You’ve messed up one of your exams. What happens now?

You’ve sat the exam. You’ve messed it up.
What happens next?

Contrary to what you feel at the time, messing up in one or two questions isn’t going to make much, if any, difference to your overall set of results. How you respond to the setback will however say a lot about your approach to overcoming adversity, not just now but in life in general.

What you’ve got to remember is that almost nobody is going to excel in every exam. So your ‘competition’ is the other students (the fact that we can use the words competition and education in the same context is an absolutely terrible indictment on what we do, but for now it is what it is). And they’re going to make mistakes too.

If you allow yourself to dwell on mistakes then it is going to adversely affect your ability to concentrate for later exams. You’ve simply got to put it behind you.
I like to use sporting analogies.
If you’re a footballer and you miss a penalty in a crucial game then you want nothing more than for the ground to open up and swallow you.
But that’s not an option.

So you pick yourself up, hold your head up high and get on with the game – no matter how difficult that seems at the time.

You see nobody goes a whole match without making mistakes – it’s how you respond that determines whether or not you are a success.

So try to avoid the post-mortems, particularly if you’re not an optimist to begin with.

For what it’s worth, this also applies on a large scale. Reading about the anniversary of the Normandy Landings, a comment from one of the veterans resonated with me. In war, the side that wins is usually the side that makes the fewer mistakes.
So don’t compound one by making another.

Welcome to life.



Why do we remove Wonder from Science Education?

If it’s possible to dedicate blogposts to individuals then I choose to dedicate this to my aunt; Sr Cathy. Like many religious folk I know, her passion for Science may well surpass her passion for her religion. Or maybe she’s just passionate about everything. Either way, I’m looking forward to meeting up with her over the Easter break as part of a big extended family celebration.

Wonder is a theme we return to again in again in this blog. More specifically the theme is one of frustration that we have deliberately removed all reference in our science textbooks and syllabi to concepts that evoke a sense of wonder. And it doesn’t help that it seems to bother so few other people. Which is why every time I come across somebody else expressing the same frustration I move to wrap the up in cotton wool and store in away in s0 that I can return to it anytime I need reassurance that it’s not just me. And where better to store it than here?

Students today are often immersed in an environment where what they learn is subjects that have truth and beauty embedded in them but the way they’re taught is compartmentalised and it’s drawn down to the point where the truth and beauty are not always evident.
It’s almost like that old recipe for chicken soup where you boil the chicken until the flavour is just . . . gone.

The speaker, David Bolinsky, is famous for having created an incredible animation on the private life of cells. I have watched that video many, many times (it’s a beauty in it’s own right) but it was only when I watched its Bolinsky talk about it on TED that I zoned in on his quote above.

I devour popular science, finding its history and its wonder a constant delight. . . . It is a mystery how so many science teachers can be so bad at their jobs that most children of my acquaintance cannot wait to get shot of the subject. I am tempted to conclude that maths and science teachers want only clones of themselves, like monks in a Roman Catholic seminary.

That was from Simon Jenkins in the Guardian

We are deprived by our stupid schooling system of most of the wonders of the world, of the skills and knowledge required to navigate it, above all of the ability to understand each other. Our narrow, antiquated education is forcing us apart like the characters in a Francis Bacon painting, each locked in our boxes, unable to communicate.

That was courtesy of well known columnist George Monbiot

The way I was taught science made it feel like nothing more than a series of disconnected facts – the eureka moments of long dead scientists. My knowledge of Einstein’s work by the time I went to university was E=mc2; something like the Einstein-Silárd letter was completely absent from my education. I learned more about the history of nuclear physics from the play Copenhagen than I ever did from a school discussion.

Andrew Holding

We educators take this incredibly exotic jungle of knowledge called Science and distil it again and again until all the wonder has been removed! We are left with nothing but a heap of dry shavings. We then pour this drivel into our syllabus and textbooks and make our students learn it off by heart so that it can all get vomited back up come exam time.
And then we wonder why so many young people don’t like science.

That one’s mine.

It’s really such a shame that the wonder of Science only seems to be spoken about by artists, poets and writers. Why do scientists (and science teachers, and in particular those who are responsible for drafting the science syllabi) hide from it so much?

Anyway, the reason for this particular post is that it’s time to add the opinion of the author of what is for me the greatest book ever written in the Popular Science genre; Bill Bryson, author of A Short History of Nearly Everything.
I’ll paste in the short quote first, but to understand the context it deserves to be read in its entirety so I’ll follow with that (and anyway, reading Bryson could hardly be termed a chore).

It was as if he [a science textbook author] wanted to keep the good stuff secret by making all of it soberly unfathomable. As the years passed, I began to suspect that this was not altogether a private impulse. There seemed to be a mystifying universal conspiracy among textbook authors to make certain the material they dealt with never strayed too near the realm of the mildly interesting and was always at least a long-distance phone call from the frankly interesting.

Here is the full context:

My own starting point, for what it is worth, was a school science book that I had when I was in fourth or fifth grade. The book was a standard-issue 1950s schoolbook – battered, unloved, grimly hefty – but near the front it had an illustration that just captivated me: a cutaway diagram showing the Earth’s interior as it would look if you cut into the planet with a large knife and carefully withdrew a wedge representing about a quarter of its bulk.

It’s hard to believe that there was ever a time when I had not seen such an illustration before, but evidently I had not for I clearly remember being transfixed. I suspect, in  honesty, my initial interest was based on a private image of streams of unsuspecting eastbound motorists in the American plains states plunging over the edge of a sudden four-thousand-mile-high cliff running between Central America and the North Pole, but gradually my attention did turn in a more scholarly manner to the scientific import of the drawing and the realization that the Earth consisted of discrete layers, ending in the centre with a glowing sphere of iron and nickel, which was as hot as the surface of the Sun, according to the caption, and I remember thinking with real wonder: ‘How do they know that?’
I didn’t doubt the correctness of the information for an instant – I still tend to trust the pronouncements of scientists in the way I trust those of surgeons, plumbers, and other possessors of arcane and ¬ privileged information – but I couldn’t for the life of me conceive how any human mind could work out what spaces thousands of miles below us, that no eye had ever seen and no X-ray could penetrate, could look like and be made of. To me that was just a ¬ miracle. That has been my position with science ever since.

