‘What students think about is what they will remember.’ Daniel Willingham

I had a lesson this week which seemed to be successful: students worked hard, produced lots of work and some great poetry. When I reflected on exactly what they had learnt, I realised that they had no real understanding of what a sonnet was. It wasn’t exactly a lesson wasted, but the fact was that they had barely concentrated on the main point.

In Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn, Hattie and Yates state that “…learning occurs effectively once the mind responds to a meaningful experience through making a meaningful response.” Lessons must be constructed around the thinking that we want to take place, otherwise they don’t learn anything. In the example above, I wanted the thinking to be about the sonnet form, but students actually thought about the content of their poems.

Thinking deeply about things causes learning, so how do we ensure that students spend time thinking about the things we want them to think about? Here are some ideas for what- and what not- to do.


Dylan Wiliam makes the point that ‘Feedback should cause thinking’. The best feedback makes students think deeply about what they have to do next. A bad example is in one of my previous blogs on feedback. I suggested ‘coded feedback’ as a way of getting students to interact with their feedback- feedback is written in a code they have to crack or in a foreign language they have to translate. In fact, what they will do with that is think about the coding system for the majority of the time and then think about the feedback for just a tiny bit. We spend so much time giving feedback but if they don’t actively think about it they will not really improve. So when we give students feedback it needs to ensure that they think, and we need to give them time to do so. This post on making feedback stick from David Fawcett is particularly insightful on this.

Elaborate activities

I created an amazing lesson once when studying poetry. I split the class into groups, gave them some 1 pence pieces and some ideas on the poem. They could trade ideas, buy some thoughts from me, come up with their own ideas. A colleague walked by the room and thought it was fantastic. I had a real sense of achievement. But…by the end of the lesson, one student had all the coppers and only two or three students had annotated their poem. I think some had not even read it. We tried to write about the poem in the next lesson but of course they had not thought about it for long enough to provide the responses that I had hoped- they had been thinking about the elaborate task. I had spent so much time on making it exciting and interesting that I was blind to the fact that they would not really learn about the poem. Perhaps it was a fear that the subject was not exciting in itself. Now I realise that poetry is exciting and studying it in depth is much more interesting and too much on top of that only ensures that they think less about poetry.

Irrelevant activities

I think that lessons can often contain quite a lot of filler. When we plan lessons, it can be tempting to try to fill time to make things last for an hour so that everything fits together but learning is messier and can’t fit neatly into organised chunks. Lesson design benefits from ruthless editing. Ask what students are learning at each stage, what they are thinking about, what they might end up thinking about instead(e.g. they might be thinking about getting the bubble writing just right on a poster). If you ask those questions and can’t justify the task then- CUT!


Whichever techniques you wish to use- lollipop sticks, random name generators or just picking yourself- you need to make sure all students are thinking when you ask a question. I know how easy it is to ‘hide’ in lessons because I used to do it myself. (Don’t put your hand up and everything will be fine.) Good teachers use questioning to ensure that every student thinks. Students can’t be let off the hook either. Stay with them even if they say ‘I don’t know’. Expect them to think.

Teacher talk

I am an advocate of teacher talk and will argue with anyone who suggests that I shouldn’t do it. It can also be one of the worst things that goes on in classrooms. Teachers are experts, so why shouldn’t they speak to the class? However, the best teacher talk is designed to make students think. Highly skilled questioning, modelling, explanations which tell wonderful narratives are all ways of ensuring students think. I learn a great deal from watching and listening to presentations from speakers who make me think.

Group work

If you are putting students into groups for a task, ask yourself whether every student in the group is going to think about what you want them to think about. If they won’t, then don’t do group work.


One of the trickiest things with new technology is that students will spend quite a bit of time learning how it all works and trying things out. I used a google doc recently for collaborative writing in the classroom which was an unmitigated disaster if I’m honest. The time spent getting used to how it worked, the increasingly ridiculous user names, the messages, the rogue deleter, the accidental deleters, then the blocking of the site. Did the class think about Dulce Et Decorum Est? Nope.

This doesn’t mean that we should just give up. It does mean that if something is worth using then it needs to be used routinely so that the novelty wears off and the benefits kick in. If there is going to be a lot of time written off to bed things in then it isn’t worth it.

Cognitive load

If students have to think about too many things, they will become overloaded and won’t really think deeply about anything at all. Too many new ideas and they are overburdened, too many new words and they cannot comprehend the big ideas. As teachers, we need to reduce the burden of cognitive load to ensure they are able to concentrate on the thing we want them to concentrate on.


