“But What About My Social Life?”

This was the response from a student when I pointed out that with their first exam eight days away, they should probably be staying in revising most nights between now and then. They seemed amazed that I should expect them to be putting their exam preparation first, even though some of them are close to grade boundaries or are hoping to use their grade to access sixth form or college courses. These are clearly kids who would have failed the marshmallow test when younger.

You’ve guessed it – this is another revision tips post. The title of the lesson I gave was ‘Revision vs Facebook’ and focussed on web resources that students could use to revise effectively. I’ve shown them the flash card programs before (see Revising Online) but wanted to give them some alternatives. The two concepts we looked at were producing summaries using frameworks and making mind or concept maps.


A blank piece of paper is intimidating. I’ve found that many students take time getting started with revision, not just because they have a tendancy to procrastinate but because they don’t know where to start. For a while now I’ve told them to finish one revision session by writing a heading on a new piece of paper for the concepts they need to do next. This sheet then goes into their revision guide, sticking out at the right page. When they start the next session all they need to do is find the book and they can start without thinking. This is based on the idea of making a ‘to do list’ while wearing a ‘boss hat’ so you can get things done when less focussed. (Not as stupid as it sounds – see this Lifehacker post for more info).

Producing a framework for revision can be done in seconds, but it may be worth putting a little more time into it. A list of topic headings give a framework, for example. These might be added to a Cornell layout, as I’ve posted about before (and some of my students tell me really helps). Copying and pasting a few past paper questions on the same topic can set a clear objective: students can list bullet points that summarise the main ideas behind their answers. With luck they’ll notice common themes in the questions or, if they are sufficiently self-critical, will pick up on common weaknesses in their answers.

In a recent lesson I divided a page into three and asked students to write five key ideas under each of three headings for enzymes. This took seconds so I’m not going to produce a printable version, but it looked like this:

 Over several lessons I refined this idea and produced different versions of a ‘leaflet’. I suspected my younger students would get a lot more out of the concept of making a proper leaflet, so produced one they could fold and add to their folders. This gave a more structured approach than simply three headings. If you print this double-sided (flip on short side!) it will fold nicely to give three different views.

printable: energy leaflet as pdf

For my GCSE class, I produced and had copied for them a double sided leaflet with headings, a total of six columns with prompts that will hopefully flag up the most important bits. (Which in a way makes me sad – does it seem to anyone else that being able to fit the key ideas for an exam that makes up a quarter of a GCSE on two sides of A4 is a little worrying?) I’ve made an electronic copy available on our school VLE so they can print extra copies, or make their own versions with extra copies of a single column (for those who use the tried and tested method of cover, write, check, repeat). And I’ve suggested that if they filled in one of the columns several times, using different resources online (Bitesize and Skoool were the two I pointed them at), they would probably get the facts straight in their heads. I even suggested they could fill it in while listening to the relevant podcasts from the Naked Scientists, also available on Bitesize.

printable: AQA B2 leaflet as pdf

Only one student noticed that, once more, I was strongly suggesting making something rather than simply reading. Or is it too optimistic to hope that they all believe and understand this now and take it for granted that reading isn’t revision?

Mind Maps

Am I the only person who sees the constant disagreement about how mind/concept maps ‘should’ be drawn as something similar to a religious war? There seem to be hundreds of sites, all with their instructions for the one, ‘true’ way. I’m a bit more relaxed and give my students just a few basic rules:

  • all lines show links between ideas
  • the lines mean links – consequnces, subgroups or similar – so don’t be afraid to draw them as arrows
  • pretty colours are pointless unless they signify something

This does mean that sometimes a concept map turns into something like a flowchart, or circles are drawn around all examples of something to make it vaguely venn diagram-esque. If that’s a word. Which it probably isn’t.

Sorry, it’s late. Anyway. There are tons of places, online and off, to look for information on mind mapping. This may need to be a whole separate post at some point [scribbles in a notebook] but for now there are two websites I was going to flag up. I’m sure both have advantages and disadvantages, and that there are may others that you may feel do the job better (comments section below, please feel free to correct me), but for now these are two I’d like to direct you towards.

I’d never heard of MindMeister but I like it. At least partly I like it because there’s content there already, which my students have already been directed to, for their coming exams. A guy who tutors science and stuff has put at least these two, and probably many more. AQA B2 and AQA P2 are nice summaries students could use to consider how well they currently understand the topic, and perhaps even extend it. Naturally making a mind map is always better than using one, but a starting point is still useful. If nothing else these show what can be done with the software. 

