Is everybody on track?

5th October 2007 at 01:00
You may have set learning objectives in mind, but it is possible that your pupils are none the wiser. Adi Bloom reports

PUPILS OFTEN fail to understand the point of specific lessons, even when teachers highlight learning goals for them.

But this can be addressed if teachers are careful to involve pupils in discussing and analysing learning objectives for each lesson, academics from Waikato University in New Zealand have found.

They questioned 1,200 primary and secondary school pupils to establish how they viewed the learning process.

Despite teachers' belief that they outlined the purpose of every topic, many pupils had very little idea what they were supposed to be learning in any given lesson.

Children from all age groups spoke in vague terms, saying, for example, that they were learning "stuff about the sea".

Others identified the task being undertaken, rather than the knowledge it was intended to convey. "We're doing a worksheet," one pupil responded. Another said that he had been asked to "find the answer in the newspaper".

Where pupils were able to identify learning goals, they rarely matched up with teachers' versions.

One teacher said that a geography lesson was intended to teach pupils why winds occur. But pupils thought they were learning how to predict weather using maps.

And they often struggled to see the point of what they were learning. When asked why they were studying a topic, many simply replied "because we were told to by the teacher".

Where pupils did see relevance in a topic, it was always in the distant future. One pupil said: "When you are older, you might need to look something up, if we want to have jobs doing that sort of thing."

Similarly, they were unable to judge when they had successfully learnt something. "When the teacher says," one pupil opined. Another explained: "You could pass a test that's really hard."

After this first series of interviews, the researchers encouraged teachers to change the way they presented lessons. They were told to make explicit connections between current lessons and previous topics. They were also asked to refer repeatedly to the purpose of each lesson, breaking it down into specific criteria.

Similarly, pupils were involved in discussing their learning goals. Teachers used examples of good-quality work to highlight what pupils should be achieving. And they encouraged pupils to work in groups, exchanging ideas among themselves.

Following the implementation of these suggestions, the researchers questioned pupils again about learning goals. This time, they responded in more confident terms. One pupil defined the object of a lesson as: "learning to write to keep the reader interested".

They also identified smaller targets, such as "using more adjectives, similes and metaphors". And one pupil suggested that he would have successfully learnt a topic when: "I'll read through and, if I know how to do it, I'll know."

The researchers conclude: "In many classrooms, students are not invited to... think about the notion of learning in... any depth... Who else should we ask about learning but the learner themselves?"

* 'What students say about their learning' by Dianne Smardon and Sue Bewley

diannes@waikato.ac.nz

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