Excited, I took the book home that night and opened it before ¬ dinner – an action that I expect prompted my mother to feel my forehead and ask if I was all right – and, starting with the first page, I read.

And here’s the thing. It wasn’t exciting at all. It wasn’t actually altogether comprehensible. Above all, it didn’t answer any of the questions that the illustration stirred up in a normal enquiring mind: How did we end up with a Sun in the ¬ middle of our planet and how do they know how hot it is? And if it is burning away down there, why isn’t the ground under our feet hot to the touch? And why isn’t the rest of the interior melting – or is it? And when the core at last burns itself out, will some of the Earth slump into the void, leaving a giant sinkhole on the surface? And how do you know this? How did you figure it out?
But the author was strangely silent on such details – indeed, silent on everything but anticlines, synclines, axial faults and the like. It was as if he wanted to keep the good stuff secret by making all of it soberly unfathomable. As the years passed, I began to suspect that this was not altogether a private impulse. There seemed to be a mystifying – universal conspiracy among textbook authors to make certain the material they dealt with never strayed too near the realm of the mildly interesting and was always at least a long-distance phone call from the frankly interesting.

I now know that there is a happy abundance of science writers who pen the most lucid and thrilling prose – Timothy Ferris, Richard Fortey and Tim Flannery are three that jump out from a single station of the alphabet (and that’s not even to mention the late but godlike Richard Feynman) – but, sadly, none of them wrote any textbook I ever used. All mine were written by men (it was always men) who held the interesting notion that everything became clear when expressed as a formula and the amusingly deluded belief that the  children of America would appreciate having chapters end with a  section of questions they could mull over in their own time. So I grew up convinced that science was supremely dull, but suspecting that it needn’t be, and not really thinking about it at all if I could help it. This, too, became my position for a long time.


Why should a teacher care about Mindsets?

This post acts as an introduction to the webpage and is also the first link on that page.

Why will this post help to make me be a better teacher in my classroom?
Students of low academic ability often have a low opinion of themselves and believe that they will remain academically weak no matter how hard they try. This then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. To counter this, students need to develop a Growth rather than a Fixed Mindset. But it is important for students of all abilities. Developing a Growth Mindset is only likely to happen if teachers are aware of the issue and are prepared to work to encourage change.

Nobody rises to low expectations
Calvin Lloyd

One of the more generous things we can do for another person: believe in their capacity to change.

Teachers’ beliefs and commitments are the greatest influence on student achievement over which we can have some control.
John Hattie

Recent scientific evidence demonstrates both the incredible potential of the brain to grow and change and the powerful impact of growth mindset messages upon students’ attainment. Schooling practices, however, particularly in England, are based upon notions of fixed ability thinking which limits students’ attainment and increases inequality.


What is a Fixed Mindset?
People with a Fixed Mindset tend to believe that intelligence, personality and character are all carved in stone; potential is determined at birth.

What is a Growth Mindset?
People (including students and teachers) who have a Growth Mindset tend to believe that intelligence, personality and character can be developed and that a person’s true potential is unknown and unknowable.
Those with a Fixed Mindset tend to allow failure (or success) to dictate who they are, while those with a Growth Mindset tend to see setbacks as opportunities to grow and improve themselves. These people fully appreciate that to reach their potential takes practice and perseverance.
We have a choice as to which view we adopt for ourselves and it’s never too late to change.

As teachers we are constantly communicating messages to students about their ability and learning, whether we realise it or not. If we (consciously or subconsciously) subscribe to the Fixed Mindset view then we are imparting a message to our students that they are limited in what they can achieve and how much they can improve. If however we believe in a Growth Mindset we are much more likely to push our students and they in turn may be more likely to respond positively.

Put simply, if you focus on praising the student for an impressive result rather than instead praising the effort put in, you are – bizarre though it may seem – encouraging a Fixed Mindset. And that’s not good.


How to go from a Fixed to a Growth Mindset
There is a lot of online information on Fixed versus Growth mindsets but not so much on how to go from one to the other. The following pointers are worth bearing in mind if you do want to go down this road:

1. A Growth Mindset is not something you can develop overnight; it is an attitude you cultivate over an extended period of time.

2. The first step in changing is to recognise that you have a fixed mindset

3. You then need to accept that it is possible to change; you do have a choice

4. Finally, ask yourself how would someone with a growth mindset respond to the challenge at hand.

Much of the research on Mindset Theory comes from Carol Dweck; here is her advice on how a whole school approach might work

First, the students learn about the brain and all the wonderful things it does. How it’s involved in everything they do and everything they care about. Then they learn that they can grow their brains. Every time they stretch out of their comfort zone, do hard things, stick to hard things, their brains form stronger and stronger connections and over time their abilities can grow. And then we show them how they can apply it to their schoolwork.

Implications for STEM subjects
The Fixed Mindset view seems to be more of a challenge to girls than boys. It’s not that girls necessarily subscribe to it more than boys; but boys with a Fixed Mindset are more likely to assume that they are naturally good at these subjects while girls with a Fixed Mindset are more likely to assume that they’re not. The end result is that girls are more likely to avoid these subjects when it comes time to making a choice. I wonder if all those organisations who want to promote girls doing STEM subjects are aware of this, and if not how would it shape their programs?

Implications for Teachers as professionals
This post focuses on recognising Fixed or Growth Mindsets in our students, and encouraging them to go from one to the other.
But what about if we have a Fixed Mindset in relation to our own teaching ability? How could we recognise it, what consequences might it have and how could we change?
For another day perhaps, but if you’re interested in finding our more about it now I suggest you read some of the related blogposts on the Mindsets page of

Alternatively check out this YouTube link to a keynote lecture given by Carol Dweck in 2012. It’s 46 minutes long but it may just change how you interact with your students from now on. Unless, of course, you subscribe to a Fixed Mindset in relation to your own teaching. But if that was the case you probably wouldn’t be reading this in the first place.