The other site is called bubbl.us and I’m still playing with it. I know I like it, but I haven’t quite figured out all the bits and pieces yet. I like that I can share what I’ve produced and I see this as a really nice way to work collaboratively. My students (although they don’t know it yet) will soon have a homework to contribute to such a mind map. One I’m fairly happy with is linked from the thumbnail below.

Survival Science Mini-Scheme

I won’t quite say that it’s by popular demand – but after a comment I made on the TES Forums about a problem-solving activity I did back in the mists of time, a few people expressed interest. I couldn’t find the original information so I’ve had to reproduce it from memory. The downside is that there isn’t as much detail as there was in the Homeopathy scheme I put here a few weeks back. But hopefully it will be useful and/or interesting.

The basic idea is that students attempt several different activities, all based around the idea of surviving and eventually escaping from a desert island. They have to use various aspects of KS3 science to do so, as well as some creativity and a fair bit of ingenuity. There will be sellotape, or for those more experienced, duct tape. (Basic survival necessity).

What it doesn’t have is the complete set of printable resources I did for the homeopathy scheme. Partly this is because how you use the resources will depend on time and equipment available. Partly it’s because I just haven’t had time to recreate it all. Please feel free to send (or link to in the comments) anything you have that could or should be added.

Printable: survival science as pdf

Constructive Laziness for Teachers

I’ve written before that students need to be trained to understand the benefits of constructive laziness. This means working more effectively for less time. Some students have a tendancy to spend ages making work ‘perfect’. This might involve copying notes out into ‘neat’, memorising paragraphs word for word or reading text books from beginning to end. Most of the ideas I’ve discussed for effective revision are about making sure a student is fully engaged for a shorter period of time, rather than daydreaming for hours with a folder in front of them. Of course, it isn’t just students who can gain from this approach.

It’s very easy as a teacher, especially on a topic you’re familiar with or enjoy teaching, to slip into bad habits. I’m talking about teaching from the front, writing notes from memory, responding to questions from a small subset of the group and basically never getting a moment to pause and think. Students get the right notes, and they get to hear the anecdotes or extras that (we hope) bring the topic to life. But there are other ways which end up being a lot less stressful. That kind of lesson means trying to keep on top of everything at once, with little ‘one to one’ time speaking to any particular student. There are alternatives.

Making Life Easier

There are several activities – ones I’ve mentioned before – which take the responsibility off us and gives it to the students. It can be a high-risk strategy, especially close to the end of topics, but I find it much less stressful. The downside is that it needs a small amount of prior planning – but less than you’d think. Put one of these lessons in the middle of a busy day – one per teaching group over their timetable – and suddenly you have a moment to pause, reflect, and give your voice a chance to recover.

Lazy Lesson: Students watch a video

Constructive Laziness:

  • Give them the questions first.
  • Provide a list of key terms (out of sequence) and ask them to note down definitions and/or examples.
  • Ask them to produce summary notes, perhaps using a Cornell blank.
  • Have them write a review for the BBC Bitesize website.
  • Ask them to choose headings for a Powerpoint that they can then write for homework.
  • Give them handouts using Powerpoint that have titles, but no content; an example is below. This is another way to give them the framework for the notes. (Differentiated versions easily produced.)
  • Tell them it is old or out of date. What mistakes can they spot? How would they script an improved version?

printable: B1b Part 1 as pptx

Lazy Lesson: Students research online

Constructive Laziness:

  • give them a framework first (powerpoint, Cornell notes etc – an example is below).
  • ask them to produce a hotlinked document linking to each of the best websites.
  • specify that references (relevant website addresses) must be included.
  • Give them five websites and ask for them to be rated in how well they cover the ideas, from 1 to 5 stars for content and presentation.
  • give them a spot the mistakes article (a rewritten piece with ten errors) and ask them to find and correct them, using one or more reliable websites.

printable: Power Stations 2 as docx :

Lazy Lesson: students answer questions from a book or past paper

Constructive laziness:

