Busy on the Bus in Solihull

Solihull College and University Centre

The aim of this project was to enable students to engage successfully in online learning between their maths lessons. We changed “homework” to “preparation”, consulted with our students, adapted the tasks. Class norms changed; students expected one another to prepare; they enjoyed the lessons more; worked harder and results improved.

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

Summary

Solihull College and University Centre is based over 3 campuses, the largest of which is in the town centre of Solihull. The college offers School Leavers & Adults, Full Time and Part Time Courses, Apprenticeships & Bespoke Employment Training.

The Project Lead (Head of the Maths department) and myself, a maths lecturer, were involved in designing a GCSE retake course that incorporated independent study and established a routine for learners to prepare for their maths lesson each week.

Other maths teachers within the department used their own resources and methods to encourage students to study independently.

This project developed from a need for students to do additional study as well as attend a two-hour maths lesson each week. Many students who arrive straight from secondary education have had their in-class maths study time halved, but we still expect them to progress. For this to happen, students need to take ownership of their qualification throughout the academic year and monitor their own progress on a regular basis.

Rationale

In Further Education (FE) we emphasise the importance of attendance and progression on achievement. Unfortunately, it is not enough. Students need to have a combination of good attendance and good study skills to ensure success. We need to be aware that many students aged 16-18 years of age have never been taught how to study outside of the classroom and do not possess a toolbox of independent study strategies. The idea of the project was to equip them with straightforward resources and realistically timed tasks to encourage them to develop these skills and monitor the impact it has on their own learning.

The project focused on our Public Services students from level 1 up to level 3 who attended maths lessons all together with their vocational BTEC group. For the purpose of evidence I focused on the level 2 Public Services group. This cohort of students had a range of GCSE maths grades from U upwards, allowing us to reflect on a broad spectrum of students with different abilities and educational backgrounds. The 16 students had come from different types of secondary backgrounds, many from mainstream, but some from alternative provision.

We were clear what we wanted to achieve, but were unsure of the best approach to take, which led us down a path of trialling different types of resources and evaluating each one:

  • In September 2020, students were set up on Mathswatch (https://www.mathswatch.co.uk/) and encouraged to try a range of activities over a two-week period, which included consolidation, preparation and/or watching method videos, all independently.
  • It was clear after this that the uptake of preparation tasks was a route to investigate further due to their structure and design.
  • At this stage we found students were more likely to actively engage in tasks that were short, easily accessible, and held purpose and value to them.
  • The ‘Preparation Tasks’ were launched and assigned to students on Mathswatch on a weekly basis before their lesson took place. The task was designed to take no longer than 20 minutes. It incorporated previous skills, taught in our sequential delivery model, that were to be used in the forthcoming lesson and encouraged students the chance to try skills that were about to be taught. In addition to this, students had the opportunity to watch videos that explained the methods alongside each question.
  • Once a routine was established the first feedback was gathered from students in November 2020 to find out how they felt about the preparation tasks including structure, when they were set and the impact they felt it was having in the classroom.
  • Our preparation tasks were altered in a response to a finding that some students thought the tasks were too simple and required further stretch and challenge and a reminder system was implemented to remind students about their preparation 48 hours before their lesson.

Approach

Approach

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

It became apparent early on that, if at the start of each session, I asked which students had completed their preparation tasks, it encouraged more students to do them. The idea of exposing the group to those completing them was a strategy used to inspire them to become part of that group of students, which was a positive step to take. When carrying out whole class discussions, the confidence of those completing the tasks was obvious and their self-esteem levels were getting a real boost: “I know this because I’ve just done this before the lesson” and “I never understood this topic before I watched the video clips in the preparation task”.

This simple technique of asking this question at the start of each lesson changed the group norm; from not doing work outside the classroom to doing it and feeling proud about it. Students were then aware of the “preparing” group growing and the benefits of carrying out the work. As more students joined the “doing it” norm so the normative pressure to conform increased.

Students found new ways of studying independently. The fact that the Mathswatch tasks were easily accessible, provided them with structure and support material alongside each question. This enabled students to see how they could study on their own and their traditional view – that they had to sit down and learn at a desk – was transformed and new study approaches adopted. Students realised they could study on the go with their mobile device. Some of them completed their preparation tasks on the bus coming into college.

All I now had to say when I arrived at a lesson was “Who’s ready for the lesson” and students understood that this question related to their preparation and wanted to be one of the students to raise their hands.

