The three cycles of great teaching

So you want to be a great teacher? The key is to understand the learning and assessment cycle, and know the three key ways to use it.

Quick test: what’s wrong with this statement?

Teach a topic –> Assess the topic –> Feed back –> Start again.

Bog standard it may be, but it’s also poor practice. Avoid assuming every student is ready to start at the same place by actually finding out what they know first, and planning accordingly. Here’s one version of the learning cycle for a topic that we discuss when I deliver training sessions.

  1. Assess first. Assess the students’ prior understanding, prior attainment, and capacity to learn (e.g. work ethic, habits and attitude).
  2. Teach/Prompt. Provide appropriate instruction/tasks to do one or more of the following:
    1. fill gaps in ‘foundation’ knowledge,
    2. challenge misconceptions,
    3. present new knowledge,
    4. embed new knowledge and link it to other topics,
    5. give students the ability to self-assess,
    6. inspire/stretch students,
    7. improve capacity to learn.
  3. Assess again. Check the resulting level of attainment and check on misconceptions that may have arisen (or been uncovered).
  4. Provide feedback, and suggest the next appropriate task (step 2 again).

That may sounds like quite a lot, but this cycle could be summarised as:

Assess –> Teach/prompt –> Assess again –> Feedback –> Start again…

The key to make this great teaching is to consider this cycle over three separate time-scales.

  • Within the lesson. Every lesson should contain mini cycles that start with assessment, or follow from a previous one. Any good methods of questioning will help here. Cycles can occur to encompass small tasks, to break up larger ones, or in conversation with students as they work on something more extended.
  • Between lessons. Use information gathered from marking exercise books, from homeworks and from online assessments to assess learning. Plan larger tasks or series of tasks for the next one to three lessons. Check the outcomes both within the class and also between lessons.
  • Long term. Use prior attainment data to assess learning (and current capacity to learn) when students start a new topic or course. Plan appropriate tasks to address the attainment. Use formal assessments or exams to compare students’ progress to other classes and to agreed standards. Using this information you can evaluate your teaching and locate/share good practice in your department. You can also plan bigger interventions to address low attainment and poor capacity to learn, and you can create extension tasks for high attainers.

This is the key to teacher greatness:

  • constantly evaluating the level of student learning
  • self-evaluating the effectiveness of your own teaching.

Use each learning cycle to adjust and improve your practice and make these adjustments:

  1. in the short term: within each class,
  2. in the medium term: between classes in lesson planning,
  3. in the long term: between topics/courses.

Of course all of this comes alongside confident behaviour management, strong interpersonal skills, outstanding organisation, deep subject knowledge, etc., but the heart of any lesson is the learning. Crack that, and you’re on your way.

Contact Informed Education if you would like a training session run at your school on using data and assessment for better teaching.

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