Posts related to this are
Fail Better
Praise the effort, not the student (still in draft form)

Finally, below is a link to a Word document I put together to help students identify what mindset they subscribe to. It may or may not be fit for purpose, but if nothing else it will hopefully help to raise awareness of the issue with the students themselves.

Keeping parents in the loop

The following is a (slightly edited) email I sent out to parents recently. I include it here because it might prompt you to do something similar. I have posted previously (see link here) about the importance of keeping parents in the loop (and it is ALWAYS appreciated by parents). Feel free to copy and edit this to suit.

Dear parent,
Thank you for taking the time to come in and see me at the recent parent-teacher meeting. I am following up to maintain contact and to give you the opportunity to ask me anything that wasn’t covered in the meeting itself.

The idea that we are to communicate only once a year is crazy and as a parent it must be difficult trying to remember the comments from ten or more teachers, so hopefully this will help you keep track of the situation in relation to Science class.

During the meeting I jotted down various points that I wanted to expand upon.
They include the following:

We don’t use a textbook. I have found in the past that they contain a lot of extra information which isn’t necessary and for a young student it’s not always obvious which material is necessary and which isn’t. Instead they get a photocopy of notes for each chapter; these contain only the information that they will need to know. These notes also contain a copy of all exam questions that have appeared on that topic in the past (both at Ordinary Level and Higher Level) so they can become familiar with the detail required in their answers for Junior Cert itself.

Having said that, some students like to use the textbook for background reading.

I have asked the students to check that they have a copy of the notes on each of the chapters we covered this year.
If they are missing any they can ask me or they can download them themselves from (click on the relevant chapter from Junior Cert Biology, Chemistry or Physics).

Each chapter should be kept in a separate polypocket.

Students should also have a ‘Chapter Checklist’ which helps them monitor what chapters are covered and which we have yet to do throughout the year. This can be downloaded from here

It should be obvious how to read it but just in case; the chapters covered in Second Year are in column 2. For the Summer exams we also include the chapters from First Year that were covered between Christmas and Summer. These are in the second half of each (Physics/Chemistry/Biology) section.

We will have all the topics covered by the end of next week. After that it’s all revision plus hopefully enough ‘fun’ science to keep everyone interested during the final term.

Experiment Book
Students are expected to keep a record of all the mandatory experiments which they carry out over the three years. Some teachers give them books which they can purchase (or which may have come with the textbook). I prefer to give them out a booklet which I made out and which has been tailored for the specific experiments which we do in class. They don’t need to put in a detailed procedure (I have this done for them). They do however need to put in a diagram and results (where appropriate). I then include a series of questions which tries to tease out whether they really understand the experiment or are just going through the motions. I find this approach leads to more effective learning, with (much)  less heartache all round, while still satisfying the requirements of the Department. They usually fill these in during the class when they have finished the experiment so there’s less likelihood of them loosing the booklets by taking them home. I can also check very quickly that all experiments are up to date.

This is worth 10 % of their final mark. The mark is not dependent on the quality of the write-up or the quality of the results, they merely need to have a record of having done the experiment and I then sign off to this effect so that they can get full marks.

In Third Year the students carry out two investigations (the titles of which will be issued to them towards the end of the first term) and these are worth 25 % of their total mark. The marks are awarded on the basis of their write-up. We don’t need to worry about this until next year. The whole concept is a shambles, but we don’t get to make the rules so we just play ball.
See an old blogpost on this here

They should have a copy of the tests they did on each topic; this allows them to know what they got wrong and this therefore should be what they concentrate on when they go to revise. They were instructed to keep these in the same polypocket as the notes. However it may be that this system only becomes manageable as they become more organised.

You will sometimes receive advice as to how much time a student should be spending on homework on a given night. I tend to read advice like this with an impending sense of doom. When it comes to homework, it’s quality not quantity that counts. And most students just don’t know how to study properly. That’s not their fault; it’s ours for not showing them. If it was up to me I would have a separate subject on the school curriculum called simply ‘Study Skills’. But it’s not up to me. This is probably a good thing.

Revision / Study Skills / What can you do
We will shortly be revising all topics in advance of the exam. Either ask the student what topics are being revised on a given night or alternatively check what we did in class here
You can help be asking them the questions from the end of the notes (answers are also provided, in case your own Science knowledge isn’t quite up to scratch).

Why is Johnny doing great on short class tests but then performing dismally on end-of-term exams?
Doing well on short tests gives a misleading picture and quite often doesn’t translate into doing well on end-of-term exams. In fact it can often be counter-productive.

This ties in directly with what one of you mentioned that your son had said in relation to studying for exams (it had to be a boy). He claimed that “there’s no point learning a week in advance – it will be forgotten before the test”. He is spot on if all he wants to do is do well on that specific test. Cramming the night before does work (in fact it works too well for many students). The problem is that by only visiting the material once, it resides in short term memory only and is all long forgotten before the Summer exams come around.

No problem – we can just cram for everything the night before the Summer exam also – right?

Sadly no; the short term memory (working memory) has only a limited capacity so it’s not going to be able to store a year’s worth of material at short notice.

So the material needs to be in long term memory.
How do we do that?
Answer: Constant (effective)  revision

Which brings us back to Study Skills
In summary:


·         Study for the sake of studying

·         Spend all your time reading notes

·         Spend all your time ‘doing’ the questions (if this merely involves transcribing the information from the textbook to the copy)

·         Waste time writing out the notes

·         Waste time highlighting


·         Set a target

·         Study the material to ensure you ensure you understand it

·         Test yourself

·         Check your answers

·         Learn what went wrong

·         Repeat the test after a short period (say an hour)

·         Repeat again as desired

In short, learning is about retrieval of information from long-term memory.

Rather than writing any more about Homework and Study Skills here I will simply point you to two recent blogposts I penned on the subject. It’s then up to you to read or not as you see fit.
Homework – how effective is it (answer: not much)
Study Skills – how to study hard and still fail

I do try to incorporate these ideas into my own teaching, so with Second Years I give very little homework, and we try to do all our learning in class.

