At Tanglin Trust School, we have observed that for some students, the ability to study independently in an effective way doesn’t always “click” into place before they reach the I/GCSE and post-16 years, when these skills are crucial to examination success.
As such, we decided to do something to change this by intervening early in our students’ academic journeys, teaching them effective ways to study and revise from the moment they walk through the doors of the senior school in Year 7.
“Rather than wait for the wheels to fall off in Year 11, why not teach study skills from the moment students arrive?”
As a school, we decided that instead of inputting vast amounts of teacher time into interventions at the end of the journey, in the final months and weeks leading up to external exams, we needed to go back to the beginning and think really carefully about how the curriculum is mapped out from Year 7.
A common approach to teaching study skills in schools is to wait until the I/GCSE years, when high stakes assessments are already upon students, and only then try to build in study skills sessions via Lifeskills/PHSE, tutor time, one off sessions, and study clinics, often to help students to catch up when things are going wrong.
At Tanglin Trust School, we realised that this is simply too late. Rather than wait for the wheels to fall off in Year 11, why not put the time and resources into teaching study skills from the moment students arrive in the school?
In order to do this, we knew we needed to get teachers on board before we could be sure of success with a new approach, so we began by talking to heads of faculty, and together identified the most common problems we were observing in our students. We concluded that one of the major issues we were seeing was students struggling to embed crucial subject knowledge in their long-term memories.
We know of course that study skills are much more than this, but we knew we needed to prioritise and start with the most pressing issue before rolling out the explicit teaching of study skills on a larger scale in the coming years.
“Students were struggling to embed crucial subject knowledge in their long-term memories.”
The next stage was to provide effective CPD to teachers, so we ran a two-hour training session for all staff in Term 3 covering the key research behind memory and metacognition, such as Ebbinghaus’s Forgetting Curve, Bjork’s Desirable Difficulties and the Schema theory of knowledge. This sparked some fantastic pedagogical discussion, and the outcome of this training session was our cross-curricular strategy to support memory and metacognition; arguably the basics of effective independent study skills.
Our agreed strategy was to create Knowledge Organisers for every topic in every subject in Years 7-9; our Middle School years. The Knowledge Organisers act as a one-page curated visual of all of the essential knowledge belonging to a given topic in each subject. Alongside the Knowledge Organisers, each department has built a bank of homework tasks which require students to develop their own retrieval techniques, primarily through self-quizzing, flashcards and brain dumps based on the content of the Knowledge Organisers.
The emphasis is always on the student using these techniques independently, rather than teachers quizzing them in class, because we know this is a skill many students lack. Also crucial to success is a step in each homework task which requires students to use metacognition; reflecting on what they don’t know, identifying the gaps in their knowledge, and knowing what they need to work on. Finally, on the due date of a homework, the lesson begins with an activity which enables teachers to check homework and identify gaps in knowledge.
“The emphasis is always on the student using these techniques independently, rather than teachers quizzing them in class.”
We are calling our new approach Learning to Learn (a phrase first used by the cognitive scientist and learning expert Guy Claxton), because we feel it sums up perfectly the intention behind it. At the start of the new academic year, we explained this to all Middle School students in an assembly, teaching them some of the cognitive science behind remembering, and why memory is so important to learning and effective study. We have also recently delivered a parent workshop to encourage buy-in and support from home, so that all stakeholders can see the value of what we are doing as we roll it out.
It is early days and as with anything new, there will always be questions along the way. We know the importance of reviewing and evaluating as we go, but we believe whole heartedly that what we are doing is in the best interests of all students at Tanglin Trust School, and that the long-term outcomes will be worth the hard work.
The Revision Revolution: Helen Howell and Ross Morrison McGill (John Catt, 2022)
Homework with Impact: Andrew B Jones (Routledge, 2022)
Classroom Instruction That Works, 2nd Edition: Dean, Hubbell, Pitler and Stone (McCrel, 2012)
Understanding How We Learn: Yana Weinstein, Megan Sumeracki, Oliver Caviglioli (Routledge, 2019)
Fear Is The Mind Killer: Why Learning to Learn deserves lesson time and how to make it work for your pupils: Dr James Mannion and Kate McCallister (John Catt, 2020)