Synergy in learning: tutors and student support assistants (SSAs) working together to promote learner self-assessment

Redcar + Cleveland College

The project promoted more effective partnerships between teachers and Student Support Assistants (SSAs) working in Redcar & Cleveland College through a process of experimentation with strategies to aid learners’ self-assessment, thus stimulating more independent learning. Togetherness! Teachers, SSA and Students in an arrow hitting a target that says 'Promoting Learning' Teachers and SSAs evaluated strategies designed to illuminate the learners’ progress during teaching sessions so that appropriate responses could be discussed between SSAs and tutors as the lessons progressed and challenges became apparent. Successful implementation of these approaches required effective organisational scheduling to ensure that SSAs were deployed most effectively across the project.

Key features of this project included:

  • Teacher and SSA partnerships fully involved in regular “research and development” sessions;
  • Careful tailoring of action research activities so that SSAs and teachers felt comfortable and confidently to experiment and share all findings;
  • Use of practitioner-friendly evaluation methods (e.g. meetings and “Padlet”) so that developments could be charted and modified as appropriate


In-house observations and a 2016 Redcar & Cleveland College Ofsted report support published research (Sharples, Webster and Blatchford, 2015; Sanders, 2017) which indicated that learning support provision was often both neglected and ineffectively utilised in classrooms and workshops. This project was identified as an opportunity to give sustained attention to the valuable potential of SSAs that are too often taken-for-granted and not fully exploited within College teaching and learning relationships.

The project aimed at:

  1. Enabling teachers to implement strategies to help learners requiring support to take increased responsibility for their learning.
  2. Providing a forum for teachers and Student Support assistants to develop collaborative strategies that would challenge learners.

Project Activities and Outputs

Approach and Methdology

The Project Leader used her role as a college-wide Teaching and Learning Practitioner (TLP) to select a team of six tutors, six SSAs and three TLPs to promote more effective partnerships between tutors and SSAs in implementing strategies to aid learners’ self-assessment. The team engaged in a regular programme of professional development activities to ensure that the learning support experience was rigorously investigated.  Both SSAs and teachers were supported to engage in action research.  This support paid special attention to ensuring that all participants could attend, and when possible, occasional events were held in local hotels with a meal provided to create protected time so that established working arrangements could be made more professionally focused.  This approach helped create commitment to the project and to the other participants.  It enabled a re-evaluation of existing relationships, and created a motivating ethos of respect and purpose between teachers and SSAs, who expressed pride in the newly-formed professional learning community.

The initial action research activities included comparing the SSAs’ and teachers’ experiences of student support with findings and guidance from published literature.  The team held fortnightly meetings and planned paired experimental approaches in classes, which increased both team cohesion and participants’ professional learning about what SSAs and teachers could achieve through working together.  Information about the role and challenges for SSAs was collected from focus group discussion; questionnaires; observations of practice; artefacts produced by learners; and teachers’ and SSAs’ reflective diaries.

What Changes Were Made? What Did the Project Produce?In Today's work I will... Review at the end of the lesson: EBI WWW and target setting

The project team identified that much existing advice about successful teacher and assistant relationships focused on providing protected joint planning time.  The practitioners realised that this might seem a good idea, but attempts at joint planning were often frustrated by practical realities, so they began to concentrate on producing resources that would stimulate attention to learners’ needs within the lesson, when teachers and SSAs could effectively intervene and respond to immediate needs.  The SSAs began working with teachers and introduced a range of practical activities (e.g. review tickets) to help learners recognise and record their progress and “sticking points”.  These “Interim Review tickets” were based upon “Exit tickets”, but in this project, instead of waiting until the learning session had finished, they were introduced midway through the session, so that meaningful discussions about the session could be held, and any barriers could be addressed.  (These can be found in Appendix1).    These classroom experiments by teacher and SSA pairings led to a variety of stimuli, including mind maps, learning mats and “question stem” cards (also in Appendix 3) being used and evaluated.  These practical resources prompted better in-class communication between learner, SSA and teacher during sessions when the teacher and SSA could take immediate action.

The results of these sessions were recorded by both the SSAs and the teachers in their individual diaries (which had been purchased through the project) and the diary reflections were shared at a series of breakfast meetings and awaydays for the project team. (See Appendix 4 for examples of the diaries.)

Professional Learning

Evidence of changes in teaching, learning and assessment practices.Self Assessment Ticket

Towards the end of the project team members were asked to evaluate their participation and identify any changes to their teaching, learning and assessment practices.  The enclosed Padlets provide an overview of their findings and indicate that the whole process has been extremely beneficial to all participants as learners’ progress has been made more “visible”, and staff have been better placed to respond.  Staff feedback in the Padlets also provide further evidence of improved collaboration between tutors and SSAs and clearly relate to addressing the Professional Standards. The organisation has supported the project and it is hoped the good work carried out to date will be developed further in the coming academic year.

