5 ways to make your students work harder than you

Teachers can cut their workload with these tips to make pupils take responsibility for their learning, says Elena Diaz

Elena Diaz

Independent learning: How students can help to cut teacher workload

There is an expectation that teachers will do whatever it takes to get students the grades. Of course, this is true – to a point. But how can we get students to take some of the burden off us, and to meet us halfway? It all comes down to helping them to be more independent learners.

Turning students into independent learners

Here are five ways to do just that.

1. One resource, many uses 

Getting your students to work harder than you starts with reducing your own workload. Exploiting resources fully is key to cutting down on planning.

Think about all the different activities that you can use a single, versatile resource for and note them down, so you have a list of tasks to refer to when you are planning.

For example, if the resource is a long text, your activities could be: 

  • Read and summarise. 
  • Answer questions.
  • Give a title to each paragraph. 
  • Reduce the text to one paragraph; to one sentence; to one word.
  • Highlight key words. 
  • Find a synonym for... 
  • Write comprehension questions for your partner to answer.

Over time, your repertoire of “one resource, many uses” activities will grow and your planning time will halve.

2. Trust them with the answers

Group your students into pairs or threes and trust one of them, who will become “the expert”, with the answers to a list of questions about the lesson’s content. The other students can then work through answering the questions while being coached by the expert. Interaction and peer support will be a powerful motivator and everyone learns from the activity, even the expert.

3. Improve metacognition

Develop metacognitive skills in your students. If you’re not sure where to start with metacognition, check out the Education Endowment Foundation's recommendations here. Have a vision of what students need in order to be more independent learners, and explicitly teach them how to do this. Model how to use a dictionary; how to research a topic; how to write the perfect essay – you name it. If you want them to do it, model, model, model, until they can show you that they’ve mastered it. 

4. Be clever with your feedback

Self and peer assessment should be the majority of the marking that goes on in your lesson. In fact, only open questions should ever be marked by the teacher. 

So, try to think of ways to check progress using student-marked closed questions. Follow this with less frequent open-ended tasks, marked by you.

And take it one step further: get students to use your mark scheme on their own work. Ask them to assess and peer assess these teacher-marked questions before they hand them in. You’ll be amazed at how the number of time-consuming corrections decreases.  

5. Make the most of self-quizzing

Retrieval practice theory tells us that regular, low-stakes quizzing is the best way to improve recall in students, so plan for it to happen in the most efficient, hassle-free way.

There are many self-quizzing websites already populated with the content that you teach your students: Quizlet, Quizziz, Kahoot!, just to name a few. All you have to do is make sure that there is effective interleaving and that all topics are revisited, and good recall, active engagement and high motivation will follow.

Elena Diaz is an experienced middle leader in the North East of England

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