The A-level Mindset: The effects of a 6-month programme to develop students’ confidence in independent learning

by Sam Pennycook


Our purpose was to explore the effects of a structured programme on the level of confidence students had when tackling independent work for their A Level studies in Year 12. The transition from GCSE to A Level is challenging for all students but most of the observations I have made in my school stem from students not knowing how to complete all the ‘extra work’ expected of them or what that even means. The aim of this study was to provide information and confidence to the students in that regard. Our school is currently looking for ways to improve our A Level results and this was an area identified as needing further investigation.


The transition from GCSE to A Level is notable for two distinct changes:

  1. Exam changes from content heavy assessment (Assessment Objective 1 (AO1)) to application heavy assessment (AO2). For most subjects the exam moves from approximately 50% to 20% AO1 and 30% to 60% AO2.
  2. Students no longer have a full contact timetable. They are given non-teaching time to do their work with little direction from staff outside of set homework.

The particular programme at Aldenham School begins with students studying 4 A Levels for the first 7 weeks, then dropping one and continuing with 3 A levels for the remaining 18 months. They therefore have much higher contact time in this first instance and so their initial exposure to A Levels does not focus on using this free time effectively. After the winter half-term, students following the standard programme will then have 42 lessons in a two week cycle. They will also have 10 Private Study Lessons (PVS) which are supervised by a member of staff and in the same location each cycle and 13 Study periods which are unsupervised and not in a particular location.

This project saw an individual teacher take 4 groups for 1 lesson per fortnight each for 7 sessions each in total. The number of students in the study was 52 at the beginning and 57 by the end (some students dropping a fourth subject). The model that was taught to them was the VESPA (Vision, Effort, Systems, Practice, and Attitude) model (Oakes and Griffin, 2016) with the structure and activities selected, produced and delivered by one individual. The plan was supported by the Senior Management Team but initial discussions were had to ensure that the sessions did not offer subject specific support nor try to impose a particular style of learning on students. The emphasis remained on offering clarity on the expectations of A Level and delivering VESPA techniques to help them manage these expectations.

Research question(s):

  • What is the current thinking from students towards their A level courses? Are they aware of a difference between classwork, homework and independent work?
    This data was gathered using an anonymous questionnaire delivered and collected in the first session.
  • What positive effects will a structured programme designed to help them understand the expectations and strategies to meet them have on students and on their work?
    As well as the quantitative data from the initial questionnaire, a final questionnaire was then used to offer comparative levels of confidence.
  • How will the training be best delivered both in content and timeframe?
    Again, data from a final questionnaire was collected with an additional question to test the student’s confidence in the process itself.
  • How will the training develop the pedagogy and practice of the teacher involved?
    In particular, their expertise in determining what students need most to support them and how best to deliver it.

Results and discussion


The initial questionnaire gathered data from a grading of 1-4 on a student’s agreement with a particular phrase, 1 being a strong agreement and 4 being strong disagreement. The data showed a trend towards students believing they understood the expectations both in lessons and in set homework but a much lower level of confidence regarding independent work and A Level standard work. Interestingly the trend showed strong agreement with the need for independent work but very little confidence in knowing what this was or how to do it:

When questioned about the apparent difficulty of A Levels most students did not express concern about their perception of the amount of work required or their ability to cope with the demands of the course:

Most students also believed that they did not really struggle with organising their time or work but that they were not confident in how to use that time effectively:

The final set of these questions highlights very clearly the desire from students for a program of this sort. There is a clear lack of understanding of the quantity and content of their non-set work.

According to The A Level Mindset (Oakes and Griffin, 2016), these numbers do not match and indicate that most students believe that they are working at a good level when in fact they are not. The recommendation is that top achieving students will be completing 20+ hours of work over the course of a week, which should constitute a score of 9/10 or above.


The final questionnaire was identical to the initial one with an additional question at the end regarding their view on the intervention itself:

Fig 1. Blue bars indicate final scores and orange bars initial scores. These questions were considered to be successful if the score decreased.
Fig 2. Blue bars indicate final scores and orange bars initial scores. These questions were considered to be successful if the score increased.

There has been a clear improvement in all areas on the students understanding of expectations towards their A Levels. By far the biggest improvement has been relating to independent work and A Level standards. There has not been a huge change in most areas for their perception of the difficulties of A Levels. It is notable that far more find the amount of work overwhelming at this stage. There has been a large improvement in the student’s confidence regarding using their free time, a key goal of the study. There has also been a large increase in the knowledge of how much work and what to do for their studies. Interestingly, at the end of the process, a lot of students no longer want help with how to work independently, this could be because the program was a success or because they did not find it useful which makes the following answers very relevant. There are a few outlier results which all relate to students feeling that the amount or expectations on them were too difficult to manage. It is interesting that the primary goal of the study, to increase confidence in tackling independent work, has led to a slight decrease in the comfort level with the amount of work they need to do. This should be looked into further if the study runs again but is not unexpected as the actual expectations become clear to students who underestimated them. In the post-intervention survey, students were asked

  • How helpful has this program been in helping you to manage your independent work?
    (Not at all = 4, Somewhat helpful = 3, Quite helpful = 2, Very helpful = 1)

The average response was 1.98.


Taken together, the findings suggest that the students felt that the process was worth it in helping them to improve. As we did not use a control group, we cannot say for sure that the marked improvement shown in their confidence and understanding has come from the process itself, or from 6 months exposure to A Level courses and subject teacher feedback on a far more regular basis. We can use the evidence that the students on average found the study very helpful to indicate that it has positive benefits to their attitude and thus would be worth investigating further.

My professional, but anecdotal, feedback on the process would be that once per fortnight is a little too infrequent to really cement the ideas behind the VESPA into students’ thinking. The main benefit of the process was as a way of touching base and grounding students back to the expectations. A number of the cohort would say that the sessions did not change the way that they thought about managing their work but did make them feel guilty if they knew they were not doing enough. Part of this could be attributed to the nature of my position within the school and it would be interesting to see if this effect held with a variety of teachers.

Key outcomes and project impact

  1. Increase in students’ confidence towards A Level standards
  2. Increase in students’ confidence towards understanding what independent work is and how to complete it successfully
  3. Increase in students’ confidence to use their free time effectively
  4. Increase in students’ feeling of being supported by the school
  5. Increase in teachers’ confidence about what students need to help them I this transition
  6. No increase in hours of work done by students


The program was a clear success in some ways and certainly would benefit from continuing in some format. Whether or not the sessions once a fortnight are enough and the nature of it being delivered to them in a slot when they would normally have free time was a factor remains to be seen.

My recommendation for further research would be to offer it as a weekly session in its own slot. A support mechanism that we advertise and offer from day 1 of the year 12 academic program. A control group would be excellent for monitoring whether the improvement is a natural factor of studying for 6 months longer or whether the program itself was responsible for some of the improvement. This would raise ethical issues as the control group would then not benefit from the academic support being given to other students. If it becomes clear that the programme is having a strong positive impact on student attainment, we would abandon the control condition and extend the programme to include these students also.


Oakes, S., Griffin, M. (2016) The A Level Mindset – 40 Activities for Transforming Student Commitment, Motivation and Productivity. Camarthen: Crown House.

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