A flipped approach to engaging, supporting and building confidence

The Sheffield College

This project set out to investigate if a more nuanced approach to undertaking weekly electronic diagnostic assessments prior to attendance at a weekly GCSE Mathematics Resit class improved learner motivation, confidence, and their learning experience.

You can download a PDF of this report on the Excellence Gateway.


The aim of the project was to identify if the use of technology as a key aspect of the delivery was beneficial to the students and the tutors.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic and to ensure our new and existing students were able to access high quality learning, the college made three early decisions, namely:

  • All student facing virtual learning environments would be hosted on the Google Classroom platform.
  • To go ‘all in’ GCSE to replace the previous Functional Skills/ GCSE mixed model for study programme students.
  • Develop a virtual classroom that could be accessed by all GCSE students. This has been a primary delivery tool for the whole of the academic year.

The project had a focus on diagnostic assessment. We sought to determine if using a flipped learning approach, releasing several parts of the session prior to the face-to-face session, would have an impact on the learner experience, confidence or motivation.

The key driver was to work on areas for improvement in maths rather than repeat work students can already do. Feedback on this approach was largely positive with students engaging with the materials and approach.


The Sheffield College is a large general FE college. We have a wide student base recruiting from a wide multicultural demographic and age range across the Sheffield City Region. Operating across multiple campuses, our cohort spans all types of provision.

The skills and knowledge required to be successful and attain a Grade 4 or above at GCSE maths are interlaced throughout Key Stages 3 and 4. Nevertheless, the majority of students who enrol at the college have not yet achieved a Grade 4 and the proportion who achieve a Grade 4 remains below the national average for post-16 resits.

The project initially set out to investigate if adapting delivery would improve the learners’ self-belief, confidence, and resilience around approaching mathematics. The original project aims were adapted, responding to changes in the delivery model necessary to ensure staff and student safety during the waves in the COVID-19 pandemic.

To scale our ambition to the available time, we narrowed our scope to focus on diagnostic assessment to determine if changes to the delivery had an impact on the learner experience. We worked within the framework of a virtual classroom using a flipped learning approach, releasing several parts of the session prior to the face-to-face session in the expectation students will attempt them before attending the online meeting. We explored whether some simple changes to the diagnostic assessment had any notable impacts on the learner experience, confidence or motivation. We selected the weekly diagnostic assessment, as this was the component that we felt potentially gave the biggest return on investment for both staff and students. The key driver in the revision approach is to work on areas for improvement rather than repeat work students can already do.

The delivery model was based on a second iteration scheme of work, specifically targeted at a resit cohort, modelled on the ‘Focused 15’ developed by Grimsby Institute (ETF, 2020). The scheme addressed the 15 topics that account for 85% of the available marks at foundation level. Gaining mastery of just these 15 topics improves students’ confidence and this is also reflected in improvements in high grade achievements. In an ideal world, we would have endeavoured to revise all of the learning objectives within the syllabus to build deeper maths competence. From a purely pragmatic stance, as time was limited, we needed to find an approach that built confidence, and hence exams success, within the already busy study programme.


Google Jamboard

Google Jamboard

An early cross-college decision was made to adopt Google Classroom as the delivery platform for all learner-facing delivery including the main vocational programme, tutorial, GCSE English Language and GCSE mathematics. Working on a single platform enabled effective upskilling to be undertaken efficiently by our central e-learning team. This also supported teachers new to the platform and created a lot of informal peer support as we were ‘all in it together’.

We responded to this new delivery model with a whole team review of the sequencing efficacy of the existing scheme of work. A refreshed scheme of work was agreed that scheduled the topics in a progressive sequence, building on the skills required to improve mastery of the top 15 topics in an interleaved approach. Interleaving is the strategic revisiting of previously-learned topics as, for example, part of a quick starter activity to ensure students maintain and consolidate skills required to build mastery.

The virtual classroom was designed to have a common 5-step structure, this is detailed in Appendix 2 and explains

Pear Deck app

Pear Deck app

how Hegarty Maths (https://hegartymaths.com), a self-access maths learning website, was incorporated into the learning.

Google Forms were used to produce weekly diagnostic and end-of-session mini exams because:

  • They can be used to produce self-marking assessments.
  • They provide immediate feedback on the topic.
  • They provide 1-click hyperlinks links to the relevant topics in Hegarty Maths.

Due to the short length of the project, we elected to restrict the action research to concentrate our efforts on adapting one facet of the approach, we chose Step 2, the weekly topic-based diagnostic.

The approach was implemented and, as a baseline, learner voice was captured from a small cohort including both study programme learners and post-19 learners just before Christmas 2020 (see Appendix 3).