  • predict score and where marks lost.
  • have them add on an extension question to each  – so if the question is (a)-(c), they write (d).
  • ask them to produce a markscheme with key words highlighted.
  • can they list the five (or ten) main ideas they needed to understand – perhaps words to define, or methods to use.
  • do they get the same list for each set of questions or each past paper? Are there patterns that often come up?
  • give them three sets of mock answers, each with an identifiable kind of mistake (student A writes long answers and runs out of time, student B can’t rearrange equations, etc).
  • play ‘consequences’ when the questions come in linked parts; three students compete parts (a), (b) and (c) in turn, basing their ideas on previous part of answer.
  • In a group, students have the same total amount of time (e.g. four students would have ten minutes to do a 40 minute paper) but must work together to get as many marks as possible. No overlapped marks are given. To make this harder, give them only two minutes to discuss then work in silence.
  • With warning given, students must choose a section to ‘specialise’ in then ‘tutor’ those who are less confident, using questions as examples of the basic principles.

The Justification

There’s been a lot recently in teaching about ‘Learning to Learn‘. This turns into days of INSET and pages of Powerpoint handouts, but the idea, as I understand it, is simple. It’s about explicitly teaching the skills students need to learn effectively, which can then be applied to all lessons and in real life. Giving them a chance to practise these skills is clearly equally important. Now, we’ve done this for years, with varying degrees of success. It does give us as teachers an opportunity to take a step back during the lesson and watch learning happen.

As far as becoming independent learners is concerned, we specifically want our students to be able to:

  • manage time
  • extract information from text/video (inc. internet)
  • apply ideas to new situations, making notes or answering questions
  • share their ideas within a group
  • assess their own level of understanding and their use of these skills, asking for help when necessary

None of this is new. What L2L does is share these aims with students and assess the success. One suggestion is to have a split plenary in lessons, separating content and process objectives. However you apply it, the use of L2L ends up forcing us as teachers to take it easy. This doesn’t mean lessons are any less busy, or that we’re ‘slacking’. Instead we have the chance to move around the classroom, speaking to individuals, giving feedback and perhaps getting a proper chance to see how well students cope with different tasks. (Hush now – is that the sound of APP rearing it’s ugly head?!)

Teaching Evolution 3/5 – Non-Random Selection

This post – and activity – is a follow up from yesterday’s, looking at mutation. I’ve found that students often struggle with randomness and, short of loaning them Mlodinow’s excellent book, it’s hard to fix their problems. Instead, I focus on separating the concepts of variation and selection.

Variation always happens during reproduction. In asexual reproduction it is caused by mutations, mistakes in copying the instructions that make up the genome. For humans and other organisms that reproduce sexually most variation (in the short term) is caused by the shuffling of the genes during meiosis. We can treat this kind of variation – or the effects of it, in changing characteristics – as effectively random changes that affect an original characteristic.

Proponents of intelligent design often point to the random nature of variation as ‘proof’ that evolution couldn’t work. This is best addressed by pointing out that selection is the true friving force behind evolution, and it is clearly not random. It is true that sometimes a slow impala escapes a cheetah or a furry wolf still gets chilly, but on average those individuals with the characteristics best suited to their situation will survive and thrive. This is not random. On the contrary, it is both predictable and reproducible in statistical terms.

The first time I tried this I asked students to use the random number function of their calculators to model variation. We used even numbers for an increase in height, odd numbers for a decrease. We then ‘selected’ the offspring that were taller, imagining a situation where this would be an advantage. Over generations, the whole population became taller on average. My new version uses dice to simulate the changes but the selection works the same way. The printable activity consists of four pages:

  1. Teachers’ guide including answers to questions
  2. Instruction sheet with questions (if laminated this can be reused)
  3. Data sheet for students to write on their results
  4. Answer sheet for questions if required (could be turned into differentiated writing frame)

printable: giraffes as pdf

Please let me know if you find this useful or have any comments, especially any problems you had with it. I will give one health warning: This simulation works much faster than variation would change height in nature, in all but the most extreme environments!

HSW – Homeopathy

Update: This blog post and the resources mentioned in it are now combined and organised as two files to download: hsw – homeopathy (scheme and resources as pdf) and hsw – homeopathy (accompanying powerpoint). Hope they’re useful – if so please let me know!

