Make it Fun or Make it Stick?

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At the start of this term I moved into a new office and swapped classrooms. This prompted the inevitable tidying up and clearing out that always gets otherwise neglected and a couple of moments stick in my mind. First, a colleague was clearing out my (old) classroom and I asked what she had done with the box of play-doh that has been sitting untouched at the back of the room for a couple of years. “Oh, I threw that away. We don’t do that sort of thing anymore,” she said. Second, as I was moving into my new office I found a pack of laminating pouches; I fired off a quick allteachers email asking if anyone wanted them and got several eager responses within about 2 minutes. As I popped down to leave them in someone’s pigeonhole I pondered what they were planning to do with them. 

Unrelated to all this, but around the same time, I’ve seen a few tweets recently relating to revision lessons that have been along the lines of either “Help, I need to plan some fun revision lessons,” or “Look at this shiny revision activity I’ve just spent ages making.” The variety and innovation here is pretty impressive; whether it’s ordering table-tennis balls and paper cups to play ‘revision beer pong’, or spending evenings cutting, sticking and laminating quiz cards, it’s clear some teachers invest a significant time and effort into making lessons fun for their classes. And I don’t want to castigate those teachers, they clearly care deeply about their students and want to succeed, I’m just not convinced this is the most effective way to do it. I think this approach prioritises making it fun over making it stick. I’ve written before about how becoming more evidence-informed has moved me away from spending hours creating activities and resources that I no longer think are worth the effort, and the majority of my Twitter feed appears to be populated with people who agree. But it’s clear there are still many out there who *are* spending huge amounts of time doing this, including colleagues at my school, and I wanted to unpack some of the thinking around this. First, to address the two main reasons I *think* teachers, especially those at the beginning of their careers, are drawn to these kinds of activities. 

1) Fun lessons are more memorable which means students will learn more

I don’t doubt that fun lessons are more memorable. Creating unique, innovative activities which are enjoyable for students will no doubt stick in their minds. By doing so we create episodic memories that may well stay with them in the future. We can all probably look back on our own school days and remember some of those standout moments, perhaps with great fondness for the teacher. The trouble is, that is mostly what we will remember, rather than the content itself. The knowledge we want students to know, to be able to reproduce in the exam under difficult conditions (and, obviously, to be able to draw on in the future) is semantic rather than episodic. It is a collection of integrated facts which form complex schemas in our long-term memory. Research into long-term memory (eg Tulving, 1972) suggests that episodic memory is reliant on contextual cues for recall. We remember the episode by thinking about the stuff going on around the time we were encoding it – what the weather was doing, what the room looked like, something funny the teacher said, how you were feeling at the time. When retrieving that information, though, we may focus more on those contextual cues than the actual information itself. Semantic memory can be encoded and retrieved independently of context, and is both more robust (less prone to distortion and reconstruction) and more flexible (can be used in a range of contexts). So when we work hard to create ‘memorable’ lessons for our students we are increasing the likelihood that they will remember the lesson, but not necessarily the content they were learning. Clare Sealy has written a brilliant post on this here which explores these ideas in much more detail (and probably with more expertise than I do here).

2) Fun lessons increase student motivation so they will work harder

Fun lessons should be enjoyable, of course, so we hope this will make students feel like it’s worth putting more effort in. There’s a few issues here, not least that for some students, a ‘jazzy’ lesson is actually no fun at all, and they’d much rather be left alone to get on with something else thank you very much! In the Early Career Framework Handbook, Adam Boxer has written an excellent chapter on motivation which deals with this issue clearly. Adam describes an experience from early in his career which will resonate with many, delivering a lesson involving some kind of speed-dating activity which satisfied both him (at the time) and his mentor in terms of creating the buzz of engagement. Adam draws a clear distinction between engagement and motivation; students may well appear engaged by such a task (though that in itself is a poor proxy for learning) but this may not affect their long-term desire to succeed (motivation). Further, research shows that motivation is a product of competence, rather than a precursor for it. That is, students who are given opportunity to succeed and develop their competence will experience an increase in their levels of motivation, but not vice-versa (Garon-Carier 2015; Nuutila 2018). Therefore, when designing lesson activities we need to think whether they will actually boost students’ competence, or simply provide them an enjoyable experience.

What should we do instead?

In the spirit of trying to make things more concrete and actionable, I’ve outlined here an example of how I have been structuring my revision lessons for my y13 students recently. It’s Psychology specific, but I hope the principles of design would be easily applicable to most subjects, and provide a useful model for how to streamline lesson planning.  The basic format of my lessons in this strand follow a similar sequence, and should appear fairly straightforward (and uncontroversial): 

Activate prior knowledge → present/recap key information →  independent retrieval practice → whole-class questioning and discussion → independent application practice (with live feedback). 

This is part of a series of lessons looking at research methods which underpins much of Psychology A level. Knowing how to describe and evaluate various methodologies accurately, whether in their own right or as part of a wider critique of a particular line of research or theory, is integral to students’ exam success. This lesson looks at experimental methods.

  1. Activate prior knowledge

I start with this multiple choice question on the board:

Which of these studies can we class as a ‘true’ experiment?