Evidence of improved collaboration and changes in organisational practices

The project lead organised dedicated in-house and external CPD opportunities for SSAs and teachers which provided an excellent basis for practice development, as responsive strategies were introduced by classroom partnerships who were enjoying a new level of research-informed professional relationship.  Tutors and SSAs reported more effective working relationships. SSAs stated that during the project, their contributions, skills and knowledge have been more widely acknowledged, and teachers acknowledge a new recognition of the potential of SSAs contributions. Teachers and SSAs were both using and contributing to educational theory.  The practical resources and strategies from the project were rolled out to all 73 teaching staff in the Autumn term as part of an organisational CPD event.

Further in-house sessions were organised following the project extension including a training session exploring more effective use of formative assessment and feedback.  The project team focused on Hattie’s model of feedback levels and how these could be applied in practice.  They also considered the use of Directed Improvement and Reflection Time (DIRT) for learners.  During this session the team agreed on new approaches to supporting learners which were implemented and regularly reviewed at fortnightly team meetings before final evaluation at the end of the project.

“The changes when the SSA isn’t in the classroom are significant”

– Teacher

“We have learned that it is possible to introduce change and that even small changes can make a huge difference to how people work together to promote learning.”


Evidence of improvement in learners’ achievements, retention and progression.

The resources developed within the project (see Appendices 1-3) have enabled tutors and SSAs to collaboratively use more effective formative assessment strategies.  They help identify and clarify difficulties experienced by learners.  Learners with significant difficulties report that the new strategies help them to keep track of where they are in their learning; to see what they need to do to improve; and how to learn from and with peers.  Learners find it easier to ask for specific help through the “exit ticket” process.  SSAs report being better able to use deeper questioning when a learner is stuck, enabling the learner to more independently overcome barriers.    At first it was obvious that learners were trying to use the SSA to simply gain answers to classroom tasks; however, the new approaches made lessons more interactive, leading to more effective cooperation between the teacher, the SSA and the learners.

Learners have been very positive about the new approaches, with a number stating that they felt more included in the process and enjoyed setting their own targets as these were more meaningful to them, enabling them to work on areas they considered important for their learning.

Concluding Remarks

Learning from this project

  • Teachers and SSAs worked together in varying degrees across this project. Commitment from both teacher and SSAs was very strong in some relationships; in other pairings, one of the participants was more noticeably active.
  • Some teachers and SSAs used self-assessments during the session more than others. However, either teacher or SSA  engaging in “exit ticket” activities at the end of sessions still improved learners’ capacity to self-assess, and teacher and SSA appreciation of the learners’ needs.
  • Teachers and SSAs became aware that learners’ previous school experiences of learning support had often unwittingly encouraged them to rely on SSAs to provide answers to classroom tasks. However, these new project approaches prompted learners to be more active and responsible for their progress.
  • SSAs report being better able to use deeper questioning when a learner encounters difficulties, challenging the learner to work out new learning strategies. This represents significant progress from learning support activity being limited to providing praise for (or criticism of) the learner.
  • When SSAs and teachers use ‘exit tickets’ and ‘mind maps’ as interim assessment activities during the class (rather than at the end of the session), meaningful responses can rapidly be made to address learners’ problems that might otherwise have impeded their progress for the whole session.
  • Within the protected space created by this project, SSAs reported “being noticed”, feeling valued and being listened to as equals. Teachers became more fully aware of SSAs’ potential contribution.
  • Because teachers and SSAs felt included as equal participants on this research project, this appears to have created the foundation for shared practice development. SSAs and teachers reported engaging in more thoughtful discussion as they reflected on their experiences and planned further improvements for learners.
  • Participants rated highly the opportunities for internal networking. Although sharing practice which might have been expected within this mature organisation, both new and experienced staff were inspired by the personal and professional relationships which they had developed through joining this project.
  • Teachers’ capacity to meet all learners’ needs could be greatly enhanced by listening to the combination of the ‘learner voice’ and the voice of the SSA.
  • This productive research project was led by an experienced in-house teacher-educator who had some experience of teacher research, who recognised individual practitioners’ needs, and who could contribute practical teaching strategies that met organisational requirements.
  • Management need to ensure that the benefits of the project are fully embedded into college practice and all staff receive appropriate support and training to ensure learning support is effectively used in classrooms in the coming academic year.


Appendix 1 – Interim and Exit Stimulus Materials

Appendix 2: Evaluative Padlets one and two

Appendix 3 – Question Stems

Appendix 4 – Examples of Diaries


Sanders, A. (2017) Strand 2: Develop and deliver CPD for support staff to improve progress in maths and English Annex A: Desk Research London: Education and Training Foundation.

Sharples, J., Webster, R. and Blatchford, P. (2015) Making best use of teaching assistants. Guidance report – March 2015. London: Education Endowment Fund. Available online at:

Post Project Dissemination

McPartland, C., (2018) “Synergy in Learning, Teachers and Student Support Assistants Working Together to Promote Learner Metacognition in Post-Compulsory Education”, Teaching in Lifelong Learning 8(2). doi: