged students, and give them a better indication if the content they are engaging with is suitable either in terms of academic difficulty or actual interest in the course.

For some students, disengagement at the first signs of challenge can become the default behaviour; then failure is not seen as their fault ( a learned helplessness) – they are able to maintain dignity. The trouble is that they and indeed we will never know if they were actually capable of achieving in the course. Supporting cognitive load from the first instance will ‘catch’ some of these students too.


Students failing your course is never a nice feeling. The impetus for attention then is not solely limited to the plight of the student, but for faculties eager to retain students initially drawn to them, and the lecturer who has to bear the statistics. Of course, sometimes students simply get it wrong and enrol in a course they would never be suited to, and faculties are forced to work harder to guide and reposition them in something more appropriate. But even in such a context, this resource is still of use, in helping students arrive at an understanding quicker, and at a more informed and conclusive decision. Once the strategies are applied, the lecturer can safely conclude that they did all they could to sustain their students’ attention, and not feel a gnawing sense of guilt or worse, shame at the darkness on the graph.


Perhaps tellingly however, large numbers of students who persist through semester one and actually had mid-range online participation levels do not re-enrol in any course within the same faculty in semester two.

Notably, these numbers are larger than the disengaged numbers in semester one. Even with online engagement, these students did not experience enough satisfaction to continue their interest in the course; they were willing, but the course couldn’t support them. Because of this outcome, it could be argued that even though some of these students did start strong in terms of participation, it may have simply been motivation and therefore resilience that drove their engagement. Resilience at this stage of the student’s journey then is a poor proxy for success and reiterates the need for stronger learning design that works on building intrinsic engagement in students. Intrinsic engagement is only likely to form when students experience success in their learning, almost always the result of deeper understanding of concepts and topics – facilitated by scaffolded cognitive loading.

IN SUMMARY: Learning sequences that support the significant cognitive load demands on beginning students by:

  • explicitly focusing on the sequence of learning and its purpose,
  • by supporting students in terms of scaffolding cognition,
  • and by following the technological design principles necessary to engage the modern user

 will all combine to help students to begin their studies on the front foot, and eliminate poor design of a course as a possible contributor to discontinued enrolment.

Learning design that supports the building of intrinsic engagement then empowers students to make the correct choices in deciding to continue or discontinue with a course. Concomitantly, this resource also provides additional structure for students already experiencing success, helping them move more quickly from the novice learner to the expert learner, and thus independence, and adding weight to statistics that support the notion of Strong Start, Strong Finish.

In the next post I will discuss the first learning design focus, and explain the power and necessity of a curriculum map

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter (@edmerger) or on LinkedIn for more discussions about learning design.


Today I spent 7 hours on a mandatory course required to gain Teacher Registration in South Australia. For once, I was a student, and so unbelievably bored during the presentation I can’t describe it. I wanted to learn, but maintaining attention, an essential component of learning, was incredibly difficult. Why? Because the design of the learning was poor. But that’s not even the worst thing. The worst thing is this: there is no follow up to the session, meaning that most of it, if not all of it, will be forgotten, rendering the entire experience redundant.  

Delivering content 

 Simply presenting slide after slide on ppt whilst talking at the same time is highly ineffective pedagogy. The auditory channel has 2 stimuli both competing equally for the same spot in the working memory. One must be compromised, and is. I found myself alternating between what was being said by the presenter and then deciding to focus only on the slides.  

It is essential that a multimodal approach to delivering content is taken. Slide after slide with sentences of words needed to be broken by image, and preferably dual coded. Yes, every now and again an image was used, but again it was word heavy as annotations and labels peppered the screen.

The presenter attempted to engage the audience, but when a question was asked, they took the first person’s answer as proof everyone knew what was happening. There was opportunity to discuss answers to posed questions with other attendees at the tables, as an obvious attempt to break up the slides, but again the interactions were almost meaningless, with some dominating the conversations, others disengaged, and others not understanding the level of depth required in answers. Feedback asked for by the presenter again only took the first answer presented. Some answers moved off topic and presented opportunities for some venting that unfortunately had little to do with the course. 