Why do students go through eight years of primary education and six years of secondary education (and quite possibly four or more years of third level education) without ever learning how to learn?
Beats me.
Answers on a postcard please . . .

Student Feedback
Interestingly a number of you mentioned that your son/daughter was reluctant to speak up in class. I have a couple of techniques which I use to counter that – some more successful than others.

One is the use of Coloured Cups; each student gets three cups (red, orange and green). Red means that they don’t understand what the heck I’m on about, Orange means they kinda get it but aren’t too confident. Green means that that get it and are confident that they could explain it to a colleague if asked to do so. They keep cups stacked in front of them with the appropriate cup on top. It means that I can ascertain how the class is going with a quick scan, and as I’m walking around I can stop and take time with an individual where necessary. Tied to that is the use of MiniWhiteBoards (“ShowMe” boards) – students are often happy to write an answer on these in contrast to putting up their hand so it’s another useful weapon to have in the armory. I would however ask that you purchase a couple of whiteboard markers for this purpose. I asked the students to get these themselves but I’m still waiting . . .

In order to make the learning more effective I try to make sure that the students are engaging with their learning. This means getting them to solve problems, make predictions or answer questions in advance of doing an experiment or showing them a demonstration.
Some students are reluctant to make a prediction or take on a challenge because they associate making mistakes (or not getting the right answer) with failure. And they see failure as being Bad. I try to dissuade them of this notion – that failure is a necessary part of the learning process –  but sometimes feel I’m trying to hold back the tide. Therefore it was nice to see that The Science Gallery are currently holding an exhibition on Failure entitled Fail Better. If you get a chance you should head in there with your son/daughter and hopefully they will come away with (as Johnny Cash says) a different point of view. And – you’ve guessed it – I have written about this in more detail here

Academically exceptional students
For some of you, your son/daughter is in the academically exceptional category. You will no doubt have noticed that this can be a mixed blessing in school because, as a rule, teachers just don’t know how to accommodate these students. There are a number of support organisations out there but the one I would recommend most highly is the one with the greatest personal touch;
Tell Catherine I sent you.

Gifted Ireland is a meeting point for parents, teachers and adults interested in supporting and exploring the needs of gifted children and adults in Ireland

If I can help you in any other way please don’t hesitate to give me a shout by email or via a quick text08.

Study Skills: Engagement and Retrieval

This post acts as an introduction to the webpage and is also the first link on that page.
It also complements a previous post on the same topic: Misconceptions about how students learn  – otherwise known as How to Study Hard and Still Fail.

Why might this post help make me be a better teacher?

  • Teaching students how to study more effectively at home should be a normal part of every teacher’s job description (but isn’t). The benefit of developing a student’s study skills is self-evident.
  • Many of the these skills also relate to how a student learns best in the classroom and so should form an intrinsic part of your teaching methodology.

Key Points

  1. Students don’t know how to study because nobody has ever shown them – and even if they have attended a study seminar, chances are that it didn’t make much difference because we teachers don’t follow up it with them.
  2. This is due in no small part to the fact that we don’t know what constitutes effective study.
  3. All study techniques are not equal
    One half hour of effective studying is much more beneficial than two or three hours of ineffective study.

Students don’t know how to study because nobody has ever shown them. Only we – their teachers – can help in this regard. Our first step is to familiarise ourselves with the knowledge. Knowing how students learn should dramatically alter our approach to our classroom teaching.

The fact that students don’t know how to study may come as a shock, but when you think about it it shouldn’t. After all, nobody has ever taken the time to show them what techniques are effective and just as importantly what techniques are ineffective.

So what constitutes ineffective study?

  1. Highlighting material
  2. Writing out notes from a textbook or copying from teachers’ notes
  3. Reading over material covered in class
  4. Looking at mindmaps
  5. Cramming the night before the exam
  6. Making flashcards

These are not completely ineffective (and some are slightly more beneficial than others) but by in large they should be avoided. Of the six techniques outlined above, writing out notes is the greatest scoundrel in that it takes an inordinate amount of time, whereas highlighting, though equally ineffective, at least doesn’t waste that much time. It doesn’t help that the student may well believe that he has a good grasp of the material after writing it out; the point is that he is much less likely to remember the material long term using this technique.

Having said that, if you are highlighting or writing out material as a first step in the learning process (i.e. with a view of going back over the material using the effective learning techniques outlined below) then that’s a different story.

So what constitutes effective study?
Answer: anything which involves engagement and/or retrieval

  1. Testing yourself (and following up in an appropriate manner)
  2. Teaching others
  3. And you need to have set specific targets (both short and long-term

The ideal way to go about testing yourself is to first read over the material to confirm that you understand it. Then answer as many questions as you can on the topic, whether they be from the book or from exam papers.

Now you have to go back and check the answers.

The purpose of the test is two-fold; it acts to highlight what you don’t know but also – and this is the key point – it is in the act of retrieving the information that it becomes more securely stored in the long term memory. In short, it’s all about retrieval.

Aside – how your brain stores information
Your brain is not an empty vessel into which you can pour and store information. In so far as it can be considered to be a vessel of any type it should be seen as being a leaky one. You could also make comparisons to the memory in a computer; it seems to store information in either its hard drive (long term memory) or RAM (short term memory). In both cases there is one critical difference between the computer’s memory and yours; yours is leaky. The challenge for students is to ensure that the information is stored as securely as possible in their long-term memory. So how can they do this? Two words: Engagement and Retrieval.

Why are some techniques ineffective?
The six ineffective techniques outlined above all fail simply because there is little if any engagement with the material. While this is obviously context dependent, writing out notes can often (but not always!) consist of simply transferring material from one page to another with very little thinking going on in the process. The same goes for most of the other techniques in this category.

Consider the following:
Think of how difficult it is to remember the names of a group of people you’ve just been introduced to in some social scene.
If it was just one new name (one item of information) then there’s a good chance that you might remember, but if the number is closer to ten then you have no chance. Why not?
Because the information has passed over you without you having any chance to engage with it.