Attendance remained at an all-time high with the average attendance sitting at 89% throughout the whole of the project. Students made their feelings clear, that in preparing for the lesson they were more likely to attend in order to demonstrate what they knew. The element of anxiety was removed for those completing the preparation tasks, as they were able to identify what was about to happen in the lesson and they felt they had more control over the delivery.

We shared these findings with the rest of the maths teachers in our department and the ‘preparation’ approach was also adopted by those teaching adults. Most of the adults have been out of education for many years and they found that refreshing their knowledge before a lesson substantially increased their success. The teachers saw a difference in their confidence levels immediately.

Evidence of improved collaboration and changes in organisation practices

As motivation levels increased, students started to query what more could they be doing in addition to lessons and preparation to support their progression. Changes to our delivery model were put in place to support the demand from students for additional maths learning.

To mitigate the impact of Covid, the Department for Education offered the FE sector Catch-up funding to provide students with additional learning opportunities to bridge the gap. In response to our project and students’ desire to take on more study outside of the classroom, ‘Exam Skills’ lessons were created. These online lessons meant students could study additional content from home and fit it in around their current timetable. New relationships were forged between teachers as the structure of these sessions was discussed and monitored to support both styles of lessons running simultaneously.

By December students could see the impact the additional study was having on their learning and many students took up the additional online learning on offer each week, including the Maths Hub support sessions and Exam Skills sessions. This took their maths study time up to 4.5 hours per week; back in line with their secondary education.

Evidence of improvement in learners’ achievements, retention and progression

Overall student feedback was positive. Many now understood the importance of carrying out work outside the lesson and how they could use this new set of independent study skills and implement it into other areas of their programme.

How do you think the preparation skills you have learnt in maths this year might help the way you work and study in the future?

  • It will allow me to prepare my ideas
    Image of positive student feedback

    Overall student feedback was positive

    and gather my thoughts before any task or study

  • The preparation tasks give me confidence to succeed and in the future I know that preparation tasks will help me prepare for lessons
  • Help me to feel more confident in engaging in lessons
  • It will allow me to make sure that I plan for everyday life
  • It makes it easier to remember
  • Sometimes extra work is a good idea
  • These preparation skills will help me with all sorts of methods that I learn

This student realised the benefits of independent study spilling over into other areas of her course:

‘It will allow me to prepare my ideas and gather my thoughts before any task or study’.

The emotional connection that students made between independent study and progression was evident in their feedback:

‘The preparation tasks give me confidence to succeed’.

The student feedback also demonstrated how students were feeling more confident in their own maths skills and realising that the short preparation tasks started to improve their maths.

At this point in the research the student’s overall attendance as a group had not dropped below 88% and the retention rate at this stage was 100%. At the start of the academic year, we noted the average grade for the class and this sat at 2.1, with our current targets set to raise standards for each student by one grade per year, the target was to raise the average group grade up to 3.1.

At the end of the academic year when all grades had been submitted to the exam board the group’s overall average grade sat at 3.2; exceeding the target. Within this group of 18 students 8 students went up by one grade, 5 students went up by two grades and 1 student went up by a staggering three grades. This student in question engaged in the full 4.5 hours of maths per week from January up to May 2021.

Learning from this project

“Small changes make a big difference”
Whilst all the other teachers were setting tasks which were a mixture of consolidation and preparation; the engagement was minimal. We feel that this was because they lacked some, or all, of the following key elements:

  • The students need to see the value in what they are completing, and ‘preparation’ is a word they engage with and understand and maps across into all areas of their education and life.
  • Teachers were still using the phrase “homework” and with its long history of being ignored this was not a suitable term to use with these students.
  • The task needs to be routinely set every week in the same format and at the same time. A reminder is required 48 hours ahead of the lesson for maximum engagement.
  • The task must be no longer than 20 minutes.
  • The format of the task must follow a set pattern each week so students can see the value.
  • Teachers must hold students to account as they arrive and congratulate those completing the tasks.
  • The tasks must be locked as the lesson begins to avoid use of them at the incorrect point.

There is one key area where this independent study was clearly not working and that was with our level 1 vocational group. A lot of these students arrive at FE with low self-esteem, behaviour issues, undiagnosed learning conditions and a sense that the education system has let them down in the past. Asking them to engage in independent study was far too much for these students and they had many other barriers to education that we also needed to address first and foremost. We need to investigate further how to help these level 1 learners engage in independent study.