All in all, the enormous amount of content could actually have been summed up in about 5 slides, and delivered in ¼ of the time. 


Without testing the attendees the instructor has no way of knowing who has learnt anything on the course. Certificates were handed out, and I now have completed the mandatory training, but no one knows if I actually know anything about it. But even if there was some testing there and then, the performance would have been quite good, but illusory in terms of actual learning. This is because when we are tested straight after being taught something, recalling the content is easy because there hasn’t been any other information to displace it from our working memory. The retrieval strength is extremely low. It is only after some time after many things have displaced the desired content, but we can still recall it, that we can infer that we have learnt the content.

If trainers and facilitators and the departments who engage them to deliver their mandatory content want to ensure learning has taken place, it is essential that follow up retrieval takes place. I can’t even say that this is one area that the training industry could do better, because without this element added to the offering, the industry is irrelevant.

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger

My ResearchED talk from Rugby

Having the opportunity to speak at ResearchED Rugby was a real honour, and the event was simply a wonderful occasion. I met lots of incredibly friendly people, and I was incredibly inspired by their passion and willingness to improve the educational landscape, a passion I certainly share. A huge thanks goes to Jude Hunton for asking me to speak, and organising a superb event.

The rough transcript of my talk is below, and a link to the slideshow here. Please let me know if you can’t access it.

Teaching English is simply wondrous. But it’s hard too. There’s so much at stake, so much to do. Getting the pedagogical balance between the art of teaching and the science of teaching is difficult, imperative, but also EXCITING.  

In my practice, I was too heavy on the art – and not enough on the science, which ironically obstructed and even obfuscated the curriculum from shining through. 

We know what the art of teaching English includes: the purposeful curation and presentation of incredible texts, texts that become windows to the soul, texts that teach us so much about the word, but perhaps more poignantly, teach us about ourselves. We know how powerful the art of expression can be, to be able to express oneself with clarity, precision and insight. And we know how useful it can be to become artful in connecting with students as much as possible, to know the best way to keep them motivated, to become a part of their learning journey, and become inspiration that they never forget. But when I don’t consider the processes that enable students to learn or consider how to make the delivery of content as efficient as possible to assist understanding and retainment of that content, I create an imbalance. 

I know that this imbalance between the art of teaching and the science leads to learning gaps – leads to the Matthew effect taking over. The Matthew effect is exacerbated when students with culturally rich background knowledge are able to absorb and withstand poor instruction whereas those without the background can’t. This is because the culturally rich background allows students to feed off the reserves of cultural fat, whereas those without it emaciate with insipid instruction.  

We know this is a blight in modern schooling – which we must address in the limited time our students spend in front of us.  

So, in today’s session, I want to go through what I believe have been barriers to better teaching and thus better learning by my students, with the largest, and one I’ll spend the most time on, incremental design, taking up much of the focus.  

One of the first significant barriers was a lack of understanding about cognition. Fortunately, research has provided us with what could only be referred to as a game changer – by Sweller – and I’m not only saying that because he’s a fellow Australian. Understanding cognitive load in designing sequences of learning is crucial. Awareness of working memory and its function and poignantly its limitations in learning should ultimately be driving all curriculum decisions. 

This leads onto the next game changer – memory. Prehension of how to assist students retaining information has guided my lessons, with quizzing prevalent in most lessons, and me consciously interweaving concepts and using elaborative retrieval to help students make connections and strengthen memory. I’ve written about various strategies to assist the retainment of content, from creating a story around the curriculum to allow or greater connections between texts and themes, as well as varying retrieval exercises, and finally, utilising the notion of elaborative retrieval, which again , via making connections through storytelling facilitates the triggering of multiple neural paths to arrive at a desired memory.  