Think of it from another perspective. Your brain can remember an incredible amount of information, but not an infinite amount. So it needs some signal to determine whether information it is currently exposed to (notation for Boyle’s Law or hair-colour of a passing student) needs to be remembered or not. What signal does it use?
Answer: Engagement.
The more you engage with the material the more the brain realises that this is not just some random factoid than should be discarded as quickly as possible. But what does the word ‘engagement’ mean? I think of it as anything that causes the brain to come out of its ‘Sleep Mode’. Hence testing yourself and teaching (or even better arguing) with others.

So this helps the brain store the information in the first place. But bearing in mind that the memory is a leaky vessel, how do we keep the information there?
Answer: Retrieval.
To go back to the analogy used above, if you’re at the party and were introduced to just one man then you may or may not be able to recall his name one minute later. If however you have  no subsequent dealings with him then you’re much less likely to remember the information a week later. Why not? Because the brain works on the (reasonable) assumption that if you haven’t recalled the information over a relatively long period of time then it’s probably not important. So how do you ensure that the brain keeps the information? By retrieving it every so often (revision tests are therefore ideal). If you’re retrieving it then you’re ‘telling’ your brain that this information is worth hanging on to.

When is the best time to retrieve the information?
The research seems to be still out on this one, but one strong possibility is that the best time for retrieval is when the information is just on the point of being lost (the old ‘it’s on the tip of my tongue’ feeling). Of course there’s no way of knowing when a student is at this point, but it’s not a bad rule of thumb to go by.

This explains why cramming is not an effective learning technique. It may well get you past the short chapter test which you have the following day, but because there was no engagement and no regular retrieval going on, the information isn’t likely to remain in the memory for long.

This of course can serve to open up a bigger debate: from a student’s perspective doing well on a short test without ever understanding the material is still a perfectly valid objective. The challenge is for us as teachers to persuade students of the futility of this. The phenomenon is most easily identified when you look at a student who averages 80% or 90% in class tests at Junior Cert level, but then bombs an end of year exam. Now you (and hopefully they) can understand why.

It’s worth noting that most of this relates to studying factual information. Studying a language or a practical skill does of course rely on lots of practice. But even here you could fall foul of some misconceptions. Practicing without engaging (or without getting feedback) is of limited use. So for example if you want to improve your typing speed, practice by itself will bring your speed up to a certain level but it will then plateau. To increase it further you need to engage with what you’re learning and this is where a typing program comes in.

Spacing and Interleaving
Two other important concepts when studying are Spacing and Interleaving.

When learning new material or new skills, spacing the learning episodes over large periods of time will improve the long-term retention.

If studying 3 subjects over one night, it’s much more effective to interleave them rather than studying subject 1 then subject 2 then subject 3 (which is the default but also ‘lazy’ way).

For more information on spacing and interleaving click on the links that I uploaded to the following webpage:

So how do I use this information in the classroom?
If your subject is fact-based then testing should be a regular feature of your classes. But you need to stress that the function of the test is not to come up with a percentage at the end (in fact this is actually likely to be counterproductive); it is to identify what is and is not known or understood, and also (possibly more importantly) the act of retrieval serves to store the self-same information more securely for the future. So rather than spending the first ten minutes of your class checking and correcting homework (see this link for my post on the dubious benefits of setting homework), and a better policy may be using this time to run a short quiz covering important points from the previous class or classes. Only you can ascertain the best way of doing this, but don’t be afraid to experiment and don’t expect to get it write first time or every time.

Once I became aware of the importance of engagement  in student learning (otherwise known as ‘deep processing’) it changed how I try and teach every single lesson of every single day.

I give a version of this post to students but include a series of questions at the end (it helps them to engage).

Ask and you shall receive

Homework – much ado about nothing?

This post acts as an introduction to the webpage and is also the first link on that page.

Why will this post help to make me be a better teacher in my classroom?

  1. Much of the research on the effectiveness of homework – particularly homework which is set without deliberate thought – found it to be of little if any use.
  2. Setting homework can actually be counterproductive; not only does the student not gain from spending time on it in the evening, it can also take up valuable class time to correct – time which could be better spent on other activities.
  3. If you do decide to set homework make sure you can justify it both to yourself and to your students. I try to avoid completely giving ‘busy’ homework to Junior Cert students. At Leaving Cert level I usually ask Physics students to look over questions based on the day’s lesson (if it’s a theory class) and mark the questions which would cause them difficulty. We then focus on these in the following class. For Applied Maths I when we questions in class I will set them similar-type questions to do for homework because the practice reinforces their learning the skills required to solve those particular problems.

clavin homework

After spending most of the day in school, children are typically given additional assignments to be completed at home.  This is a rather curious fact when you stop to think about it, but not as curious as the fact that few people ever stop to think about it.
Alfie Kohn
Rethinking Homework

Marking is the punishment you get for not getting the learning right when the students were in front of you.

Teacher: Where is your homework?
Student: I lost it fighting this kid who said you weren’t the best teacher in school!

School Policy
Does your school have a policy on homework? If so it probably suggests how much time each student should spend on homework each night (differentiated by year).
There is one slight problem with this however: there is little in the way of credible research to back this up.
Not only that; the link between homework and learning is itself tenuous at best.
The problem is not (just) the policy. The problem certainly isn’t the students. The problem is the teachers and the  homework we set.

What we do know is that work which is given thoughtlessly (“do all the odd-numbered questions from 1 to 19”) is of little real value, despite the potential frustration and heart-ache it can cause at home for student and parent alike.

There is an argument to be made for homework acting as a means of recanting the day’s work. In this context it is better referred to as ’daily practice’, which is what it is, rather than ‘homework’, which has such negative connotations.
This can h
owever be counterproductive if students ‘practice’ a procedure incorrectly over and over again. The teacher then has to work twice as hard to correct the incorrect learning in the classroom the next day. But when the practice occurs in class the teacher can correct and re-teach on the spot.

