My ten most read posts of 2021

Here’s a run down of the ten most read posts on my blog in 2021. Topics range from perennial issues facing teachers to questions arising from the Covid-19 pandemic.

10. Things to look forward to in spring 2021. I write one of these for the start of each term but none have contained truer words than “This spring term may be more uncertain than any that have gone before”!

9. Lots to look forward to in autumn 2021. Another ‘looking forward’ post; this one for the autumn term. For some reason, Summer wasn’t as popular, at 17th place.

8. Volunteers returning to teaching – Seven practical questions. A recent, topical post on the DfE call for ex-teachers to return to the classroom.

7. Wasp in the classroom. A perennial summer challenge for teachers – I was even asked this once at interview! This advice draws on my experience at the Museum of Natural History in Oxford.

6. Ten ways to gain a class’s attention. Visiting schools means I see a lot of techniques to gain attention. Here are ten to choose from.

5. Looking for a little inspiration? A post pulling together all my downloadable picture quotes posts in one place. The only ‘resource’ post to make the top ten. I update this regularly so it’s worth returning to.

4. Progress on behaviour – haven’t I seen this graph somewhere before? An older post from 2016 on the ups and downs of improving behaviour in a secondary school.

3. Thank you teachers! I wrote this ‘thank you’ when some we might hope would be saying it weren’t forthcoming, despite the challenges teachers had faced.

2. Learning and long-term memory. Another older post that’s still proving popular. This one is about different types of long-term memory and learning.

1. Do windy days wind children up? Once again, a post I wrote back in 2016 is the most read! It’s about research on that perennial teacher topic: does windy weather make children’s behaviour worse?

I hope you find something useful in these posts. If you do, it would be great to hear about it!

Why do we get sick in our holiday?

It’s the half term break and my Twitter feed is full of the usual story: teachers falling ill as their long awaited holiday starts. Is this just coincidence, people get sick all the time, so some will in their holiday, or is this a real effect? Are teachers actually more likely to become ill during the break from school? More importantly, if it is real, what can we do to prevent it?

Leisure Sickness

This term ‘leisure sickness’ has been coined by Dutch psychologist Ad Vingerhoets to describe the widespread anecdotal experience of becoming ill when we have a holiday. This isn’t a condition formally recognised in medicine but while there isn’t a straightforward mechanism to explain a link, we do know that illness can be induced by the effects of stress. It’s not the holiday itself that makes us ill, but the impact of stress in the run up to the holiday on our immune system.

Stress and Illness

In 1984 Janice Keicolt-Glaser demonstrated a link between exam-related stress in medical students and reduced immune function. Sheldon Cohen then demonstrated that people who reported stressful events in their life were more likely to become infected when intentionally exposed to cold viruses using nasal drops and were also more likely to develop clinical cold symptoms. Cohen’s research later showed that a range of chronic stressors (ie persisting for a month or more) increased our susceptibility to the common cold. The most significant stressors investigated in this study were those related to work.

So there is good evidence that chronic stress can impair immune function and increase susceptibility to infectious disease, but what about teaching? In a study of almost 300 US teachers, Dworkin et al (1990) found that illness increased proportionally to job stress. This supports the idea that workplace stress in schools contributes to teachers becoming ill.

Since a half-term is typically 6-8 weeks, workplace stress for teachers typically persists for over a month at a time, falling into Cohen’s definition of ‘chronic’. This is enough time for our immune system to become impaired do that we become more susceptible to infection. Add to this the incubation period for most cold viruses, and that’s the right timescale for teachers to begin coughing and sneezing just as their holiday starts!

What can we do?

The good news is that research indicates that there are several things we can do to reduce our chances of becoming ill.

1. Looking after our work-life balance during term-time rather than waiting for down-time in the holiday. We need to balance the demands of work with our health needs all the time. Easier said than done! Significant steps include being able to switch off from work and getting enough quality sleep.

2. Looking after our health. This includes making time for exercise, eating healthily, and avoiding things which have an adverse impact on our ability such as smoking. Cohen’s research shows that all these have a protective function. Initiatives like Teacher 5 a day can be a big help here.