The learning scientists are the go to people for discussing memory, with good explanations offered for students themselves to assist their metacognition. 

The 3rd aspect of cognition is dual coding. I would recommend you see Oliver Cavliogli talk about this, but… he is speaking next door right now, so I guess I have to tell you. Well actually let me use another of the greats to explain it: the brain has 2 channels for learning: auditory (listening and reading) and visual (images). What Chris has done here is to help students remember the entire story of Romeo and Juliet, almost using images as a trigger for retrieval – it essentially becomes an elaboration method, where there is now another possible neural path for the memory to travel.  

This is most definitely the next wave of teaching and learning. 

So now I have a better understanding of these, I remove a barrier to learning. 

The next hurdle was a pandemic plague on education – the obsession with observation and progress. Bjork points out that learning can’t really be measured or observed in a single session – and it’s because of again the understanding of cognition – retrieval strength vs storage – if information was just delivered, it’s going to be fresh, and able to be recalled easily – seeing progress then in a lesson is a false claim. Better off coming back a few days later. I discuss this here in this post about smashing observation – if you have to go through it – show off what your students have been learning over time – deliver lessons that demonstrate learning over time.  

Another one bites the dust! 

Teaching to the test. A pernicious beast! Understandable with accountability. Daisy Christodoulou obliterates the notion, explaining that it actually doesn’t make any logical sense anyway. What is assessed is taken from a domain, and we if assume a certain section, and another comes up in the exam, then we’ve done a huge disservice to our students. A better idea is to teach the domain. 

A concomitant to this is understanding the domain. Taking the time to work it out is crucial – but also being pragmatic. You can’t teach everything, and I think this is a trap for teachers, wanting, with good intention, to teach the world. For example, it’s probably better to teach KS3 story writing as a 45 minute story – to match the GCSE task – this is because it takes a long time to develop writing skills, and narrowing the scope of style will help ensure mastery, or allow us to get closer to it at least. Of course, this tends to run counter to the ideal of English, the romance of it all, freedom of expression and open ended creativity, but it’s not practical – we can’t have it all, and if we try, we might end up with nothing.   

Adapting teaching based on progress of students is a seminal idea by Dylan Wiliam. Far be it for me to add anything to it, but I wander if teachers would be better advised in ensuring delivery of content is incremental so as to avoid moments where pivoting is needed? 

Again, we get closer to where we want to be. 

The final, rather large barrier, is poorly designed curriculum that either isn’t progressive, or doesn’t have the precision to ensure mastery is possible.  

I want to discuss this in 3 contexts: a pragmatic approach, with teachers walking into lessons tomorrow, designing a unit of work, and designing a whole curriculum.  

For teachers considering adapting practice tomorrow, which of course is all of us at some point, I’m going to zoom in on these 3 ideas: 

Modelling: I’ve learnt a great deal from these 3 educators, with Andy Tharby illustrating the usefulness of the I, We, You approach – an apprenticeship approach very much in line with Rosenshine’s principles of Instruction.  

I have added to this concept with the notion of the 4th dimension: the student model – based on the idea that a good student model may be of more use to other students than my model – the curse of knowledge playing a part, but also the register and vernacular may be better suited –especially for struggling students.  

Sarah Barker’s assiduous approach is brilliant – not even allowing any writing to happen until students have absorbed multiple views of the process.  

And tom Needham’s worked example approach, enormously beneficial in reducing cognitive load and in assisting strengthening of writing.   

I’ve been working on the design of a creative writing unit with a very pragmatic approach incorporating the strategies above.  

My view is that at GCSE level, students must know how to write for the 45 minutes. As a base, I have students follow a structure design – with no exceptions. I want to avoid common complaints of lack of creativity = no writing. The structure helps build connections to the main character, and provides a relatively simple plan to develop a decent story. There are 4 sections: which you can read here: a part of a portfolio type assessment, with 2 stories needed to be written before the closed book assessment.  