Do we give homework ‘just because’ it’s expected or ‘just because’ we need to keep the little terrors busy or ‘just because’?
In particular you should avoid the ‘busy homework’ syndrome (“all the odd-numbered questions” mentioned above). Another common example in Science class is getting students to write up a report of the experiment which they carried out that day in class. But what function does this serve? If they do need to have a record of their work then why not issue them with a booklet with all the drudgery already filled in (the ‘Procedure’) and gaps left for the diagram and results. This then allows time for answering higher order questions based on the experiment, but why set these for homework – why not use them as the perfect raw material for group work which leads to developing oral presentation skills?

Busy Homework
In a nutshell, ‘busy homework’ is work that doesn’t necessitate the student thinking about what they’re doing to any great degree. Are they just taking the relevant information from the textbook and transcribing it into their copies to serve as an answer, in contrast to actively engaging with the material to the extent that it is developing a stronger and deeper understanding of the concepts?

And don’t get sucked into thinking that project-work (particularly posters) make ideal homework. Where is the learning if the poster is created with material copied from the internet or the textbook (see the Calvin and Hobbes cartoon above)?

Marking Homework
What’s the point in taking up a copy just to write in a comment which the student is in all likelihood only going to glance at? Now if you insist on the student acting on your comments then that’s different – now we’re in the realm of quality feedback. But then you need to follow that up by checking if they have learned from the process. I don’t believe many teachers (myself included) are in this bracket, but I do accept it’s something we should be heading towards. But it’s not intrinsically linked to homework.

If you feel you must give homework, it should be differentiated for that student. In practice this very rarely happens.

For many students their language skills may not be up to the challenge of understanding the homework and it may be that they are not in a position to ask anybody at home for help. So what could be sorted out instantly in class now becomes a potential source of frustration and even embarrassment.
It has been said that homework can batter a struggling child with negativity, challenging his self-confidence instead of nurturing it.

On the other hand if a student’s grades are good and he or she is able to display independent learning then what extra benefit are they gaining by doing homework in the first place?

The heartache of homework
Unless you have kids of your own you can probably never appreciate the life-experiences that your students are missing out on by having to stay indoors and do the homework you set them. Sometimes they just need time to enjoy life for its own sake. Can you still justify setting them homework? This is not to suggest that you shouldn’t set any, but if you are setting it you should at least be able to justify it on this basis.

What are the benefits of a ‘no-homework’ policy?

  • No need to check the homework at the beginning of class.
  • No need to correct the homework.
  • No need to listen to all the excuses.
  • No need to decide which excuses are valid and which aren’t (“it’s in my locker – I can show it to you later”).
  • No need to chastise those who didn’t do the homework (and don’t have a valid excuse).
  • No need to be in a confrontational situation as a result of not accepting the excuse.
  • No need to rebuild the relationship between yourself and the students you just chastised.
  • No need to set lunchtime detention for those who didn’t do the homework.
  • No need to give up your lunchtime to supervise this detention.
  • No need to keep records of homework not done.
  • If you decide that the work will instead be carried out in class then you know the work is the student’s own.
  • You (and the students) have an extra 10 minutes of class time

Use your newly-created time wisely
See that extra 10 minutes you created through no homework? – use it to get feedback on what the students learned in that class (what John Hattie refers to as ‘know thy impact’). What you thought was a brilliant lesson may turn out to have been nothing of the sort. Not likely you think? Fine, but how can you be sure? Focusing on your teaching is actually not all that important; the emphasis should instead be on the students’ learning. What did they learn? What didn’t they learn? What difficulties did they encounter? What would they like or need to revisit next class?

Why not ask students for their own opinion about the homework they receive?
How useful do they believe it to be?
Are some types more beneficial than others?
Will they buy into the deal that for there to be no homework, the students must be prepared to work more efficiently during class time?

So what does effective homework look like?
The student should clearly see the reason for needing to do the homework.
It needs to be work that requires the student to focus – if they can do it without engaging with the material (or while watching television) then it is of very low value.
If it is for revision purposes then spaced repetition is important (if devoting two hours in the week to revise Physics, it’s better to do a half hour each night for four nights rather than one night of two hours – and each night make sure to recap the previous work). So also is interleaving (if you are devoting an hour to Physics on one night then better to break up (interleave) the work by studying other subjects in between. The key here is ‘forcing’ the brain to retrieve information previously stored in its memory bank. The more times it has to retrieve this information the more securely it will be stored in the long term memory.

Of course if you really want to succeed as a teacher then aim to inspire the students during the day to such an extent that they choose to follow up on the material themselves at home. If this happens then you know you’ve really struck gold in the lesson.Homework2

And whatever you do, don’t do this

Promoting Applied Maths in your school

Applied Maths is one of the few subjects that has no counterpart at Junior Cert level. As such students often have little idea about the subject, which partly explains its low take-up rate for the Leaving Cert. The following are some ideas I use when promoting Applied Maths in the school.
As teachers we don’t usually go talking to individual students about their subject-choice for the Leaving Cert but it’s important to note that many students may not consider doing Applied Maths simply because nobody has ever suggested it to them  Sometimes just a quiet word with one or two students who you know are comfortable at maths may be enough to make them consider a subject they otherwise wouldn’t have thought of.
I run two or three ‘taster’ classes around this time each year just so the students have some idea about the subject. I give them out a workbook and also a separate ‘Common Questions which Students ask about Applied Maths’ booklet which aims to answer many of the questions they may have about the subject (see below for the link).
I also ask their houseperson to forward on an email from me to the parents of all TY students and I attach the ‘Common Questions’ booklet for them to look through. I encourage the parents to get back in touch with me if they need any more information. Parents and students may be reluctant to sign up to a subject if they are unsure what’s involved, and sometimes just letting them know that you’ve available for them might be enough to make them reconsider.
Having said all that, I didn’t find last year’s paper to be one which would encourage the uptake of the subject.
I have attached the information booklet below – it would need to be edited to suit your own school.
I have copied and pasted information from both the IAMTA journals and website into the booklets so I make no claims as to their originality.

Applied Maths: Whats It All About? by physicsteacher

Just some ideas.

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better

This post acts as an introduction to the webpage and will also be the first link on that page.

Why will this post help to make me be a better teacher in my classroom?