From the pilot group initial feedback suggested:

  • The students were all familiar with the concept of independent learning although they all acknowledged that they would not describe themselves as independent learners.
  • The sample group were all previously taught in a relatively traditional ‘chalk and talk’ style but they could see the value of a flipped learning approach.
  • The use of learning technology and the weekly diagnostic was fairly well received, as was the use of Hegarty Maths.

Asked how receiving a low score in the diagnostic test motivated them, learners commented:

“Personally I think oh my god. But then when I join the meet. I think I can achieve this.”

“Yeah it does a lot – I know I can do it – why have I got 2 out of 10. I need someone to remind me.”

“Sometimes it affects motivation- I thought i knew this but I don’t – then you follow the link. The mini exam you get is more correct so its motivating.”

“Sometimes I get it and it’s a bit demotivating.”

The research team reflected on the feedback and, given the additional pressure of a third national lockdown, decided to focus on one small change; to adapt the weekly diagnostic assessment, introducing hinge questions (Cambridge Mathematics, 2020) early in the assessment that adapted the assessment in line with individual learner responses. The rationale behind this was a tutor’s belief, partially supported by some learner voices, that the constant low scores would be a demotivator to some of the learners, especially those who were perhaps working at Grade 2 or lower.

Following this intervention, which was undertaken on a pilot cohort, student voice was used to harvest feedback around the impact and effectiveness of the change on learner confidence or response (Appendix 6).

Whilst students do not like a low mark, they are far more resilient than we perhaps imagine and can see beyond the simple score.

“If I get the low mark I am frustrated – reminds me all the things I have forgotten.”

“I think it’s important to get things wrong early on so that you can work on it and get better at the things you are unsure about. Constructive criticism is really important for us all to improve. You would be happier to see a better score but if those questions are not challenging you is there any point?”

“By doing things wrong you will learn how to do it right , it does affect my confidence but soon I practice and I get it right my confidence gets higher than it was.”

“I was partly confident in the beginning, but I am fully confident now. I did crap in my English and maths (at school).”

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

An important aspect of the research was the promotion of practitioner-led action research. Each faculty has an allocated half-day slot dedicated primarily to staff development. Individual staff training targets are, in the main, practitioner-led. When the project was initiated, it was planned to have a more limited initial reach, extending as the year progressed. However, the development of the pandemic meant that the wider roll-out was slower than had been planned. We still intend to use the knowledge acquired during the project to drive further improvement of the curriculum.

Whiteboard Fi

Whiteboard Fi

Buy-in from the faculty teaching team and the maths tutors from the vocational faculties has been largely very positive; staff were keen to adopt the use of Google Classroom. This was due to several reasons:

  • Team ownership.
  • The materials were prepared by the team for the team. This reduced the pressure of reviewing aspects of the syllabus at the same time as producing materials.

We used a ‘divide and conquer’ approach to quickly producing quality resources.

  • Being developed by teams, the materials were more consistent and were quality-assured.
  • The vocational maths team were able to use materials prepared for them, allowing them to focus on understanding the syllabus.

All materials were populated on a central classroom that will be refreshed annually and cascaded. Teachers made copies for each class they teach, thus allowing for personalisation to meet the needs of the individual classes. Materials and links were added to the college’s GCSE Maths Google site which links both internally and externally.

We implemented the 5-step process across all classes, which offered a structured approach to the delivery of a resit model.

There were some challenges:

  • Digital access was a challenge for some of the learners where the household may only have one internet-enabled device.
  • Our vocational tutors reported they found the 5 steps quite challenging to implement with groups that were predominately students with a GCSE entry grade of Grade 1 and 2. They tackled this by flipping some of the student directed activity back to a more teacher-led delivery.
  • Completion of the pre-class steps was inconsistent across groups, with study programme learners less invested in the approach than post-19 learners.
  • The initial intention of using the flipped approach to engage and support learners to build confidence was only partially successful, but the project was valuable in helping us refine our thinking and approach to ongoing improvement.

Future development:

  • We will introduce flexibility with oversight to allow teachers to adapt how materials are used within the session, whilst maintaining the 5 step approach. This will be essential in our planning as further future Covid-19 waves may necessitate a need to quickly switch to partial or fully remote delivery.
  • We will review the induction to ensure that the value around completion of diagnostic assessments is positively framed and regularly reinforced so that it becomes a habit. Whilst staff noted that the completion of the weekly diagnostic before class had proved to be a challenge, especially with study programme groups, the additional planning data it can reveal makes it a worthwhile investment for staff and students. We will therefore give tutors the flexibility to decide how and where they undertake the weekly diagnostic.
  • We need to be mindful that flipped learning is still a new concept to many of our learners (and in some cases, staff). Change can cause anxiety; habits need to be formed. A positive sell and teacher enthusiasm and affirmation of the value of the approach are key success factors.

