Does support for learners’ planning improve achievement, retention and planning?

Wirral Lifelong Learning Service

The original aim of this project was to encourage learners to be confident in planning and agreeing their own targets for learning. We gained greater professional insight into the key importance of supporting learners by creating an atmosphere where the cultivation of ‘growth mindsets’ and a ‘can do’ attitude is central to their learning.

You can download a PDF of this report on the Excellence Gateway [LINK TBC].

Summary

Our area of practice is as a Community Learning provider, part of a local authority. The organisation’s remit is to provide outreach programmes to the most deprived areas of the borough, with some of the most disadvantaged, diverse and excluded learners. Our area of practice is teaching pre-entry and entry level learners’ essential English skills.

Habitually these learners would defer to a tutor and expect to be told how to plan and to perform a learning task. Our aim was to encourage learners to develop self-reliance and autonomy when approaching a learning task and to develop capacity, through greater self-belief and confidence, in employing self-regulatory skills (similar to a metacognitive cycle). In a coaching environment, learners would then develop strategies to manage their own behaviour by taking responsibility for their learning, and therefore become more confident in their abilities when challenged with new learning.

Rationale

The process for learners started by setting and re-setting targets for learning throughout all stages of the learner journey, from initial assessment to planning their own English objectives, and deciding to change their direction of travel as necessary (e.g. when they reached or changed their goals). We reasoned that this could also lead to the improved retention, motivation, attainment and progression of learners, through learner buy-in. Knowles (1988) suggests that adults have an acute insight about where they need to improve. They want to invest their energies in learning content which is relevant to their lives and is something they can build on. Collectively these supporting principles of adult learning could underpin what is already defined as a metacognitive activity.

The main aim was to encourage these learners to recognise, construct and develop their own strategies when approaching a learning task, with initial coaching sessions delivered to encourage them to develop this. It was clearly difficult for them to make connections and see similarities to previous work that had been covered. I had employed scaffolding techniques (Vygotsky 1962), intended to reduce negative emotions and self-perceptions that these learners experienced when they got frustrated, or were intimidated, when attempting a difficult task without support. Achieving improved differentiation techniques were mentioned on our last OFSTED report; and we argue that learners participating in the project activities may be seen as true differentiation.

Approach

At the outset the core team involved three tutors of adults; but as time went on two of the tutors were deployed elsewhere, so were unable to contribute fully to the project. Firstly, therefore, we needed to assess learners appropriately; but what we really wanted was for learners to self-assess and be selective about which types of English topic they would tackle during the assessment. Previous research by Blakey and Spence (1990) has highlighted that learners are metacognitively aware of their deficits in subject areas, and may well chose to avoid questions that test these areas as they ‘know they don’t know it’. Our aim was to demonstrate this so, during an emerging readers group, we trialled segmented assessment documents rather than staying with the A4 booklet format. We used the ‘Skills for Life’ English assessment as an accepted form of organisational literacy assessment. There are 40 English questions to complete, which test: spelling, reading for detail, alphabetical ordering, punctuation, correctly sequencing of events and verb tense agreement. The results indicate which level the learner is working at from pre-entry to Level 2. I was also aware that most learners in this group were negative about completion of entries in a learning diary.

Nevertheless, learners were asked to complete a learning diary which we altered to include:

  1. A roadmap to plan their short- and long-term learning goals
  2. Highlight their English aims from a list of accepted curriculum outcomes
  3. A page to list areas for improvement and to focus on (following initial assessment discussion with their tutor)
  4. The diary page was altered to include a ‘planning’ column, so learners could document their strategies, proposals and ideas to achieve their learning outcome
  5. Learner opinions were RAG rated pre and post completed outcome
  6. There was a section for the tutor to complete individual developmental feedback about the session.

Professional Learning: Evidence of changes in teaching, learning and assessment practices

Initially we wanted learners to self-assess and I knew a maths colleague who routinely segmented their initial assessment for learners, resulting in learners not attempting maths questions about topics that they felt they could not complete. We tried segmenting the English IA document to see if the outcome was the similar, but learners behaved very differently. On the first morning of the new term English learners were given the segmented IA, but worked through it to the end, without differentiating between questions. Only 5 learners attended this first session.

Initially the turnout was low (so potentially this was an unrepresentative group, with any outcomes inconclusive as a sample group), so we needed to repeat with more learners. In light of previous analysis, we anticipated learners leaving some questions and simply moving through the assessment. When more learners attended the following week, the result was identical. So, to try and get a more thorough picture all learners then participated in a segmented diagnostic assessment as well.