How Science Works: Homeopathy

In the UK – and worldwide – there are many competing interests in the field of healthcare. Hopefully students would agree that people should choose – or have provided for them, for example by the NHS – treatments that work. Considering how scientists find out which treatments work well and which ones don’t seems to me to be both interesting and relevant. This post has been inspired by the recent 10:23 campaign and is intended mainly for 14-16 year old students. It seems particularly relevant as it is apparently World Homeopathy Awareness Week. It’s vaguely matched to the GCSE syllabus my school uses, AQA A Core Science, specifically section 11.3 of B1a: Human Biology. I’ve produced a powerpoint which may be useful, in whole or in part: hsw – homeopathy (saved as pptx)

1 Choosing Treatments (mainly discussion-based lesson)

Starter: Students to produce bullet point list of medical treatments (perhaps linked to examples of specific conditions). Treatment card sort could be used here for inspiration, or role play where six students are issued white coats and others are given cards of medical conditions and have to ask what treatments might be suggested.

Printables: conditions card sort as docx : treatment card sort as docx


  • When there is a choice of treatments, who chooses and why?
  • Can students explain what is involved in therapies listed on treatment card sort? They could be divided into categories, possibly including ‘medical’ or ‘conventional’ vs ‘alternative’.
  • How could we test which are effective and which are not? What do we mean by effective?

Plenary: Summarise that we want effective treatments and for an organisation like the NHS we want the most cost-effective ones. This provides an opportunity to consider that a limited amount of money is available and so some treatments will not be considered ‘cost-effective’. QALYs could feature here (explanation at NICE) for able/older students. This also could be a great opportunity to discuss the wide variety of careers in healthcare that are not doctors and pharmacists.

2 Medical Trials (content-based)

Starter: How do we find out if a treatment is effective? Hopefully students will make suggestions showing they are aware that to be scientific, we want:

  • valid data in a fair trial (only one factor affects results)
  • accurate results (reflects true situation)
  • precise numbers (how much better? how many people are helped? how many lives saved/years added to life expectancy?)
  • reliable, repeatable results (large number in trial, to account for random variables, spontaneous remission etc)

Main: Scientific trials compare the treatment being tested with, usually, the closest alternative and a placebo or sham treatment. Explain why patients may benefit from a placebo treatment for some conditions. Challenge students to explain why this needs to be (1) randomly allocated and (2) double-blinded. Discuss the difficulty in providing a convincing placebo to, for example, physiotherapy or acupuncture. Provide notes on useful clinical trials, which include the different stages of testing before patients are asked to volunteer.

Plenary: If it has been shown to be effective, it should no longer be considered ‘alternative’ medicine. Give examples of herbal treatments which have ‘inspired’ drugs and how, in reverse, trials and results showing dangers or ineffectiveness have caused drugs and treatments to be discontinued.

3 Homeopathy (research lesson)

Starter: State ‘three laws’ of homeopathy (listed at: http://www.1023.org.uk/what-is-homeopathy.php and on my powerpoint) and leave on board.

Main: Ask students, singly or in pairs, to investigate the scientific evidence for or against one of the laws. Ideally there should be duplication and they should be able to add their comments, evidence and so on to one of three posters or boards spread around the room (Post-it notes work well for this as they must be brief, but can write at their desk/from text book/in front of computer screen and then transfer it to a central point). Those investigating the ‘law of infinitessimals/dilutions should be encouraged to do the maths regarding Avagadro’s number. A brief series of questions for each law might help to direct students’ thinking.

Printable: homeopathy laws prompts as pdf

Plenary: Gather around board(s) or posters – what does the evidence say and where does it come from?

4 How Science Works (content/explanation)

Starter: Feynman quote and hypothesis/experiment/data/explanation cycle (both on powerpoint).

Main: Science should be about evidence, not reputations. Scientific ideas do change and are refined over time. However, we would need very convincing evidence for homeopathy working better than placebo before we could claim it contradicted so much of modern science. The problem is not, as homeopaths claim, a lack of evidence, but plentiful evidence of a lack of effect. Systematic reviews e.g. Cochrane could be discussed here. Set of ‘research’ cards could be issued and students asked to discuss them. (This will be here as soon as I can get it sorted – contributions welcome.)

Plenary: Ethical questions to answer (this could easily be a separate lesson).

  • Homeopathy shows benefits consistent with the placebo effect for some conditions. Should it be available and if so, who should pay?
  • Homeopathy has been shown to offer no help in conditions not influenced by placebo effect, e.g. infectious diseases such as HIV and malaria. How should we deal with homeopaths who claim to be able to treat these conditions?
  • People treated by homeopaths tend to delay seeking medical advice, which may in some conditions be dangerous. Some homeopaths also advise their clients against treatments shown to be very effective such as childhood immunisations. How can this risk to public health be managed?

