How to get students to evaluate – Teaching by concepts & transferring knowledge


The new GCSEs are providing a challenge for many teachers especially in Religious studies. One of the many challenges is that there is more evaluation (some legacy specs were void of this). Many teachers have gone for teaching a superficial type of evaluation that often resorts to using a mnemonic for students to use for every question. I don’t have issues with mnemonic buts the ones I’ve seen don’t seem to get at the heart of evaluation. They encourage students to provide arguments for and against and then come to a personal conclusion. In my opinion, that isn’t true evaluation. I understand that this may be seen as useful for lower attaining students but does it allow the higher attaining students to show high level evaluation and does it prepare for A level?

From day 1 of deciding the new specification we’d follow, I’ve been pondering using key concepts for teaching and consequently evaluating the quality/strength of the concepts instead of the for/against arguments.

Key concepts

I’ve debated with myself and other colleagues what to call these. I’ve even asked the students. I keep coming back to ‘concepts’ although ‘themes’ and ‘ideas’ were mooted.

A key concept is a core belief or position that is the key point in a given argument. It is the ‘thing’ that is contentious and debatable. It’s the core idea that makes an argument arguable.

A simple example of concepts in the fox hunting argument would be:

  • Animal rights
  • Dominion over creation
  • Human traditions

You could then use these three concepts to argue for and against fox hunting and include a variety of views on each concept. At the end of each concept it is possible to pull together the various opinions and summarise which argument is more valid/strong/useful in the overall argument. The structure of argument lies in the concepts not for or against arguments.

At the end of the argument, instead of an opinion on the issue from the writer, it is an overall judgment of the quality/validity/strength of the concepts within the argument. One crucial point of the new specs, in my opinion is to move away from personal valued judgements to critical thinking and logical conclusions. No A level or high level essay requires personal opinions. I believe we need to start the process of academic writing in key stage 4. Students can give their personal opinions on an issue in lessons but in my class, not in their exam answers.

This is clearly more complex but much more of a true evaluation of the key arguments.

My thoughts are that this structure will allow the top students to access the top levels with more independence and flair than just using a mnemonic but it also means that the lower attaining students can ‘fall back’ on a simpler version of for/against, which is all they will need.

How to teach concepts

First of all I’ve introduced the students to what we’re calling a concept. I used a very simple, non-subject specific model: Pizza vs burger. This meant even those with limited conceptual understanding could access the idea. We looked at what the concepts for this argument might be, how we could strike the argument and how the intermediate and final evaluations might look. I gave them a structured template to use. They then chose their own topic and followed the same process, all the time being non-subject specific. To me it was important they understood what concepts and evaluation meant before applying to complex content.

In terms of lessons and teachings I am mixing the fors/againsts with concepts. I try to regularly ask ‘what might be an important concept in this?’,  to get them generating ideas and applying the skill of identifying them. In this way, they can always ‘fall back’ on the simple for/againsts.

This first map shows the traditional way of teaching by belief/religion:

Whilst links can be made, many times, the core arguments in the debate might not be pulled together.

However with the concept example, views can be compared and contrasted by concept and then used as paragraphs within the argument:


At a recent gathering of RE teachers we discussed this question:

Colleagues lamented that their students wouldn’t be able to answer this as they could probably argue about prayer but wouldn’t be able to link it to an understanding of God. They didn’t think their students would also be able to identify other ways of understanding God.

In my opinion this is down to how you teach. If you do a lesson on prayer, a lesson on worship, a lesson on the bible and a lesson on Church leaders a student may not have the skill to synthesise these to apply to the question. But if you start this series of lessons with the question ‘How do Christians understand God?’ and evaluate each way on its effectiveness/pros/cons then they will be able to evaluate this question more easily.

The key to this is planning. Instead of planning a scheme by the topic elements, we need to plan with concepts. The lessons will be very similar but students will need to be asked to make links and identify the key concepts that these elements contribute to.

Knowledge transfer 

This structure also limits ‘box’ learning. I often hear colleagues saying ‘my students get mixed up if I don’t teach them as the structure of the exam’. Concept teaching pervades this notion of learning an element for a certain aspect of an exam. If a student has a clear understanding of the key concepts behind the beliefs and teachings they will be able to draw on this huge range in their answers, they won’t rely on rote answers/phrases. Their understanding will go from many individual elements of topics to concepts that interlink to make a whole ‘story’ that, in the case of religious studies makes a religion and it’s beliefs and teachings. This idea of making connections is important for learning.

In the case above, sanctity of life doesn’t just belong with euthanasia but also with abortion and capital punishment etc. They can transfer knowledge from one area to another with accuracy.

My next challenge is to pick out these key concepts in advance so I can be sure we cover all the possibilities.

Further reading

This blog from Lee Donaghy has been the first I’ve seen of others following a similar structure (he’s called them ‘abstract generalisations’, a term borrowed from @jcarrollhistory.) so I was very excited to read how it’s being done in History. It gave me confidence we’re doing the right thing.

This site is  great for suggesting how students can transfer and apply knowledge

A blog on ‘The Secret to Creativity, Intelligence, and Scientific Thinking: Being Able to Make Connections’


3 thoughts on “How to get students to evaluate – Teaching by concepts & transferring knowledge

  1. Pingback: Educational Reader’s Digest | Friday 24th March – Friday 31st March – Douglas Wise

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