Sign In

Remember Me

Active Learning at A Level: Banham & Hall

‘I forget what I was taught, I only remember what I’ve learnt.’

Dale Banham (Northgate High School, Ipswich)
Russell Hall (Kesgrave High School, Ipswich)

This article provides a brief synopsis of an action research project between two schools in Ipswich. Our aims have been to promote curiosity, intrinsic motivation and a greater degree of independence amongst our A Level students. We recently shared the findings from the first year of the project at a workshop delivered at the 2012 Schools History Project Conference in Leeds. Our intention is to continue to analyse and evaluate the impact of the project over the coming year and to deliver a follow-up workshop at next year’s conference.

We would like to thank colleagues who attended the workshop at this year’s conference for their positive response to the strategies that have been developed over the last year. We look forward to hearing about how these strategies have been adapted for use by other History departments at next year’s conference.

The Starting Point – Using recent research findings

Our action research project was heavily influenced by three pieces of research:

  • John Hattie – Visible Learning (2009)
  • The Cambridge Handbook of expertise (2006)
  • Ron Berger – An Ethic of Excellence: Building a Culture of Craftsmanship with Students (2003)

Berger’s book inspired us to develop his idea of learning critiques as a basis for improving the quality of feedback students received from and gave to other students.

Hattie’s research was important in reaffirming our belief that achievement for all is changeable and not fixed. It was no good bemoaning the lack of independence in our students; we had to do something about it! Hattie also stresses that learning is primarily a social activity and that teachers need to pay more attention to the way that students describe and interpret learning. This meant beginning to understand learning experiences from the unique perspectives of students.

Research taken from ‘The Cambridge Handbook of expertise’ helped us understand why many students find A Level History difficult. Some domains are ‘well structured’, they deal with problems that have a single answer, readily identifiable constraints and agreed upon solutions. In contrast History students have to deal with  ‘ill-structured problems’ where there is more than one possible answer, no agreed-upon solution and little opportunity to use mathematics, formal logic or controlled experimentation. In addition serious writing is at once a thinking task, a language task, and a memory task. On the one hand, there is the problem of what to say. On the other hand, there is the different problem of how to say it. This can place severe demands on students.  The emotional demands of writing are just as challenging as the cognitive demands.

The Cambridge Handbook of expertise also helped us identify 5 key factors that could really move our students forward:

  • Effortful exertion to improve performance
  • Intrinsic motivation to engage in the task
  • Practice tasks that are within reach of the individual’s current level of ability
  • High levels of repetition
  • Feedback that identifies strengths and provides specific advice on how to move forward

The 5Rs – Developing the Wheel of Responsibility

In the past we had often said to students that they should do 5 hours of independent study per week. However, we had given little thought to what type of activities students should be engaged in during these 5 hours. To provide greater clarity we developed the 5Rs to model our expectations of what effective A Level History students needed to do each week. During the first lessons Year 12 and Year 13 had for History we stressed the importance of the 5Rs and modelled how pupils could develop the key skills they needed for each segment of the wheel of responsibility.


Ideas to encourage rigorous research

A key aspect of the historian’s task is the ability to select and define the issue to be studied. Problem finding is the critical first step in problem solving, and expert historians must have the skill at posing interesting yet researchable questions. We therefore devoted time at the start of each module to encouraging pupils to generate the key enquiry questions for the module.

Appendix A: Week 1 Germany shows the activities that we used to introduce the Germany 1890-1991 module to our Year 13 students. Our aims were to engage students, develop a sense of chronology and to generate key enquiry questions. Video Clips were used to provide a sense of period and to generate enquiry questions.

Ideas to encourage reflection

Interviews with students soon highlighted that students spent very little time reflecting on their progress in History. In order to encourage reflection we made a conscious effort in class to model being a reflective learner and to provide regular and structured opportunities for students to reflect. The following strategies have been introduced:

  • Learning Logs (see Appendix B: The 5Rs Learning Log) & Reflective Diaries. These have helped to reinforce the key principle of the 5Rs and helped us as teachers to monitor which segments of the wheel of responsibility students are struggling with.
  • Resource Record Sheets (see Appendix C). These were adapted from the model used by Edexcel for their A2 coursework module and encourage pupils to reflect on the sources they are using for their research.
  • Video Diaries – students use flip cameras to reflect on their progress (or the reasons for the lack of progress!) This strategy has been particularly effective for students who struggle to articulate how they learn and the problems they encounter in written form through the learning logs.