3. Looking after each other. There is good research evidence that social support can provide protection against the effects of stress. If we all take some time to look out for each other, perhaps especially towards the end of term, we will all fare better. Those in leadership positions may have a special role to play: Dworkin’s study found that there was significantly less stress-related illness among teachers with a supportive School Principal.

You might also be interested in my posts on holidays and health which explore differences in resting heart rate during term-time and holidays.

Image: Pixabay

Learning and long-term memory

A while ago I wrote a post about how we can structure learning to make the most of pupils’ working memory capacity. A recent conversation on Twitter prompted me to write this post on how an understanding of long-term memory can inform our teaching.

Short-term and long term memory

Both these terms are used in everyday English, but psychologists tend to use them in a specific way. Our short-term memory is thought to have a limited capacity and duration, holding a few items for a short period of time, usually just a few seconds. In contrast, our long-term memory has a huge capacity and stored memories can last a lifetime.

Types of long-term memory

Our common experience is that we have different types of memory. We may, for example, have a memory of a childhood birthday which allows us to recall sights, sounds, smells, tastes and emotions. This seems quite distinct from the memory of what the word ‘elephant’ means, or what the capital of France is. Psychologists have classified these memories into three types (although further distinctions are possible):

Semantic memory – memories of facts and figures, for example knowing what a bicycle is, being able to name the parts of a bike and explain their function.

Procedural memory – memories of how to perform an operation, for example being able to ride a bike.

Episodic memory – memories of specific events and personal experiences, for example the first time you rode a bike unaided. Episodic memories contain not only the specific details of the event, but the context and emotions of the experience.

Evidence that these types of memory are associated with distinct areas of the brain comes from studies of brain-injured patients, and from brain imaging. Some patients who have sustained brain injuries retain abilities in one area but not others. An example is the much-studied amnesiac HM who could form new procedural memories, such as the skill of mirror-drawing, but not semantic or episodic ones (Corkin, 2002). While memory function can be highly distributed in the brain, procedural memories are associated with activity in the cerebellum and motor cortex, episodic memories are associated with activity in the hippocampus and semantic memories with activity in the temporal lobe.

Long-term memory and learning

The two are inescapably related and we could define learning as a change in long term memory. This happens when information is transferred from short-term memory into long-term memory and incorporated with the information already held there. To make use of this information, we must retrieve the information from long-term memory.

Teachers can use an understanding of these processes to improve the efficiency of learning:

    Introduce new information gradually Information must be processed to be effectively incorporated into memory. Introducing new information too rapidly will not only reduce the proportion that is retained, but prevent it being effectively integrated with prior learning. This risks creating an incomplete understanding of concepts and a limited ability to apply knowledge to problem solving because of gaps in our understanding. This will of course vary from pupil to pupil, so it’s important to build in assessment that will inform the pace of future planning. Resist the temptation to plough through content at the expense of learning.
    Contextualise new information In everyday life we find that it is easier to remember information that has meaning. It’s easier to remember a friend’s phone number or birthday than a random string of digits with no context. Research supports this idea. Our consolidation of information into long-term memory and subsequent ability to retrieve it is improved when that information is presented in context, allowing us to readily make connections between new and existing information.
    Provide time and tools for practice To effectively consolidate new memories, connections must be made with existing knowledge. We need to give students enough time to do this. For semantic memories, this includes opportunities to explore new knowledge and concepts by applying them to novel situations and problems. For procedural memories, opportunities should be given to practise operations and procedures, and to use any equipment or materials needed to do this.
    Testing works better than reviewing Students May view revision as literally that, re-reading information that they have previously learned. Research shows that repeatedly attempting to retrieve information from long-term memory is a much more effective strategy. Quizzes, tests, and opportunities for self-testing will help students learn new information much more effective than reviewing content. For semantic memory, recall quizzes and tasks requiring the correct use of information, including past exam questions, will help. For procedural memory, opportunities to do things, and recount how procedures work will be beneficial.