  1. It will help you to realise that making mistakes/failure is a necessary part of the learning process for students.
  2. It will help you to help your students realise this.
  3. It will give you ideas to help your students overcome their fear of making mistakes and as a result your teaching and their learning will be more effective.

First Attempt in Learning

Your best teacher is your last mistake

Failure is a process…you have to fail over and over again to get anything worthwhile
Jules Feiffer

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better

show me board

These are called ‘Show-Me’ boards or ‘mini-whiteboards’. They have made quite a difference to the way I teach over the last few years. I got them initially just to try them out and was rather sceptical. After all, what could they do that an A4 page couldn’t?
Quite a lot is the answer.

Students love them. Whether it’s the novelty alone or not I don’t know but if they’re lying on the table when they come in they straightaway grab them and start doodling. They like them to such an extent that when I say: “Right, quick test”, their first response (rather than moaning) is to say; “can we use the boards”?

But it’s from a pedagogical perspective that they really come into their own. Students don’t like to fail. They don’t like to make mistakes. Mistakes are wrong. Mistakes are bad. Mistakes are to be avoided and creating a permanent record of a mistake is to be avoided at all costs. It’s why students leave lots of blanks on their exam papers. After all, what happens if somebody sees their answer and it ends up on a staffroom wall or worse, an internet site for all to gawp at?
But with a Show-Me board all answers can be erased with one swipe of the hand. So it’s much safer to ‘have a go’ at a question even if you’re not sure if the answer is correct.
My list of teachers’ blogposts related to ‘Show-Me’ boards

When doing ‘Predict-Observe-Explain’ for a demonstration, ask the class to make a prediction and the usual hands go up, which means those with hands down either don’t know or don’t have the confidence to speak (we’ll conveniently ignore the category of student who just couldn’t give a rat’s arse either way). With the Show-Me board they all have to write something, and (this point is crucial) by holding them up (“show me”) and looking forward, only the teacher gets to see what they’ve written, so again they’re more likely to have a go. I stress to them in advance that’s it’s just a guess – being wrong is not a problem. But by making a prediction they have invested a little of themselves in the demonstration so are much more likely to see how it progresses and more importantly to learn from any wrong answer.

Fear of failure also explains why, when giving feedback to our students, we need to praise the effort, not the student. The problem is that if we tell the student she is excellent, she is less likely to engage in a new challenge because (from her perspective) failure might result in her dropping down in our esteem, whereas if we praised the effort then she will continue to be comfortable engaging with new challenges. And it’s not just secondary-school students; it applies to all ages. For more on this see my page of resources

The following relates to a paper published by the American Psychological Association, highlighted recently by ScienceDaily:

Children may perform better in school and feel more confident about themselves if they are told that failure is a normal part of learning, rather than being pressured to succeed at all costs.

“We focused on a widespread cultural belief that equates academic success with a high level of competence and failure with intellectual inferiority,” said Frederique Autin, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Poitiers in Poitiers, France. “By being obsessed with success, students are afraid to fail, so they are reluctant to take difficult steps to master new material. Acknowledging that difficulty is a crucial part of learning could stop a vicious circle in which difficulty creates feelings of incompetence that in turn disrupts learning.”

Eric Mazur is a physics professor who is forcing many institutions in the U.S. to reconsider how they assess their students. His work also resonates on this side of the Atlantic, and not just at college level.

In a recent lecture entitled “The Silent Killer of Learning”, Mazur argued that current assessments problematically rob students of the freedom to make mistakes.

“Making mistakes is a part of problem solving,” said Mazur, but “grading is incompatible with real problem-solving because it penalizes students for making mistakes …. It makes students risk averse.”

Mazur also noted that current tests, in an attempt to make objective questions, have stripped away questions that require students to make or form their own assumptions.

The importance of this can not be underestimated, particularly in the world of Science where misconceptions are rife and even more so in physics where so many concepts are counter-intuitive to begin with. My page of resources related to science misconceptions.
Alastair over on pedagoo in a post entitled ‘Positive Failure VS the Age of Success’ writes that

Most people, when directly confronted with evidence that they are wrong, will not change their point of view or course of action, but will dig in and justify it even more. If we are not prepared to admit we have failed, then how can we learn from it?

Giving Up
Students now assume that when they come to a difficult patch in their learning, they either put up their hand to get the answer or put the pen down and give up. When you ask them why, they simply say “I don’t know what to do”. The thought that perhaps they could try something to see where it leads doesn’t seem to carry much currency with them. Why not? Partly laziness, partly fear of failure.
When this happens I give them a variation of the following:

Imagine your family are held at gunpoint while you are here struggling with this problem. Their only chance of rescue lies with you finding the solution in the next ten minutes. Failure will result in death for all.
Will you still give up because you don’t know for certain what the next step is? Or will you make an attempt of some sort because it might, just might, lead to freedom?
So why is inaction an acceptable option if there’s no gun involved?

Hollywood has it wrong: Failure is an option. Ignoring it is not.

By coincidence, uploading this post coincides with the launch of The Science Gallery’s latest exhibition entitled, would you believe it, “Fail Better”. It looks fantastic. Can’t wait to visit.
Check it out.

science galleryThe goal of FAIL BETTER is to open up a public conversation about failure, particularly the instructive role of failure, as it relates to very different areas of human endeavour. Rather than simply celebrating failure, which can come at great human, environmental and economic cost, we want to open up a debate on the role of failure in stimulating creativity: in learning, in science, engineering and design.

Everything a Primary School teacher (or student) needs to know about gravity. And then some.

This post is in the context of a question posed by a primary teacher on a forum recently. Rather than reply there I thought it safer to do so where I could offer a more comprehensive answer.

We tend to associate the concept of gravity with the English scientist Isaac Newton who lived in the seventeenth century.
But he didn’t ‘invent’ gravity; objects were falling to earth long before Newton arrived on the scene, so what exactly did he do?