Ideas to improve the quality of feedback

1. Use of department meeting time to ‘practise’ effective feedback. At each department meeting we take at least one pupil’s work and discuss ‘What advice would really move this pupil on?’

2. Providing an immediate opportunity for pupils to respond to feedback within the lesson that the work is handed back. To often feedback is ‘lost’ as work is returned with no expectation for students to act upon it.

3. Create a regular on-going dialogue where student to teacher feedback is just as important as teacher to student feedback. The 5Rs Learning Log has provided invaluable student to teacher feedback.

4. Clarity of expectations – we regularly discuss and model what makes an ‘expert’ historian and what makes a high quality essay. The 5Cs (adapted from The Cambridge Handbook of expertise)provide the overview (see below).

What makes a quality essay?

  • Coherence (organisation and focus on a central theme)
  • Chronology
  • Completeness (use of all available evidence that supports/opposes)
  • Contextualisation (placing the subject matter into a broader perspective)
  • Causation (demonstrating convincingly that events or actions produced particular consequences … providing linkages of events and actions)

5. Marking Codes (see Appendix D) have been introduced to provide greater clarity and consistency in the feedback that is given. These codes are linked to the exam board mark scheme and advice on how to move forward. They also save teacher time (how often to we write the same comment on a number of essays?) and aid diagnostic assessment. Codes can be recorded in the teacher’s mark book and this enables us identify common problems or where an individual students is constantly losing marks for the same weakness.

6. Learning Critiques  – Ron Berger’s book (see Appendix E) encouraged us to shift the focus of our work in the classroom from quantity to quality and to develop an ethic of craftsmanship and excellence. Quality work needs re-thinking, reworking and polishing.Students who do this should be celebrated for their commitment.Berger suggests that teachers take critique to a whole new level and make critique a habit of mind amongst students and the cornerstone of their classroom practice.

Berger promotes two distinct critique formats:

  • Gallery Critique – the work of every child is displayed to be read. Generates the desire to be involved, generates models of strong work, sets the tone for the whole class standard.
  • In depth Critique – look at the work of one student or group and spend time critiquing it thoroughly.

The protocols of critique

  • Be kind – the environment must feel safe and free from sarcasm.
  • Be specific – avoid comments like ‘It’s good’ or ‘I really like it’ ; these are timewasters.
  • Be helpful – the goal is to help the individual and the class, not for the critic to be heard. This, too, wastes time.


  • Begin with the author explaining the ideas and goals, and explaining what particular aspects of the work they are seeking help with.
  • Critique the work not the person.
  • Begin with a positive and then move on to constructive criticism.
  • Use I statements – for example – ‘I am confused by this…’
  • Use a question format – for example – ‘I am curious why you chose to begin with this’ or ‘Have you considered including…?’

Ideas to improve the frequency and effectiveness of review/revision

A crucial part of our action research project has been to make revision or ‘review’ a regular part of the course. Strategies for how to revise/remember are built into the course, as opposed to being bolted on at the end. At regular intervals during the module pupils are encouraged to plan their revision and break information into small chunks. They are also expected to experiment with strategies that ‘stretch your memory’ and to experiment with different revision techniques. We have made sure that students revise actively not passively and regularly have opportunities to review key topics and share techniques for remembering key pieces of information.

Appendix F shows how opportunities for regular review are built into units of the AS Civil Rights module.

Encouraging students to ‘read around’ the topic

Finally, we have made ‘reading around’ a topic an expectation (rather than a hope!) Students are provided with reading and watching lists that go well beyond using one text book. For example, during the introductory unit to the Germany module students are expected to read at least one chapter of one of the novels on the reading list, watch one film and one documentary. Our research indicates that few students automatically read around a topic. Most stick to one or two core texts. It is therefore crucial that the homework that the teacher sets makes reading around a topic a clear expectation and that reading/watching lists are provided.

Example Watching List

An example of a ‘watching list’ is provided in below. This proved to be an excellent way into exploring different interpretations about why the Cold War ended.


Pro- Reagan

(Tribute from the 2004 Republican convention)


The Reagan Legacy

Tear down this wall speech

CIA says Reagan had nothing to do with ending of the Cold War




Pope John Paul II

Carl Bernstein (on why the Pope threatened Communism


Popular Protest


  • What is the main message? Who was responsible for the end of the Cold War?
  • How is this message conveyed? What techniques are used?
  • How credible is this interpretation? Use the 5Cs test!