*Go through sections and comprehension activity and individual sentence design. 

The findings of this approach have been very positive: Very weak students copied model – which is fine, because now they at least have an embedded structure to work from, whereas previsously they would have ended the unit with nothing. Some made minor adjustments to plot; Some were able to use prompts to write an alternative story; Those who chose different structure for second story could evaluate. It led to the development of exam length stories for students to read and become inspired by stories, and to see models of what is required/possible. 

The second consideration to improve teaching overnight is loosely linked to modelling: direct instruction – Tom’s blog again is worth a read in learning about this, based on work by Engelmann. 

Follow through project: monitored the progress of at risk students using multiple models of learning. What the results showed was that for basic skills like reading and maths and language, direct instruction outperformed compared to most other models. Interesting, and poignantly, DI outperformed other models in cognitive abilities: higher order thinking particularly, including against models that explicitly try to develop these skills: open education, discovery learning.  

I’ll allow you to read this: 

And this: 

As you can see, it’s all about mastery before the next stage is introduced. 

It’s certainly going to dominate things from here I believe.  

The 3rd immediate improvement I have made is to write. Stemming from a request by a high-level student for some reading on particular topic, I observed that learners really didn’t have anything to read – there wasn’t anything bespoke for GCSE length.  

So, I started the ball rolling – having a blast along the way, and gaining valuable insight into how themes etc can be discussed, in timed conditions, and developing points in a response. It’s also been amazing fun. It led to developing CLOUD 9 WRITING, where students from around the globe could submit essays of high quality – to read, to learn. Please help me by adding submissions to the platform. 

The second context for avoiding incremental design flaws is in planning a unit of work. I want to approach this from an assessment angle.  

Let’s take a poetry unit in KS3. What I want to demonstrate here is that each assessed component is an individual thing, a component that can be isolated when giving feedback. As soon as you start adding multiple assessable aspects it makes it harder to isolate issues and intervene.  

*go through each phase of the assessment cycle. 

The final element is designing a whole curriculum, and I want to focus on what is an intrinsic part of what we do: grammar.  

Originally, this arose from a state of apoplexy with the pervasive crime of comma splicing.  

I used Daisy Christodoulou’s thinking from the seminal Making good Progress and considered that issues need to be unravelled, and the key components taught in isolation.  

But I realised that it’s not as simple as it seems. There are huge barriers to students becoming really comfortable with components of a main clause, critical knowledge in deciding how to punctuate clauses.  

The 2 main issues are a lack of sequenced schemes of learning in working from the basics. Of course, there are immeasurable numbers of grammar lessons online and in books, but nothing that suitably goes through bit by bit, and written for a secondary level student. So, I have decided to design it:  

*play animation of design 

What it needs of course is for students to master each stage before moving on – another aspect severely lacking in current offerings. This means taking each section and providing activities that ensure mastery, with each new section building and consolidating. 

Here, I’ve designed the sequence of activities. Notice that the activity is carefully planned so as not to include other word classes that could confuse this section – for example, including gerunds or anomalies. There is a mix of correct and incorrect examples to ensure guessing isn’t a successful strategy, and each type of word class has a summative section that tests each specific type in combination.  

Mastery of each is crucial, as the next stage builds on this one.  

So I have a plan – I have the scheme designed already, and lots of activities. I want to include videos to enhance the learning of specific knowledge (dual coding) AND I WANT TO UTILISE ADAPTIVE TECHNOLOGIES TO help students achieve mastery –this can then be done as intervention, in tutoring, at home etc.  

There might be other ways of teaching grammar, but for me it has helped students with punctuation, because I can discuss with them why the comma shouldn’t be there.  

It’s also opened up the opportunity for me to deliver much more precise feedback in writing. It’s allowed me to discuss language much more in class, with comfort. It’s empowered students, helping them gain confidence in understanding more about the language they use every day, and opens their abilities in using language for effect.  

