Sheffield College

This project addressed the issue of student resilience in the learning and teaching of GCSE English Language and Functional Skills English. Teachers focused on employing and refining a range of techniques to enable students to explore their thoughts, feelings and perceptions of themselves as learners.

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The Sheffield College is a General Further Education college serving the socio-economically and ethnically diverse Sheffield City Region. The college has a large student population of over 14,700 studying a range of full and part-time academic, vocational, technical and apprenticeship programmes. The overarching aim of our project was to address the issue of student resilience in the learning and teaching of English at The Sheffield College. Due to an intrinsic lack of self-confidence, many of our students struggle to believe they can achieve in this subject area. For younger students studying GCSE English Language, such perceptions are often reinforced by a repeated ‘failure’ to achieve a grade 4 in this gateway qualification. The project involved both full-time and part-time students and was facilitated by a large team of English teachers, some of whom were new to the project this academic year.


Prior to our involvement in OTLA Phase 6 in 2020 some teachers across our diverse college employeddifferent approaches towards developing resilience in students, whereas others did not address this fundamental and underlying issue explicitly. Our action research project, which involved developing a resilience scheme of work with associated resources, proved to be highly effective in developing many students’ confidence in their abilities. Importantly, involvement in the project was beginning to have a profoundly positive impact on tutors, their relationships with students and their perceptions of themselves as practitioners. This follow-up OTLA Phase 7 project has enabled us to refine and develop our approaches to enhancing student engagement and resilience. Importantly, it provided an opportunity for teachers to explore their individual areas of interest in this key aspect of learning and build on their excellent development work in OTLA Phase 6. Involvement in the project has also enabled us to disseminate our findings to wider audiences, both within and external to our organisation.


Working to the collective aim of developing students’ self-efficacy and resilience in learning, teachers were encouraged to develop their own action research pathway according to their interests. Before the start of the academic year, teachers discussed, explored and refined their ideas with the Project Lead.

Image of padlet used to gather the feedback from students

Padlet used to gather the feedback from students

To summarise:

  • Most teachers worked with the resilience scheme of work (OTLA, 6, 2020) and activities created at the inception of Phase 6, adjusting them to suit the needs of their students. Some teachers delivered the activities as a session starter, others at the end of the session or before the break. Activities were used to stimulate open discussions regarding attitudes towards learning.
  • One teacher focused on enabling journaling within her sessions. She embedded reflective activities which encouraged exploration of the students’ changing relationship to learning (See Appendix 2.4).
  • In addition to enabling resilience activities most teachers focused on experimenting with their use of language when setting up tasks and giving both written and verbal feedback. They explored its power in developing students’ confidence and self-belief.
  • Some teachers focused on developing and delivering tasks which tackled the issue of resilience whilst also being closely aligned to the subjects’ assessment objectives.
  • One teacher focused on her questioning technique in drawing her students’ attention to their thought processes regarding learning and self-belief.
  • A significant emphasis was placed upon the value and importance of open dialogue and sharing of experience.
  • Student voice activities were conducted to evaluate the impact of the work on their attitudes towards themselves and learning.
  • Students’ classwork, attendance and achievement data, in addition to observations of secondary behaviours, were also used to inform the evaluation of the impact of the project on their learning in English (See Appendix 2).

For further details about teacher approaches see Appendix 2.

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

Engaging in the project has had a significant impact on teachers’ practice, most notably in their use of language in the classroom. A continued focus on developing students’ self-efficacy and resilience in learning has encouraged teachers to consider carefully the connotations of their word choices. They have experimented with different language choices whilst setting up tasks and providing verbal and written feedback, observing the impact of their lexical choices on their students.

Teachers have found that adjusting their language to challenge students’ negative perceptions of themselves as learners significantly enhances their teaching practice. They have discovered how subtle adjustments to the words and phrases they use when interacting with students both verbally and in writing can enable students to continue to engage in learning when they encounter difficulties and be particularly powerful in encouraging them to stretch themselves in learning (Appendix 2).

Involvement in the project raised teachers’ self-awareness of habits they had fallen into when interacting with resit students, such as apologising for the potential difficulty within a task or over emphasising the compulsion for 16–19-year-olds to study the subject. They recognised such discourses were reinforcing some students’ negative perceptions of learning English and of themselves in relation to it.

Teachers found that making a conscious and deliberate effort to change their idiolect to the language of challenge and motivation to be extremely beneficial to their students. For example, one teacher was sceptical of the impact of the project upon younger students compelled to re-sit GCSE English; however, involvement in the project has enabled him to recognise the inherent value in routinely using the language of positive instruction. He has discovered that it gives students, who cannot see how the qualification is relevant to them and their future career pathway, ‘encouragement’ and enables them to ‘be confident’ in their preparations for assessment. Furthermore, he now perceives such a relentless focus on helping learners develop a tenacious and confident attitude to be an essential part of a teacher’s practice. (Appendix 2.3)

Involvement in the project has had a significant impact on another experienced teacher’s perception of the psychological dimension of learning. Working with students on activities and discussions which explore the attitude towards the self and learning has compelled her to carefully consider the potential impact of her teaching and learning strategies on students’ confidence and resilience (See Appendix 2.1). For most of the teachers working on the project, engagement in action research has enabled them to engage more purposefully in self-reflection. It has also acted as a catalyst for the updating of educational research knowledge. They have valued the opportunity to develop their skills in evidence-based practice and are likely to develop further action research projects.

