8a. Chesterfield College

Student-led strategies to motivate and engage lower-level GCSE English students.

Chesterfield College

This project aims to create strategies to motivate and engage lower-level English students. Through a process of ‘testing’ different practices and resources, we are learning that there are several factors that contribute to motivation and engagement. These include giving students autonomy on how activities are carried out, who leads the participation, and who takes responsibility for the completion of the activities.

You can download a PDF of this report on the Excellence Gateway (link pending).


We are exploring learning approaches to engage lower attaining English GCSE students, who are disenchanted with the education system and have no prior attainment. As a department, we primarily teach students who have had a negative experience in the school educational system. This has been detrimental to their attitudes towards English and education in general.

We want to identify if giving students more responsibility and control during tasks and activities will have a direct correlation to higher motivation and engagement rates. We hope to be able to enhance and improve our curriculum based on the evidence we collect, leading to increased attendance, enjoyment, and achievement of English for hard-to-reach students at a crucial stage in their educational journey.

Other Contextual Information

Our action research is part of the ETF’s OTLA 8 Programme. Our research team is Alison Stenton, Pati White, Faye Deabill, Kay Hutton and Josephine Turner. The student groups are made up of 15 students in group 1 (6 female and 9 male) and 14 students in group 2 (5 female and 9 male). All students are aged from 16-19.

Group 1 are working at a higher level than group 2 but both groups have students that are benefitting from the use of these strategies. Two students have Education and Health Care plans (EHCPs), six have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), six have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and others have conditions ranging from Tourette’s, severe anxiety disorders, Irlen syndrome, heart conditions, brain conditions, epilepsy and oppositional defiant disorder (ODD). We also have students with dyslexia and dyscalculia.


The composition of the course we chose to base our research on is vital to the approaches we took. Kickstart comprises of NEETS (not in education, employment or training) and students who, for either health or personal reasons, have missed a substantial chunk of secondary education. To engage consistently with this diverse group of lower-level ability students is a huge task in any given year; coming out of a pandemic added to the monumental challenge.

We decided, early in the project, to adopt a student-led approach to as many tasks and activities as possible; with transparency to students of our goals and intended outcomes. We have the luxury of 6 hours of English and 3 hours of unaccredited time in Employability classes a week to make sure the GCSE curriculum was being followed as well as our ideas implemented.

Student-led activities trialled included:

  • Board game instructions – students teaching other students how to play.
  • College Fayre – creation and organisation of activities lead by the Kickstart student ambassadors.
  • Citizen of the Month Awards – to reward active participation and volunteers to lead activities.
  • Spelling tests – students sharing the spellings in need of correction from marked work and students ‘running’ the spelling tests.
  • Starter activities – students using the whiteboard and playing ‘teacher’.
  • Student Ambassadors – students who volunteer to lead activities and were successful were made student ambassadors.
  • Student-led structure of the lessons – they chose which part of the lesson we do first and the running order.
  • Group work – students chose their own groups and were responsible for inclusivity and completion of tasks.
  • Nominating a leader to take responsibility and feedback of findings to class.

Outcomes and Impact

Teaching, Learning and Assessment

Some of the outcomes and impacts relating to the influence of our project on teaching, learning and assessment are listed below. For further details, including a range of images that illustrate this work in action, please see appendices 3a – 3h.

  • Board game instructions – Students were allowed to change the rules of well-known games and even made up a Boccia tournament with completely new rules. Engagement in this activity was 100%.
  • College Fayre – Creation and organisation of activities lead by the Kickstart student ambassadors will be rewarded with £100 worth of board games chosen by the students: increasing self-esteem and feelings of praise and reward.
  • Citizen of the Month Awards – Including ‘Most Helpful’ and ‘Most Kind’ we found increased offers to lead activities. Students were proud to be named Citizen- based on our ASPIRE principles*. Attendance awards are also given out.

* The College introduced a programme called ‘Aspire’, designed to complement and enhance learning. All students take part in the Aspire programme and the aim is to give students every opportunity to develop their talents and enrich their academic journey, through support and encouragement.

  • Spelling tests – Students using their own marking to make class spelling tests increased literacy skills immediately.
  • Starter activities – Students ‘playing teacher’ leads to other students wanting to be the next ‘teacher.’ Grades in the next formative assessment improved as students wanted to impress each other!
  • Student Ambassadors – Students who volunteered to lead activities were made student ambassadors. This really upped the importance and reverence attached to volunteering to lead. We now have 5 ambassadors who have been invited to Open Evenings and other college events with special lanyards and T-shirts and pin badges. We now have another 4 students desperately wanting to be ambassadors!
  • Student led structure of lessons – Led to increased interest in upcoming themes, extracts, and topics. Students even chose which extracts they prefer to use in their mock exams. Raising retention and attendance for the mock exam weeks!
  • Group work – Students choosing their own groups had an incredibly positive impact as they are usually against any form of group work but being allowed to work in a group of their own choosing (with their friends mainly) helped improve participation and engagement.
  • Nominating a leader to take responsibility and feedback findings to the class. The relief of having one person allocated to speak was received well as it takes the pressure away from students who did not want to address the whole class.

