Why we need to structure learning for students


I’m really lazy. I have an online exam to complete. I’ve done very little work for it. Even though I sit blogging about the importance of spaced practice, I’ve completely ignored the research and gone for cramming. Why? Because humans are generally rubbish at organising themselves and are that awful word, ‘lazy’.

So if we as adults can’t structure our own learning, why do we expect students to be able to do it? At worst we expect them to do it with no guidance on how they could do it but similarly expect them to self organise by saying ‘study at home’ or ‘revise’. Depending on your school, maybe 5% will do this. The rest will either not do it or do the minimum at the last minute.

It’s our job, not just to teach our subject but to teach how to learn effectively and model it in our teaching. Sadly, this has got a bad reputation in some areas. Earlier in my career I was involved in ‘Learning to Learn’ lessons which, I know now, had some dubious content and ironically didn’t cover some of the main research on learning itself.

Giving students lessons or tips or booklets on how best to learn in their own time will probably have limited effect. Just like me, they will know what is best but just won’t do it. Teachers need to base everything they do on learning; from curriculum structure and content, to lesson planning and homework. We need to ensure that all of these have the foundations of learning built in them to make learning as hassle free but structured as possible.

I’ve already blogged on how we do this for:

However there was a gap in what we do that will be a new structure for 2018-2019 for my students.

One of their homeworks is to learn new keywords from given lists. To support them they can create revision cards (last year we made them make the first set as an example) and we have the words as Quizlet quizzes (non-account based so I don’t see who has done what). However, we are trusting students to do this between the keyword tests.

As students have to improve their score each time, there is a small incentive to do the work, but I’ve found that with 3 groups this year, some just haven’t bothered. They make excuses like ‘I can’t learn them’ or ‘I’ve never been able to do this’. I just don’t believe them. The huge majority can improve by 1 mark each week if they test themselves over and over; they just don’t bother. They probably cannot self regulate over the two weeks the repeated testing. So I’ve decided that, as soon as a student doesn’t improve in the subsequent test, I won’t be using their break to help them I’ll be giving them structure ready for the next time. It’s not that they can’t learn the keywords it’s that they can’t strcuture the process themselves that’s the usual problem.

We use google forms a lot as they can help with retrieval practice and self mark; a double win. Up until now these have mainly been on content and the keywords have been down to the student. Now I’m making a quiz for each set of keywords.

I did ask Twitter for any research on how best to structure these:


However as yet I don’t have any research, either way. The easiest for me to organise is to give the definition, and this is how it will be in their exam. However the test that this links to, they have to write the definition themselves so it may be better the other way round. If I have time I’ll do both and mix it up.


The students that haven’t improved since last time will be given the link to this quiz and will be told to complete the quiz, probably 4 times, in a spaced way over the two weeks. How will I know if they have done this? This is the beauty of a google form:

It tells me who has completed, it, their score and crucially for this purpose, when they’ve done it. I can check that they complete them at spaced intervals. If they then can’t do this themselves, I will provide the spaced intervals for them (at break/lunch). The aim is to get them into the habit. This should then provide one week of success which can then be used to show them it ‘works’ and then the excuses can only be ‘I haven’t done it’ as opposed to blaming their learning capacity. I think this should help give students the structure that they need for this part of their 3 homeworks.

I will also put another copy of the quiz for students that just want to use it as part of their own spacing. I won’t check that one; it’s just for themselves.

This is what I’d call ‘closing the gap’; finding the holes in what we do and filling them with something that structures learning for students. It’s like using stabilisers. Some will need this at the start and then will hopefully go on to see that these processes work and can do them themselves. I really wish my teachers had done this for me.


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