Getting on top of homework

Teaching is really hard. One of the problems is that there are so many things to do and not really enough time to do everything in the way that we want. I have struggled to keep on top of all of my work and still retain anything like a fair work-life balance. From my experience, there are certain things which we may let slide – not because we are bad teachers but because we are human beings who can’t spend every waking hour on the job.

The main reason homework has slid for me in the past is that I didn’t value it. It always felt like a waste of time as it didn’t seem to impact positively on my students’ progress. It is often the first thing to drop off the to-do list when I am busy and tired and working flat out. Whereas I would feel a deep sense of shame from not marking a set of exercise books, I can’t say I have ever been that bothered about forgetting homework. Homework can be time consuming to create, inconvenient to hand out, a nuisance to collect and a pain to mark! Hattie gives homework an effect size of 0.29 which seems to back up the idea that homework is ineffective.

Why does it matter?

Homework matters to a lot of people. It is often a high priority for senior leadership teams and I have had many conversations with parents who cite homework as their number one concern. Ofsted state that ‘setting appropriate homework’ is a feature of outstanding teaching. These are obviously important factors but they are not compelling enough for me and have never led to me setting effective homework because they don’t really tell me why. To be clear, I am not dismissing any of these factors as unimportant, but for me to sustain any changes in the habits of my teaching, I need to see exactly what’s in it for my students.

For me to make any sort of progress with my homework, it needs to be worth it. I have taken some time to read Hattie on homework again and it is interesting to read the nuances of his meta-analysis. Hattie talks about the greater benefits of homework the older students get, which makes the overall effect size somewhat skewed. For older students, the effect size is 0.64, making this above Hattie’s own hinge point of 0.4. Hattie adds that ‘more task-oriented homework had higher effects than did deep learning and problem solving homework.’ and ‘…the effects are highest, whatever the subject, when homework involves rote learning, practice, or rehearsal of the subject matter.’ I also find that this post by @headguruteacher makes a compelling case for homework. (He also has a detailed post on Hattie and homework here)

This goes some way to convince me that homework at Secondary could be effective and that if it involves rehearsal or practice it might be more worthwhile. From this I thought about the type of practice that would be effective for my students. Feedback based homework would be worthwhile, but I’m not sure that this meets my own selective criteria of homework being easy to prepare.

I decided that a vocabulary focus would be a strong driver for improvement. Because I have read around the subject and because I value it highly, vocabulary homework is not something I will do half-heartedly so is more likely to ‘stick’. While the jury may still be out on the overall effectiveness of homework, I am now in a position where I feel that the homework I set is helpful for my students while avoiding the problems I have struggled with in the past.

My approach

This is my current approach to homework. I trialled it with a couple of classes last year, have refined it and am now using it routinely. I am constantly reflecting on the benefits and as you will see below it is far from perfect but I am seeing the highly visible impact in the form of students’ work.

First, I choose words for study. I look at the texts we will be reading and choose words which I envisage having to explain. These could be words with multiple meanings, complex words, words students can’t work out from etymological or context clues. Words are also chosen if they give students precise vocabulary to write on the topic we are studying. For example, this list of vocabulary to help with a Blood Brothers essay. Here is an example of a word chosen from Animal Farm:

 At one end of the big barn, on a sort of raised platform, Major was already ensconced on his bed of straw, under a lantern which hung from a beam.


I use the COBUILD dictionary and British National Corpus to create helpful definitions and example sentences.

The students write their own example sentences as homework.

The idea here is that students will take on these words if they are exposed to them several times. Many of the words chosen are ones they may be slightly familiar with and this additional encounter makes the even more ‘known’. You can see from the example below that the student is almost there but doesn’t quite have the precise meaning of ensconced. Ensconced







HomeworkExcuseI have started using Laura McInerny’s homework excuse notes to help manage the handing in of homework and the minimising of non-doers.

Then, some time after students have completed the homework, we use them in class, usually through reading them in the book/poem/article. The idea is that a further interaction with them will allow these words to transfer into students’ written vocabulary. I spend longer on the words that students struggled with in the homework.

Then, I hope, students will use them unprompted in their writing as in the example below. Although the spelling isn’t correct, it is clear that this student has reached for the right word and found ‘ensconced’. Or, the student deliberately found a way to use their new word. Either way, that student now has that word firmly in their written vocabulary.









You can read more about vocabulary and why it is so important in the posts below: