GCSE revision: Why relationships matter for motivation

Building rapport with a new Year 11 class is essential if you want to motivate them to succeed, finds Lauran Hampshire-Dell

Lauran Hampshire-Dell

GCSE revision 2021: Why teacher-student relationships in Year 11 matter

Taking over a new Year 11 class is one of the biggest challenges any secondary teacher can face. There will be an instant comparison with their old teacher, trust and rapport that needs building, chunks of content left to get through and, looming over it all, the ticking clock until exams begin. But what happens if things don’t fall into place quickly? And is there a point where it is just too late to make the difference?

The problem with creating effective Year 11 learners is that the methods that will lead them to success take time: Dunlosky’s ranking of 10 popular learning techniques, used by the Education Endowment Foundation to underpin its Metacognition and Self-Regulated Learning report, firmly place revision methods such as practice testing and spaced practice at the top of the effectiveness chart, and these take a lot longer to embed than simply rereading and highlighting – methods that look effective, require little to no teacher intervention, but which Dunlosky places at the bottom of the effectiveness ranking.

GSCE revision: What works?

Similarly, testing and spaced practice require explicit teacher modelling, explanation and support, all of which are a lot tougher when your time is spent managing behaviour and begging students to pick up a pen. Motivation is crucial for successful students, and a lack of it will negatively impact students’ revision and work: the EEF argues that “it is impossible to be metacognitive without having different cognitive strategies to hand and possessing the motivation and perseverance to tackle problems and apply these strategies”. 

However, it also notes that motivation comes from students feeling “emotionally supported”.

So, does the student/teacher relationship need to come first? In a nutshell, yes.


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A 2011 study by Roorda, Koomen, Spilt and Oort explored the impact of teacher-student relationships on engagement and achievement. Interestingly, they found that the “positive aspects of the teacher-student relationship may have only a short-term effect”. This is good news; it means you don’t need to have a perfect relationship with your class from 1 September to have a positive impact on their results.

However, prolonged negative teacher-student relationships can have a “cascading impact… becoming stronger over time”, so building that rapport quickly is vital. If the relationship is left to fall apart, ultimately it will impact on engagement and achievement.

Why classroom relationships matter

Year 11 is difficult for a multitude of reasons, but Roorda et al found that our relationships with them matter more than ever. “Teacher-student relationships are more important for older students because they face new academic challenges resulting from lower engagement and increasing complexity of the school system,” they write.

Teachers are clearly aware of the lack of time available to make a difference. I ran a poll asking teachers at what point in the school year student progress is going to be hindered, with an impact on their results. Of the teachers who responded, 38 per cent answered the autumn term: clearly there is a need to hit the ground running.

However, while 29 per cent of teachers believe that it is never too late for progress to be made, an idea that Dunlosky himself supports, by the time summer term arrives, it becomes a race to fill knowledge gaps and pick up tiny extra marks wherever possible. The desire to not let students fail, combined with accountability measures, can lead to teachers becoming overwhelmed with requests for extra revision sessions and resources at the last minute, and there’s no guarantee it’ll make a difference at the end.

So, is there ever a point when it is too late? It would seem not. Students don’t necessarily need to have a strong relationship with their teacher from the very beginning to learn effective revision strategies, but they do need to feel supported by us at this point in their education in order to build motivation and succeed. And the sooner we can start to build that sense of support, the better.

Lauran Hampshire-Dell is a teacher and tutor

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