So when attention is paid to incremental design flaws, in fact, when we pay attention to all of these barriers to learning, we eliminate them, and we restore the balance – we provide opportunity for the art of what we do to flourish. 

So, in summary,  

  1. English teaching can become more of a science 
  1. We can eliminate learning gaps by considering research 

Thank you 

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me @edmerger and follow this blog for more English teaching resources.

CURRICULUM: an experiment that worked

As I greeted students after their first GCSE exam, I couldn’t help but be a little proud as the majority eagerly exchanged tales of success, literally bouncing in their shoes. The exam had thrown a slight curve ball with one of the main questions, but students had been able to, as advised, take a moment to make connections with what they knew, and then proceed with confidence. But as I stood there, so happy for the students, I also became mightily relieved that a curriculum experiment I had placed a considerable amount of faith in had clearly worked.

Focusing on students knowing their stuff!

Having absorbed lots of research into memory, ironically begun by stumbling across some wonderful posts by Joe Kirby (ironic because I was unsure about The Michaela School’s approach to education), I, albeit slowly because of the lack of evidenced transferability of cognitive science into school settings, set the wheels in motion for fine tuning my practice to account for how students’ brains best receive information and how they best retain it.

When I designed our GCSE curriculum, I began with a core channel of knowledge that formed the baseline content that every student would need to know. The expectations were relatively high (based on previous years), with the baseline including high level vocabulary and some precise details from each text. This core channel of knowledge had to be communicated with clarity to the students, and so, was designed in the form of an amalgamation of two powerful teaching tools: a knowledge organiser that served as a retrieval resource.

Embedding continuous retrieval practice into lesson sequence, making multiple links between learning sequences, developing depth of understanding through contextual exploration and incrementally designing assessment and learning became stock standard strategies I employed. I spent far more time being pragmatic about the realities of the course, and specifically prepared students for exams (here, and here), which incorporated redefining effective revision approaches. I concluded that I wasn’t going to take risks on handing the process over solely to the students, knowing that no matter how many times I talked about effective strategies, without modelling it explicitly the whole thing became akin to simply talking about a new concept in class and not modelling it for students to see things in action.

The focus on modelling became a priority, and this has had a large impact on eliminating gaps in student knowledge. Consequently, I set up a one-stop revision website for my students providing lots of students’ examples of successful writing, amongst other things, including a focus on writing and punctuation, particularly grammar knowledge development.

One of the most enjoyable things I’ve done this year was to spend time writing lots of essays on texts I was teaching. It reconnected me with a love of writing. Whilst in a style not enjoyed by some, and weirdly made known, it served a valuable purpose: I wanted to put my money where my mouth was, to see just how best to go about writing about the texts, to see how much time was a factor, and to offer and invite several high flying students in my class access to higher level thinking and discussions about themes and characters.

This led to them writing lots of high quality essays, and led to the development of Cloud 9 Writing, initially a platform for my students to read other class essays without the awkward moment of having to seek them out. The success of this got me thinking it could benefit lots of students by opening it up to the country, and then, the world. The idea, initially enthusiastically ascribed too, was tainted by a discussion about the inability of anyone to accurately say an essay was of grade 9 standard, a point that ironically missed the premise of the platform: to inspire students to think more about texts and to therefore write better essays. The distraction unquestionably and unfortunately deterred prominent teachers who have students of such calibre from contributing to the site, but nonetheless, some wonderful essays have been uploaded, and I sincerely thank teachers who have contributed their students’ work, and some of their own. The fact that the site has had thousands of views proves it to be a valuable resource, and I am determined that it will grow.

The real indicator of success?

For my lower set students, the consistent focus on retrieval through quizzing and class discussion and modelling how to transcribe their knowledge has certainly paid off. I know it’s early days in the exam season, but if only you could have seen their faces (I am sure you did see many like this too). Students who were usually destined to fail these types of exams because of the heavy reliance on content were experiencing the joys of success in being able to participate in the occasion. The final result, a lottery due to nebulous grade boundaries, will almost not matter – they have most certainly achieved something else. They could write about the texts, even when initially thrown, because they knew enough about them to participate. This is crucial: they could participate because the curriculum had been designed to incrementally breed success.