Practical examples

Some practical examples of these strategies include:

  • Quizzes at the start of a lesson about the content covered previously
  • Checkpoints in the lesson to assess understanding of information
  • Taking time to look at the ‘big picture’, placing new learning in the concept of overarching principles or concepts of the subject
  • Drawing diagrams that connect new information with existing knowledge, within and across topics / subjects
  • Practice at applying new knowledge to solve problems, either in class or as homework, to consolidate semantic memories and improve their recall
  • Practice of new routines, operations and skills to achieve goals or solve problems to consolidate procedural memories and improve aptitude
  • Explaining new learning to others, either verbally or in writing
  • Writing test questions and answers, rather than just reviewing knowledge.

You may be interested in other posts on Psychology and education:Exams and stress – Exams: use the motivation, lose the stress

Academic success and exercise – Want to improve academic performance? Look to PE

Working memory and learning – Making the most of working memory capacity

New Specification A Levels – Waiting for the First Results

This post was originally written the week before the 2017 A Level exam results were released (hence the reference to 17th August on the image). I then updated it with the postscript once the results were published. I also re-posted my post on UCAS clearing.

I teach psychology (among other things) and last year I wrote about the Summer 2016 AS exams which were then the first test of the new specification, my teaching of it and interpretation of the assessment criteria. You can read that post here.
  

This year we’re waiting for the first results for the full two-year Advanced Level exams. While we had a good experience with AS, all those concerns about the first run-through of a Specification are still in my mind as I wait for the Advanced psychology results: 

  1. How will my students perform in the actual exams as opposed to our own assessments based on specimen materials?
  2. Will performance nationally vary widely from the usual norm, with a large consequent adjustment of grade boundaries (either up or down)?

  

1. Performance in the actual exams

One of the reasons I opted for the AQA specification was the support this board offered for the new specification including sample assessments, Mark schemes and commentaries. The last time the specification changed the actual exam papers had contained some questions very different in style from the somewhat sparse sample papers. Support from AQA in advance was much better this time, there hadn’t been the same differences in the AS papers, nor were they in the A Level exams this Summer.

There were quite a few widely-reported errors in exams this season, and more recent reporting of the possible impact on students, for example this article from The Guardian on ‘the stress of sitting new untested exams’. Whether or not there were more mistakes than usual, this publicity does seem to have shaken the confidence of many students in the exams process itself.  

Although there were no errors in AQA psychology papers, one thing my students did have to contend with was errors in their brand new text books, particularly first print runs of first editions. I’ve seen this before when publishers rush to get texts out for new specifications. There are often mislabelled images, errors in tables, or inaccuracies in the indexing (i.e. mistakes arising in the production of pages, rather than the authors’ text) but this time there seemed to be several factual errors. Much as it gives my ego a boost to be able to show through reference to primary sources that I was right and the textbook was in error, it doesn’t help students (except perhaps to question everything) and shakes their confidence in their reference materials.

  

2. Will performance vary nationally with unpredicable consequences?

This is a question we will only be able to answer when the results are out. As I wrote in by post about the AS results, such probes have occurred in the past when new specifications have changed, most notably in 2011 (DFE, 2012). This did not seem to be the case for the 2016 AS exams, although more A grades were awarded in psychology. Hopefully this is an indication that Ofqual are on the ball and ensuring a smooth transition between specifications so that students sitting the first year of a new exam will not be penalised.

Nevertheless, whatever the speculation, it’s the actual results that matter. So, like my year 13 students, I’ll be awaiting the A level results a little more nervously than usual this year. I’ll also be hoping that their results, and everyone else’s, will be a true indication of each student’s performance.

  
Postscript – 18th August 2017

It’s seems that now the results are available that there was not wide variation nationally compared with the 2016 results (see this Ofqual infographic), although the media made much of the fact that more boys than girls received top grades.  A* and A grades for the new A levels were slightly down on 2016, with Ofqual stating the changes reflected differences in prior attainment. The proportion of top grades in (unreformed) languages increased as had been previously agreed to counter skewing of results by native speakers. I find it interesting that Ofquals analysis focussed on the top grades.

As for psychology, the proportion of A*/A grades fell 0.3% to 18.8%. There weren’t any shocks as far as the results of my own students went, although a couple did a bit better than I predicted and a couple missed out on a grade. It’s a small number to draw valid conclusions from, but if there was a theme, I think it was that those who worked hard did well, irrespective of their starting point, which must be a good thing.