These four – or five – lessons offer, I think, a fairly interesting mini-project which could reinforce the ‘How Science Works’ aspect of GCSE as well as fitting in to Biology. It would be easy to modify this for other alternative treatments, or indeed other interventions (Omega-3 and Brain Gym spring to mind, as I have been a fan of Ben’s Bad Science column for some years) which students could research themselves. A few years back a school student in the USA, for example, investigated therapeutic touch quite convincingly.

9 days and counting…

It amazes me sometimes. Both of my Year 10 groups have their next pair of (AQA) module exams on Wednesday next week. Both had homework set to produce evidence of revision (a long list of suggestions was made available) so I knew they were doing something. Both groups walked in to their lesson today and expressed total shock that they would be doing a past paper in exam conditions. They seemed surprised that I expected them to have calculators and pens for said exam. And please note, I teach in a good school, in a good area, with good results. Over the past few years I’ve started to come to the conclusion that these results are despite the kids, not because of them.

Anyway, complaint over. I wanted to share two activities that I’ve produced to help them with understanding, and distinguishing, different methods of heat transfer.

The first is fairly straightforward – in fact it is adapted from an activity I found in a textbook older than I am. Students are asked to explain various phenomena, such as wrapping chips in newspaper to keep them warm, or the rising of a hot air balloon, using key facts about conduction, convection and radiation. I ask them to look for common features in their explanations once they are finished. If time is short different groups can work on one of the three methods rather than completing all of the explanations. Ideally explanations should be shared with the class, perhaps by having them write up their main points on the board as they work and summing up at the end.

If there is time, I then ask them to complete the second activity. If not, it can be done independantly or at a later point, or perhaps as homework. In this, they are given some key phrases which can be used as ‘signposts’ towards specific kind of heat transfer. If a component is painted black, for example, I explain that radiation is probably a factor. Once the phrases and words are sorted into three categories they are asked to use them in a series of activities, such as producing a mind map or writing questions with these answers.

The two activities are complementary; the idea is to help students realise that by focusing on the key points, they can often identify which kind of heat transfer is most relevant. That domestic ‘radiators’ are painted white suggests that radiation is not the most important way they heat the room, for example.

printables: CCR explained as docx : CCR signposts as docx 

 Good luck to all colleagues who have similar students and hope these are useful – please let me know if so, if not or if you have any ideas I can steal…

Planning Effective Revision

Previous posts and a dedicated page cover some revision ideas. Today I – for what feels like the hundredth time – spoke to a class about planning their revision to make sure it is time well spent.

It would be lovely to think all students stared revision early, covered every item several times, and then was able to ask me questions in plenty of time to pass the exam. Our module exam (P1a Energy and Electricity from AQA, for what it’s worth) is in a month and I can assure you they’re not that well organised. These are a few ideas to help.

Students need to know what they need to know. Referring to the exam specification or syllabus can help, or try using an audit to tick off areas they’re happy with and focus on those they’re not. Revision guides can also be useful if they’re exam specific, but a ticklist such as the ones I issue to my students (one below, more to follow) let them set their own priorities. Taking responsibility for their own revision is something which puts them, hopefully, in the right frame of mind too!

Printable: P1a revision checklist

Of course, one of the dreaded situations is when you ask “What don’t you understand?” and they answer “Everything!”

A traffic light system can be very effective – and is easy for a teacher to use in lessons. Simply ask students to grade topics as green (I understand this now and would be confident to answer questions on it) amber/orange/yellow (I’m not sure about this and could do with more time or extra examples) or red (I don’t get this and need someone else to help me). Bullseye diagrams or similar can also be used to think through which topics are better understood than others.

Sometimes I ask students to add post-it notes to a board on which I’ve written headings so they can add those topics they are confident on. This can be modified so they volunteer themselves as ‘tutors’ on one topic and get help on others, an activity that can be long or short (saved as Word doc: Students as Tutors).

In general, these activities or similar ones – as usual, please add any of your own in the comments – help students to figure out what they need to know as far as the exam board are concerned, and what they specifically aren’t good at yet. Next step: effective revision that fills the gaps they’ve identified.