An independent/collaborative approach to revision (Y9 GCSE Biology)

Context:

I am a Science teacher, and I am currently teaching GCSE Biology to Year 9. I’m going on maternity leave soon, and I want to do something to help my students develop the independent learning skills they need in order to revise effectively. In my teaching practice, I am concerned that I have not previously given my students enough freedom or space within which to structure their own learning. In seeking to help students in an immediate sense, have I prevented them from developing the independent learning skills they need in order to revise effectively? I would like to explore the use of an independent/ group work approach to revision, to see if I can help my students in this regard.

Introduction:

The research literature reveals that group work can be effective and also that it has the potential to be problematic. Group work can be effective at raising attainment – however many teachers report problems with group work/independent learning. It is clear that the success of group work depends on how well you set up the task. Slavin (2010) highlights two essential conditions for effective group work: 1) a clear group goal, and 2) individual accountability.

We have now covered the whole of GCSE Biology Unit 1, with 3 weeks until the exam. To give my students more ownership over their revision, and to give them the space to consolidate their learning and to allow deeper learning to flourish, I will set them an independent revision task whereby each group has to research, design and run a revision activity in class (10 mins presentation time), including teaching as well as preparation of revision resources for their classmates to take away. This project will run as follows:

The intervention

  1. Ask students who they would like to work with (I will take this on board, but won’t give them total freedom – however, every student will have at least 1 person in their group who they have chosen to work with.
  2. I will spend a single lesson teaching the students how to work effectively in groups. In particular, I will work with the students to establish a set of ‘ground rules for group talk’ (using resources from the University of Cambridge ‘Thinking Together’ website – link below).
  3. Create 7 groups, and split up the curriculum content into 7 chunks.
  4. Allocate groups to topics, using a random generator.
  5. Provide students with copies of the specification to work from, and example revision materials for their specific topic (e.g. from TestBase, past papers, revision resources available online) – also a revision PowerPoint.
  6. Students will then have 2 weeks (4 double lessons and 2 singles) to complete the work, using the library, iPads and textbooks as necessary.
  7. Students will be given guidance and expectations for each lesson – however they will be free to choose how they complete the task.
  8. At the end of each lesson, at least 1 group will feed back to the class to share what they have been doing.
  9. Groups that are struggling with the task will be encouraged to ‘magpie’ (e.g. if they ask for my help, I might say “I’m really busy, please can you whizz around and check what all the other groups are up to, and feed back to me?”)
  10. Students prepare resources – submit requests for photocopying etc.
  11. There will be a double lesson at end of study period (1 week before the exam) for all groups to present their activities and resources. This lesson will be filmed using ‘STAR’ software.
  12. Students will use resources for revision prep – 1 week before the exam.
  13. After the exam, the students will re-watch the video for homework and complete a student voice questionnaire to reflect on the project.

Research question(s):

  • Is independent / group work an effective method for GCSE Biology revision?
  • Are students able to take control of their own learning over a period of weeks, rather than just within lessons.
  • Do students enjoy working in this way?

Research method(s):

  • Mixture of qualitative and quantitative measures – I want to look at student voice as well as top-down data analysis.
  • Pre-intervention (baseline):
    • Prior attainment data (however previous data was not based on 1 hour GCSE past papers, so it is not possible to compare like with like). The students had not done any past papers before they sat the test, and the teacher had not seen the paper.
  • Post-intervention (outcomes)
    • Data analysis of exam performance – broken down by question / topic and compared to national statistics and other groups within the school.
    • Qualitative observations of group work (teacher and observer).
    • Student voice questionnaires.

Results:

Quantitative findings

  • 100% of students either met or exceeded their target grade (however targets are problematic – based on end of Y9 projections, which are assumed to increase incrementally through year 10 and 11).
  • 27/32 got As or above (only 17% nationally – however this is a top set so comparisons are difficult)
  • Students scored proportionately higher on the topics they researched (not analysed statistically though).
  • The class average on the topics covered by the 2 groups that struggled with the task, were significantly lower than the other questions. This suggests that the students grades were to a large extent dependent on the quality of the activities and resources produced by the other groups – collective responsibility.

Qualitative findings

  • Students in groups who were struggling were surprisingly reflective when asked to ‘magpie’ – what does good look like?
  • 27/32 students said that they enjoyed this way of working, and felt it contributed to their final grade.
  • 5 out of the 32 perceived that they would have learned more / preferred to have had “normal lessons” (interestingly, these were all boys).
  • There was a gender divide – 2 of the 3 all-boy groups struggled with the task, in terms of making sure all individuals were actively involved and were clear on how to progress.

Conclusions:

  • As a whole, the group performed better than expected in the GCSE mock exam.
  • Observations: Most groups engaged with the task very well, and worked very effectively  toward meeting their group goals.
  • Student voice: The majority of students enjoyed this way of working
  • A minority of students found this way of working challenging and would not choose to work in this way.

Evaluation:

What went well?

  • High engagement – evidence of independent and collaborative learning. Some students wrote A-level standard answers.
  • High performance in the GCSE exam, compared with previous data.
  • High levels of student satisfaction.

Even better if?

A minority of students struggled with the task. It would have been possible to add in additional strategies to support their learning. However – is there an educational case for “letting them flounder” and give them the space to try and fail and learn from that experience? Given that all students performed well in the exam, it could be argued that the ”opportunity cost” is minimal, or of an acceptable level.

Next steps:

Either – differentiate for different groups / learning preferences in future. Or – have strategies in place to make sure struggling groups succeed – do this by ensuring a) a clear group goal and b) individual accountability. If this still doesn’t work have scaffolded resources to hand to support their learning – however I would use these sparingly as these students are able to improve and expand upon their repertoire of independent learning skills. Build on this inquiry to explore methods for students to teach themselves new content (but not teaching new content to others). Would be interesting to trial this with other year groups – e.g. year 8 mixed ability / Year 9 lower ability?

References / supporting resources

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