By eliminating as many gaps as possible, students who would normally run from challenge because of a lack of resilience or being able to sustain focus, were motivated to continue the next sequence of learning because they experienced success in the last. They could participate because they were practised (still not even nearly enough for what I wanted, but baseline level at least) in writing responses. They knew the layout of the exams (except the 4 who wrote about the wrong text – arrrgggghhhh – attendance issues), and they knew how to react whilst sitting in the exam hall.

Taking a chance of investing in explicit teaching based on understandings of cognitive science and common sense may just have been the best decision I’ve ever made in teaching. The approach’s obvious success this year will feed into subsequent years, and fortunately for those who will come into my future classrooms, is only going to become even more fine tuned and more precise.

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

A RESURGENT Man Utd: Having ‘fun’ leads to more productive performance, right?

“It’s the reaction of the players, everybody is enjoying themselves and that’s what we need. The team need to enjoy their football, work for each other and that’s it. That’s the result on the pitch.”

Paul Pogba

Match of the Day host Gary Lineker agreed, saying: “They look happy, they look like they’re enjoying their football. It’s the antithesis of what they were at the start of the season.”


The recent improved form of the world famous Manchester United Football Club is a direct result of players being able to play with a ‘sense of fun’, and freedom, being unshackled from their previous manager Jose Mourinho. The results speak for themselves, and pundits and media alike have particularly focused on the resurgence of World Cup winner Paul Pogba, whose flair and irrefutable talent has been notably absent in almost all matches played under Mourinho. For many, the improvements are a corollary that can be transferred to education: let kids have fun, and watch them fly!

The rally towards discovery learning and rally against traditional forms of teaching has been and continues to be vociferous, and highly emotive, as the video opposite by Trevor Muir highlights. The imperative is understandable: liberate children from the outdated methods of education that most adults resented in their own education. But the carrying out of this ideal is inherently flawed. Without providing a base of knowledge on a topic, students won’t learn very effectively. Just letting students loose on a project that requires them to discover the facts for themselves and assimilate it into a cohesive scheme of learning is not like letting Manchester United play with more freedom, because the major and irreconcilable difference is that the Manchester United footballers are experts in their field, whereas students introduced to new topics are novices.

Novice vs Expert

In the post, When Do Novices Become Experts, David Didau cites John Sweller’s explanation of the issue with discovery learning: when students don’t have the requisite background knowledge to negotiate new contexts, there is a subsequent and incapacitating strain on the working memory.

As John Sweller puts it, “Novices, not possessing appropriate schemas, are not able to recognize and memorize problem configurations and are forced to use general problem-solving strategies such as means-ends analysis when faced with a problem.” 

Didau continues to explain that ‘means-end analysis is likely to lead to cognitive overload because it involves trying to work through and hold in mind multiple possible solutions. A bit like trying to juggle 5 objects at once without any practice.’

Concurrently however, is the importance of the ‘expertise reversal effect‘, where it is actually damaging to treat/present the expert learner with instructions designed for the novice. Of course the skill required here is to get the balance right. The instructions below by Sweller give us some guidance to this:

Is it possible that Mourinho may have been treating the experts in his team as novices? Over-guiding them, and thus destroying their rightfully earned sense of autonomy? I don’t know; it certainly could be true. But what I do know is that most of our students are novices in the fields we are teaching them in, and by not considering the science of cognition, albeit a field that itself is developing continuously, we would be limiting their capacity to learn as efficiently as is possible, and ironically retarding their progress towards expertise, and creativity, the holy grail of discovery learning.

When CAN discovery learning happen?

Once the learner becomes expert.

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, and follow this blog for more writing like this on education and English teaching.


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.