Help them get ahead with this no-nonsense, teacher-tested approach 

A person stands on the face of a giant disordered clock holding the hands up

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Take a targeted approach now to help your students get ahead later

The transition to higher education is a challenging time for students. It’s even more challenging for those who have developed a kind of learned helplessness from the incredibly supportive environment provided by their committed and caring teachers.

One big difference between schools and universities is the approach to handing in work. In school, no matter how strict we try to be, we’re almost always flexible when it comes to deadlines. We expect a proportion of our students to not hand their homework in on time and there are rarely consequences, especially for older students who don’t really get detentions. As much as we might rant that we are setting deadlines for the students’ own good, it is rare for a teacher to not mark a late piece of homework. Generally, we’re really invested in their progress and want to assess how well students have grasped particular concepts before moving on.

Bridging the gap

Universities also appreciate the importance of this, but the scale of lecture courses makes it almost impossible to tailor teaching approaches in the same way schools do. It can also be difficult to develop the kind of strong teacher-student working relationships that help motivate students to do the work they’re set. So, deadlines are fixed, and nobody chases students when work isn’t done. Predictably, this results in some students not doing the work, especially when it’s non-credit bearing, and for the same reasons as school learners – poor time management, prioritising other things, finding concepts difficult and lacking the skills to overcome difficulties.

The Box does not accept excuses

But it is in students’ best long-term interests to make the most of every learning opportunity. So, how can we encourage our learners to develop the intrinsic motivation required to complete work, even when we don’t chase it up? At our school, we implemented a tutorial system similar to that of many universities. ‘Can you believe they’re giving us more homework’ was one of the comments we overheard from a disgruntled year 13 student when we announced the tutorial work. The student was, of course, one who rarely handed in anything decent on time.

The tutorial work system was an ideal opportunity to keep AS content ticking over in the background, while continuing with the routine A2 teaching. We could tailor the tutorial work content to support upcoming topics, or just target key areas of the specification where students tend to underperform – say hello to group 7 redox chemistry, free radical substitution and Hess’s law. We set tutorial work with and in addition to regular A2 teaching, although we probably set slightly less routine homework.

Submit to the box

We gave students tutorial worksheets every other Friday, to complete within a two-week window and submit by a given deadline to The Box. We made it clear to them that The Box does not accept excuses and it does not understand pleading. They also knew that The Box was emptied at 4pm on deadline day, and anything that lands in it after that time would be swiftly transferred to the bin!

The box in question is a post box, mounted on a noticeboard outside the chemistry office, next to a blackboard showing the deadline and a plastic box full of spare worksheets. No excuses.

Engagement was better than expected – we typically got work from 75 to 95% of our students

Each member of the A-level team took a date, set a worksheet and, on deadline day, collected in the work to mark. We avoided past paper questions, aware of our students’ ability to find even the most obscure mark schemes. We also made a conscious effort to bring AS content up to A2 difficulty. We tried to include a high degree of problem solving, making sure this wasn’t something students could rattle off the night before.

Engagement was better than expected – we typically got work from 75 to 95% of our 40 or so students, tailing off around exams and UCAS deadlines. They often worked collaboratively. We regularly saw groups of students puzzling over questions together in the common room. We encouraged this because higher-achieving students were supporting lower achievers, and it was clear that there was no rote copying going on.

Marking was a killer. But with so much notice, we could plan around it. We marked the work submitted on time and provided targeted feedback. We trialled different types of feedback, including individual, whole-group, as well as providing written solutions, making a video of key areas and running drop-in sessions. To our delight, the students were really engaged – asking questions and following up on areas they still didn’t understand. Marking the whole year group’s work also gave us insight into what stage our students were up to, and we could share key areas for development. We kept a record of who had handed in their work and their marks. There were no repercussions for missing tutorial work, although it did provide a lot of useful ammunition, if needed, when parents’ evening came around.

Covid unfortunately struck at just the time we would have liked to survey our former students to find out if the experience had helped them with university transition. Regardless of this, we certainly felt that it improved students’ organisation, time-management and problem-solving skills. We noticed increased student independence and ownership of the work as they discovered the benefit of grappling with a problem, putting it down and then returning to it later. There was also less reliance on memory and Google, as students had to return to their year 12 notes to be successful.

While we were working online during Covid, both we and the students took a long time to get into routines. Now we’re determined to get this scheme back up and running. Writing this article is part of our personal commitment to doing so.

Kristy Tuner and Becky Kell both teach chemistry at Bolton School Boys’ Division