Evidence of improved collaboration and changes in organisation practices

Our work on the project has stimulated some change to practices within our organisation. For example:

  • Within the Academy of English at The Sheffield College we now ensure that any new members of staff receive discrete training on techniques to foster self-belief in learning. This training has been delivered not only to teachers but to individuals whose role is to support students in catching up on their skills in English and maths due to the impact of Covid-19.
  • In the summer months we will be training colleagues in ESOL and Inclusion to embed a similar approach within their curriculum from September 2021.
  • We have shared our practice with colleagues who teach maths. English and maths teachers met to discuss key techniques and strategies to develop students’ confidence and self-belief. During the session, English teachers shared their approaches and the findings of action research. Whilst we are aware of the importance of not replicating activities in maths, as many students study both subjects, there is a commitment to ongoing sharing of learning from the project and experimentation with approaches.
  • The project has enabled a foregrounding of professional discussions relating to the underlying issues of students’ lack of confidence and self-belief in learning.


  • Learning from the project has been shared with representatives from other colleges who experience similar challenges with their students.

Evidence of improvement in learners’ achievements, retention and progression

Graphs showing impact on students’ perceptions of their ability to achieve

A comprehensive student voice activity showing the impact on students’ perceptions of their ability to achieve

Our focus on developing students’ self-efficacy and resilience in learning continues to have a positive impact upon students’ experiences of studying English and their achievements at The Sheffield College.
Students report and demonstrate:

  • An increased confidence in themselves in relation to learning, including engaging in stretch and challenge activities.
  • A greater ability to learn from mistakes and to overcome challenges.
  • Engagement in mindset for learning activities has helped to engage them in the subject matter and better enjoy learning with their peers and teachers.
  • Adjustments to teachers’ language in the classroom has enabled them to make improvements in their learning, in addition to instilling a greater confidence in themselves as learners.
  • A greater investment in their own achievements and progress.

Whilst we cannot isolate the impact of the above from the other improvements The Sheffield College is implementing in teaching, learning and assessment, it is difficult not to correlate the foregrounding of this approach to an:

  • Upturn in attendance. This increase in engagement has been particularly marked for Study Programme students. Since this project began, their attendance is now consistently good in GCSE English Language classes.
  • Upturn in retention of our adult students.
  • Increase in first time passes for adults studying Functional Skills English at Level 1 and Level 2. Teachers’ emphasis on not giving up, on developing strategies to deal with the challenge of examination questions, is encouraging students to see the exams in a more positive light.
  • Increase in GCSE English Language high grade predictions for both adult and Study Programme students.

Learning from this project

The adoption of a whole team curriculum-based approach to the development of students’ self-belief and resilience in learning supports the college’s wider improvements in teaching, learning and assessment. Importantly, it encourages teachers to:

  • Foster better relationships with students and develop a more cohesive learning community earlier in the academic year.
  • Focus on the critical importance of the language choices they make when interacting with students. They now consider in a much more consciously and careful way the impact of their language on their students.
  • Develop a greater depth of understanding of students’ psychological barriers to learning and in turn consider ways to challenge and break down such obstacles.
  • Evaluate critically the impact of their Teaching, Learning and Assessment (TLA) choices on students’ perceptions of themselves as learners.
  • Re-engage with educational theory.
  • Engage and become an integral part of a culture of action research and critical reflection.

Crucially, working in this way, teachers enable students to:

  • Gain greater insight and understanding of their relationship to learning and the steps they need to undertake to make progress.
  • Acquire a more constructive relationship to learning, understanding that mistakes are a necessary and enabling part of the journey. One student, for example, reported that she has a ‘more positive mindset’ than at the beginning of her studies when she believed she ‘could not’ learn. Following work on her attitudes towards herself and learning she now feels ‘happy and excited’ when engaging in the development of her English skills (See Appendix 2.5).
  • Another student commented:

‘‘I do believe that learning depends on accepting your mistakes as positive experiences because I feel like I have learnt from my mistakes by looking through feedback and correcting myself which also improved my English skills”.

  • Develop confidence and self-belief in their abilities which in turn enables them to develop strategies to face challenges in learning.
  • Articulate more fully their needs and wants in relation to life and learning.
  • Foster better relationships with their peers and teachers.

We have also learned:

  • Teachers need to commit fully to the process, adjusting materials and approaches to suit the needs of their students and their teaching styles. The approach needs to be embedded within all aspects of their TLA, not limited to the delivery of the activities.
  • It is not the resilience activities the students engage in that stimulate change; it is the ongoing discussions that arise from them throughout the student’s learning journey.
  • Of crucial importance to the success of such an approach is the deep critical reflection of teachers upon their practice, with a particular focus upon their use of language. To positively encourage and enable changes in students’ attitudes, teachers need to scrutinise the language they use in all learning contexts, making subtle and ongoing adjustments where appropriate.
  • Adopting such an approach is not a ‘silver bullet’ for all students. Students need to be emotionally ready to relate discussions and debates on resilience to their life and learning.


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Duckworth, A. (2017) Grit: Why passion and resilience are the secrets to success, London: Vermillion

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