Again, the results were not as expected; learners just worked their way through all the questions, rather than discriminated between those they perceived they would find easy and those they would find difficult.

After further discussion with the maths tutor we reasoned that maths may be ‘visible’ to learners. That is, when glancing at the topic if they could clearly see what the question was about – percentages, decimals, area etc.; and because the maths subjects were set out pictorially, learners could make a judgment about whether they attempted that question during the assessment, whereas the English assessment learners had to read the complete text to fully understand what the question required. Learners reported that after they had read the complete text, it was easier to keep going. This could suggest that learners had a dogged determination to continue regardless.

Evidence of improved collaboration and changes in organisation practices

With evidence from adult learners, we decided to test in another area and decided on Family Learning; because there is a priority to place learners at the centre of the learning quickly, especially as workshops can be brief (1-2 hours) and gathering evidence of learning taking place can be difficult, especially as children join their parents for part of the session. Using the premise of the main project, we devised an evaluation based on key questions that directly linked to the learning outcomes of the workshop; shifting the assessment for learning to the learner.

Obviously other tutor assessment was taking place, but in sessions where the learners may be primarily at the workshop for their children, the objective was that this would ensure that some learning was taking place and that the learner was aware of it and could self-assess what they have learned.

Key questions were developed to promote a more direct response to the learning outcomes by the learner. So far this has been positively received with encouraging responses from learners that will help develop the workshops further.

The previous evaluation we used was 2 sides of A4, which is more concise. The previous evaluation also required some time for the tutor to deliver it and guide the learners through it, a process not often possible with large groups of adults and young children who have just enjoyed games, play and craft.

However, this newly developed evaluation makes use of the research evidence and uses questioning techniques to support the assessment for learning. This is something we as a service will roll out for all family learning workshops.

So far what has been demonstrated is the need to develop strategies further and to apply the strategy within additional curriculum areas. The project was discussed at a team meeting at the end of term, because another tutor expressed concern about learners being autonomous and “taking ownership of their learning”, but was resistant to helping learners develop their planning strategies, stating lack of time within the curriculum.

Evidence of improvement in learners’ achievements, retention and progression

Learners documented their planning strategies in the ‘planning’ column, depending on the task. The entry level learners became more skilled at documenting their approaches than the pre-entry. One learner reported that “it was the hardest thing I do” during any lesson.

What I wanted to demonstrate by participating in this project was that learners who could develop a repertoire of thinking and planning processes which could be applied in their future studies to solve learning problems. With refinement and individual development, this would eventually foster the evolution of purposeful thinkers who could become adept problem-solvers and lifelong learners with transferable skills.

When planning their learning pre-task, learners became more confident and positive about the way they approached learning and some were happy to experiment with different approaches. For instance, the ‘thinking’ placemats had hints and tips which learners began to use when unsure how to proceed, and this added to their confidence and self-belief when attempting new learning.

These approaches also proved beneficial for learners new to the class who were unsure about how to proceed, but they were content to use the mats as a resource and a discussion tool. It is clear that learners are more adept at planning their learning with the help of prompts, discussion and interaction; they have benefitted from being able to experiment with various strategies including those which are appropriate and individual. This is non-prescriptive and differentiated practice in action, which ultimately facilitates learners and learning.

Learning from this project

  • The initial aspirations of the project were ambitious, and had to be refined and reduced as the scope of the project became far bigger than initially intended, especially when fewer tutors were involved. This has equipped the project team with a clear sense of how to approach any similar action research projects in the future.
  • The results would be more representative had more tutors been involved, and a more substantial cohort of learners’ experiences to draw results from. There was also a degree of reluctance to engage in the project by a minority of our colleagues, to a large extent because of competing professional pressures. In terms of “pitching” any future action research project to colleagues and managers we now have a better insight into the importance of emphasising both:

o ensuring such projects are scaffolded for reassuring participating tutors in relation to workload, and;

o sharing with tutors at the outset the potential benefits of facilitating learners’ planning of their development of wider cognitive skills for their ultimate attainment and success

To conclude, we have gained greater professional insight into the key importance of supporting learners by creating an atmosphere where the cultivation of ‘growth mindsets’ and a ‘can do’ attitude is central to their learning. Fostering motivation and resilience ensures that any future learning challenge is not regarded negatively, but embraced by learners’ self-monitoring their learning processes and developing better understanding of how they have accomplished their task.