Evidence of improved collaboration and changes in organisation practices

The project realised a number of positives, including:

  • The opportunity for staff across faculties to collaborate.
  • ‘Task and finish’ groups were able to produce many quality resources very quickly (see Appendix 2).
  • The vocational faculty maths staff were keen to contribute and they will be part of the groups that review and refresh the classroom materials.
  • Some staff have also adapted extremely well to the use of technology as a part of their delivery. Attendance and weekly assessment completion data supports the observation that the students in these classes have enjoyed the sessions and participated more. The opposite has been observed in some cases, where tutors have tried to deliver in their usual approach in the pandemic world.
  • We continue to share best practice across the team, in team and cross-college CPD sessions and teach meets. In our first meet, two of the maths tutors shared how they utilised Pear Deck as an add on to Google Slides and how they use this to make the Google Meets more interactive. (Some screen shots of this are detailed in Appendix 2.)

Evidence of improvement in learners’ achievements, retention and progression

Interviews with learners and staff have been a rich data source. The challenge was to identify the ‘diamonds’ and ‘golden threads’.

Initial learner voice (Appendix 3) suggested that:

  • Many students understood the concept of independent learning and the value of undertaking the weekly diagnostic assessment.
  • The motivated students were prepared to do more out of class but this was less apparent with the lower level learners.
  • Analysing the marks from the diagnostic compared to the end of session ‘mini exams’ demonstrated that in the majority of learners had an improved grade.  Where the marks did not improve greatly, students did comment that it had helped.

Learning from this project

The creation of a virtual classroom was a good return on the time invested. It provided useful data for the teacher and it enabled the students to continue their learning.

The use of an online weekly diagnostic provided useful information but this was limited by the students who did not undertake the work. There were a number of reasons given by learners as to why this was, some of these were logistical around available time and others were more attitudinal.

Staff observation as they administered the modified intervention (Appendix 4) identified that:

  • Most learners did not notice a difference with the adapted diagnostic.
  • Learners wanted parity in the number of questions.
  • Some learners who were asked fewer questions wanted the chance to have a go at the more challenging questions.

Learner voice captured to assess the effectiveness of the introduction of a branched diagnostic (Appendix 6) revealed:

  • Some learners did not notice any difference or felt it was no more helpful than the original diagnostic:

“I don’t mind getting things wrong. This is what you need to come to terms with in life. I know I struggle. I underestimate what I will get. So I’m not disappointed.It’s how you look at things. You have to try, you have to push.”“Personally I did not find it good – I like the fact the answers referred to Hegarty. I prefer the other system. The new system – the feedback – they can’t find many of the questions – gaps in the feedback” (with less questions less feedback?)

  • Some learners commented that they were frustrated with a low mark, others were less bothered. The student mindset around the topic appeared to have more bearing.

Whilst the continued use of a diagnostic activity has clear value, we will revisit how and when it is undertaken but we will continue to use it as it provides the learner and the teacher with valuable information about their starting point on a topic. When combined with an end-of-session mini exam using the same format, it can also provide a useful measure of distance travelled in a session.

The response to the ‘mark’ from the diagnostic varied due to a number of factors:

• How the diagnostic had been pitched to the class by the teacher.

• The learners’ programme: Study Programme learners were less likely to complete this work before class.

• Some learners saw low scores as a bad thing, others as an opportunity: Student mindset had a significant influence.

The use of an adaptive or branched diagnostic was seen as more beneficial by study programme learners: Although some felt strongly that they should be allowed to try the more difficult questions, parity between them was important to them. The use of the weekly quantitative totals in pure isolation offered no benefit to the individual teacher but may impact on student motivation positively or negatively, depending how the diagnostic has been presented and sold to the students.

As a result of learning from this research, GCSE maths will continue to be timetabled to a 3-hour slot. However, in future we will need to give the faculties and tutors options to flex how the sessions are delivered. This will encourage teachers to build in time for small group interventions and one-to-one support, as we believe that flexibility supports creativity.

We will also encourage tutors to use the diagnostic feedback to inform session planning and use end-of-session mini tests to enable learners to monitor their own progress and set personal targets. The action research group discussed the fact that the way the rationale, purpose and the importance of the diagnostic is pitched has a big impact.

In future, we will improve the content and delivery of the induction, which is critical to start the new classes off. Renewed teacher buy-in and enthusiasm will be required to ensure that the diagnostics become part of the weekly routine for all parties. The positive benefits of the activity need to be clearly explained to the cohorts in the induction and also reinforced on a regular basis. Learning walks and learner voice will help to ensure that this is working and is being approached consistently across classes.