  1. Milgram (study of obedience)
  2. Rosenhan (on being sane in insane places)
  3. Raine (brain scans of murderers)
  4. Loftus & Palmer (effects of leading questions on memory)

Students have one minute to answer, independently and in silence on their mini-whiteboards; they need to give their answer with some justification. If they look like they’re struggling after 30 seconds I give them the (easier) option of writing down any options they think *aren’t* correct and why. Students then share answers and we unpack each one in turn. (If you’re interested the correct answer is Loftus & Palmer because it’s the only one that satisfies two criteria for being a proper experiment in that 1) it has a clearly operationalised independent and dependent variable and 2) the researchers were able to randomly allocate participants to conditions of the IV). I think question offers great ‘bang for buck’ as a starting point for the lesson – it takes little time to either write the question or deliver this at the start of the lesson but it gets my students thinking – hard – about features of experimental research, allows me to assess their prior knowledge (and how much revision they’ve done at this point) and address some important misconceptions (ie that they need to stop calling *everything* an experiment!).

2. Present / recap key information

I share on the board a slide with key features of experimental research (IV/DV, lab vs field, experimental designs) – each one framed as a decision which brings a trade-off in terms of things like reliability and validity. This framing I find useful to prompt their thinking about evaluation points (strengths and weaknesses) which is coming next.

3. Independent retrieval practice.

Students have a sheet to complete with a table on like this:

They complete this largely independently and in silence, and I circulate while they’re doing this to check what they’re writing down. I could give them a blank sheet of paper to mindmap it, but I like the clear structure of a table in terms of organization and the standardised format means I know where I’m looking each time (I have something similar for each methods topic). If there’s a key point that I see a number struggling with, or an issue with their answers, I can easily pause the whole class to review and discuss.

4. Whole class questioning & discussion

A quick review of their answers; not the whole table as I think that would feel laborious and redundant, but some selected points that I think merit a bit more attention. This might mean probing students to develop their thinking, and offering counterpoints to help students develop a more nuanced understanding. 

5. Independent application practice

Students complete some practice exam-style questions like this:

I always remind them of how I expect them to engage with the question and model this on the board with them, emphasizing the importance of underlining/highlighting and annotating key features and context (features of the stem which they need to refer to in order to show that their answers relate to this specific scenario, rather than any generic experiment). If they start answering without doing this for themselves I will always stop them and make them do it. At this point in the year they *know* how and why, but some still forget to do so. Then they can just get on with the questions while I circulate giving live feedback. There’s always more than enough to keep them going well beyond the lesson so I’m not scratching around for some kind of additional ‘stretch’ activity.

So that’s my process, and I’m presenting this as a model in terms of ‘this is how I do it’ rather than suggesting it’s perfect in any way. A few key points I think worth highlighting:

  • It’s not glamorous, showy or gimmicky, and students spend a good portion of the lesson working in silence.  Doing it silently means if there is some chat I can determine immediately if it’s someone asking a classmate for help or if it’s off-task, and intervene if appropriate. Furthermore, they have to sit their exams in silence and I think training them to have to think hard, on their own, in a quiet room is quite useful.
  • It probably takes me no more than half an hour or so to prepare my resources, and the majority of that is coming up with suitable scenarios for the application questions which require some proper thought to get right (and to produce a volume of them of good enough quality).
  • As mentioned above, the standardised nature of the format means once I’ve planned the first lesson, those that follow are even quicker to prepare as it’s just an easy adaptation. The sequence outlined above can easily be used for a variety of different topics covering most of the course. I think students value that they get something which looks the same each lesson as they get to spend all their time and effort thinking about content. As Daniel Willingham (2010) says “Review each lesson plan in terms of what the student is likely to think about.” I want my students thinking hard about the details of the material they need to remember, not whether or not they successfully threw a ping-pong ball in a paper cup.

If you’re going to plan something more fun/exciting with your students then don’t let me stop you. I don’t think this is really a true dichotomy anyway; well-designed lessons that challenge students and develop their competence bring about their own enjoyment – “All my lessons are fun” is the line I always respond with to my students (cue much eye-rolling). But if you do want to be more creative then opportunity-cost should be a guiding principle, and I think it’s worth considering these questions:

  1. Will students actually spend time thinking hard about the material being covered, or simply the nature of the activities you’ve designed?
  2. Is the activity a worthwhile use of their time? Could they have achieved the same learning gains in a shorter time. What else could they use that time for instead?
  3. Is the activity a worthwhile use of your planning time? Rather than spending all evening cutting, sticking, laminating or whatever, what else worthwhile might you do with the time?

Finally, for some further thoughts on how to make revision effective but not gimmicky, I’d thoroughly recommend this post from Dawn Cox on structuring revision lessons, or this post from Rachel Ball on embedding effective retrieval practice more generally.

References 

Boxer, A. (2020). Pupil motivation. The Early Career Framework Handbook. Chartered College of Teaching. Corwin Ltd.

Garon-Carrier G Boivin M, Guay F et al. (2015) Intrinsic motivation and achievement in mathematics in elementary school: A longitudinal investigation of their association. Child Development 87(1): 165–175. As cited in Boxer, A. (2020). Pupil motivation. The Early Career Framework Handbook. Chartered College of Teaching.

Nuutila K Tuominen H, Tapola A et al. (2018) Consistency, longitudinal stability, and predictions of elementary school students’ task interest, success expectancy, and performance in mathematics. Learning and Instruction 56: 73–83. As cited in Boxer, A. (2020). Pupil motivation. The Early Career Framework Handbook. Chartered College of Teaching.

Tulving, E. (1972). Episodic and semantic memory. In E. Tulving & W. Donaldson, Organization of memory. Academic Press.

Willingham, D.T. (2010). Why don’t students like school? Jossey-Bass.

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