The most impressive impact is that after our director saw our research work, she decided to implement all these activities into our Grade 1,2 and 3 GCSE English Schemes of Work for 2022-2023!

Organisational Development

Changes and improvements in our practice were shared by keeping the wider English team updated in team meetings. We will be incorporating student-led activities into maths, employability and tutorials on Kickstart from now on. We had identified that most students on Kickstart have a 10 to 15 minute maximum concentration span. This increased immediately when students took ownership of activities. This also increased when we conducted a series of shorter activities, or where students could rotate the room spending 15 minutes at each activity station (board games and story development).

Activities were designed to meet the neuro-divergent nature of our students. For instance, ASD students appreciated knowing the week before what activities were student-led, so they could feel prepared to step out of their comfort zone. ADHD students enjoyed the fact that there were opportunities to switch activities more often than in traditional English classes and that they could lead at times. Shy students preferred to be involved behind the scenes, preparing activities and setting up equipment etc. At no point were students with dyslexia disadvantaged in any way. Anxious students could buddy up in pairs and remain with a student they were comfortable with. Feedback across the board was one of motivation and enjoyment above more traditional task methods.

Learning from this project

Prominent educational researcher Robert Marzano stated that ‘positive relationships between teachers and students are among the most commonly cited variables associated with effective instruction’ (Resilient Educator, 2020). The building of positive, honest, relationships are key in motivating our lower-level students. Our research has found that the use of games and spelling tests during lessons has increased engagement. Encouraging students to physically write on the board, during starter activities and spelling tests has proven successful in increasing punctuality and attendance. Seeing the students interested and excited to participate has certainly proved the research worthwhile. Marzano agrees that increasing participation ‘in … simulation and games will help ensure everyone in the classroom is learning’ (ibid). When students are enjoying what they are doing engagement increases, concentration levels improve, and they no longer see the lesson as a chore.

Our evaluation and adaptation of lesson plans and structure has had a positive impact. These concepts are outlined further through the student case studies. Promoting autonomy within the classroom has further assisted teaching, learning and assessment.

Research shows that student-led learning can be more effective than other approaches led by teachers. Student-led learning gives students permission to make mistakes and try again in a safe and comfortable environment. Student-led learning encourages students to think for themselves, rather than simply following teachers’ instructions. Our research findings therefore correlate strongly with Marzano’s theory, that ‘student-led learning makes students partners in their own education, which translates to higher levels of cooperation and interest’ (ibid).

Professional Development

Using the ETF’s Professional Standards for teachers and trainers. Please note, this report refers to the 2014-2022 standards.

  • 1. Reflect on what works best in your teaching and learning to meet the diverse needs of students.

    Due to the nature of the Kickstart course, our students come from various backgrounds and have various SEND needs. Many of them had difficult experiences during their past time in education. Each lesson was followed by a reflection time, where we decided if the new strategy was successful and how it helped the students. This reflection time allowed us to narrow down which strategies were working well and also informed our monthly project progress reports.

  • 2. Evaluate and challenge your practice, values, and beliefs.

    Our project provided time and space for us to come together as a teaching team to challenge our assumptions about how students deconstruct and build words. By engaging in research activity that asked for students’ perspectives, we were able to appreciate that through understanding students’ existing spelling strategies, and building on these, greater progress was made than when we started from a position of students as spelling novices.

  • 10. Evaluate your practice with others and assess its impact on learning.

    We hold regular meetings to discuss our observations and share our experiences. English GCSE and FS teachers have tried several of the student-led activities. Across the board engagement improved. Students in the more kinaesthetic vocational courses really appreciated a level of physical activity and control. Alison tried some student-led tasks with her adult GCSE students. Strangely, she said ‘they did not respond with enthusiasm but preferred me to lead all activities.’

  • 13. Motivate and inspire students to promote achievement and develop their skills to enable progression.

    There are a lot of barriers to learning in FE; having to retake maths and English means we deal with students who feel like ‘failures’ from day one. We wanted to show students that English can be fun by involving the elements of responsibility, inclusivity, competition and giving them more ownership over their learning.


Appendix 2: Learner Case Studies

Appendix 3: Student-led activities and work


Resilient Educator, (2020). Overview of Marzano’s Model of Teaching Effectiveness. Available at: [Accessed: 16.05.2022].

ELT Teacher’s Corner (2016). 12 Ways to Motivate your Students. Available at: [Accessed: 26.04.2022].

Shady Oak Primary School (2021). Benefits of Student-Led Learning. Available at: [Accessed: 26.04.2022].