He did what so many other kids do; he asked asked a silly question. ‘Why do things fall down?’
It does seem like a silly question, which is why nobody took it seriously before, but when you think about it it’s actually quite profound; how does the apple in an appletree ‘know’ which way to fall? How does the earth ‘know’ (if it pulls the apple down) that the apple is there in the first place ? Newton was never able to answer that question. He famously said  “Hypotheses non fingo” (Latin for “I feign [frame] no hypotheses,” or in other words, “I haven’t a clue why this works the way it does”). It’s not like there’s a string connecting the two objects, but yet the apple acts as though there were indeed an invisible string pulling it downwards.
What form does that invisible string take?

I don’t know the answer, but I do know that scientists haven’t fully worked it out yet either.
It has been suggested that all objects exchange particles called ‘gravitons’ and it is as part of this exchange process that the objects come together. The problem is that these gravitons have never been detected.

Another possibility is gravitational waves. These were postulated by Einstein in his Theory of General Relativity. There has been some indirect evidence for these but again they haven’t yet been detected directly. We know we don’t know all there is to know about gravity, and to suggest otherwise would be to do a disservice to your students. In fact the same holds for a lot of science. Gravity does seem to be a little like magnetism, yet the rules which govern gravity don’t work for magnetism and vice versa. The holy grail of physics is to show how the rules that govern the motion of very large objects like planets is connected to the rules that govern the operation of very small objects like atoms. And there’s absolutely no reason why one of your students can’t be the one to make this connection and win their very own Nobel Prize (with a bit of luck they will acknowledge  you  in their acceptance speech as the spark which ignited their passion for Science).
Matthew is a former student of mine and is currently doing a PhD with NASA on this topic. I asked him to explain it to me:

“In the Einsteinian framework, however, gravity is not a force but a curve in space-time. So any object with mass induces a curve in the spacetime around it. Any other object no longer travels along a flat spacetime, but along a curved path. That’s essentially what’s happening to the apple. Instead of hovering at the end of the branch as it would in a flat spacetime, the ‘forward direction’ of spacetime is curved due to the Earth, so the apple just follows that curve, which in three spatial dimensions is just a straight line down.”

Watch the following clip for a wonderful demonstration of a curving space-time –  imagine doing this with your kids in class: you can tell them you are studying Einstein and doing Rocket Science.

But while Newton couldn’t say why gravity worked, he was able to quantify the force of gravity, i.e. he was able to devise a formula which now enables us to say how big the force of attraction will be between any two objects. It depends on how big the objects are (or more specifically their masses) and the distance between them.

It turns out that any two objects will exert a gravitational pull on each other. Now this is mad. It means that there is a force of attraction between you and your biro, and if it was just the two of you floating in space with no other objects or planets in existence, that force of attraction would result in the biro moving towards you and you moving towards the biro. Similarly there is a force of attraction beween each student and the student next to them (cue lots of giggles) and the bigger the size (or mass) of either student, the bigger will be the force.

Newton also established that the force that kept the planets in orbit around the sun was the same force as that which pulled the apple to earth. This idea was a big, big deal at the time. It meant that the planets followed the same laws of physics as objects on earth. Prior to this ‘the heavens’ were thought to be the realm of the gods or God and therefore not subject to our analysis but after Newton they were seen as fair game for anybody to study. I don’t think there’s any way we can really appreciate how big a deal this was. And while Newton wasn’t the very first to realise this, he was the first to demonstrate it mathematically.

The following is a nice video which outlines the significance of Newton and Einstein to our understanding of gravity. You only need the first ten minutes.

The bottom line for me is that you have an incredible audience who will lap this stuff up. Please, please don’t play down the mystery or the wonder. That, unfortunately, is what happens at second level and I have been trying to get teachers to fight it my entire professional career, with very limited success (it doesn’t seem to bother many other teachers, but I have it bad).

Don’t allow your lack of technical knowledge to put you off engaging with the material. Remember when it comes to Science nobody, and I mean nobody, has all the answers. If we’re looking to turn some of these kids into scientists then what they need more than anything else is curiosity and a good old-fashioned sense of wonder. If you can help develop that then everything else will follow.

Fun (and very effective) revision activity

Here’s an oldie but a goodie (I first did this as a Fifth Year student in Tarbert Comprehensive on a religious retreat back in Ballyheigue. It’s also all I remember from the retreat). It is an exercise in communication but acts as both an excellent revision activity and ticks the verbal literacy box. And it’s a lot of fun.

I did it with my Leaving Cert Physics class because I have them last class on Friday (and Jacqui finds it hard to concentrate). So a challenge I have now set for myself is to find a fun learning activity for them every Friday between now and May.

Students pair up in twos (I love saying that, just to annoy the pedants). They can pair up in threes if there’s one left over.
Students sit back to back.

There are 24 mandatory leaving cert experiments. The first student (student 1) picks an experiment (or is assigned one) and, with his (or her) back to student 2, proceeds to instruct on how to draw the experimental apparatus. But here’s the kick: student 1 can only instruct student 2 one line at a time, e.g. “Start at the top of the page and draw a line parallel to the top half-way across. Now draw a line down three quarters of the page”. Student 1 cannot however tell student 2 to draw a power supply; student 2 has to figure this out from the instructions. Obviously student 2 doesn’t know what the experiment is and the aim is for him or her to figure this out in the shortest time possible. Neither can student 2 communicate with student 1 in any way; he just has to follow instructions as best he can. At the same time student 1 can’t look over her shoulder to see how the diagram is progressing.

Once identified, student 2 then gets a turn at calling out the instructions for another experiment which student 1 has to draw and try to identify in a shorter time.
Alternatively have all pairs doing doing the same experiment and see which pair can identify the experiment first.

So yes it’s great fun, and yes it really demands a high level of verbal and spatial reasoning, but the reason I really like it is because it involves active learning; student 2 is mentally retrieving all the experiments to see which one best matches the diagram. And this has been shown, time and time again, to be one of the most effective ways to learn.

You could spend five minutes on this at the beginning of every lesson. There’s also no reason why this can’t be rolled out for Junior Cert Science students.

Another nice aspect to it is that there is no preparation on the teacher’s part; no photocopying, correcting or cleaning up afterwards.

Finally, we use mini-whiteboards (also known as “Show Me” boards) in class – they are perfect for this activity.

Imagine if we all shared our own one favorite fail-safe activity?