Teaching is far more than simply knowing your subject – the best mathematicians don’t necessarily make the best International GCSE mathematics teachers, just like widely read people don’t necessarily make the best International GCSE English teachers either! And, of course, the same is true for other International GCSE subjects too.
So, if subject knowledge isn’t the secret, then what is? What is it about that favourite teacher we remember from school who managed to get us a top grade, while also fostering a love for their subject?
In this blog, I will take you through five strategies that you can use with your International GCSE students to help you become a more effective (and perhaps even also their ‘favourite’) teacher.
Strategy 1: Motivate and engage
Vary the nature of tasks – sometimes ask students to ‘research’; sometimes to ‘investigate’; sometimes to ‘solve a problem’; sometimes to ‘try and win a game’, or sometimes simply to ‘answer these questions’. A range of different tasks will ensure you maintain students’ interest.
Whatever the task, make sure it is clearly presented and pitched at the correct level. A task should not be so easy that students quickly become bored; nor should it be so challenging that it is inaccessible. The best tasks are those with an ‘entry point’ (‘low floor’) that all students can manage, followed by a main part pitched at just the right level, and then an optional challenge (‘high ceiling’) for those students that can cope with a bit more stretch.
Sometimes, it is worth acknowledging that students may find the main part of a task difficult. Emphasize that this is fine! Encourage resilience by discussing with students what to do if they get stuck: they might break the task into smaller sections and identify some parts that they can do, or they could discuss their approach with a partner. Don’t allow students to struggle for too long though. If necessary, intervene and provide more structure.
Finally, set intermittent goals throughout the main part of a task. For example, in English, set the goal of drawing a mind map of ideas before starting an essay plan; in Maths set the goal of expressing specific examples in words before moving on to generalising using algebra. This means students won’t have to wait until they reach the end of a task to feel a sense of accomplishment. (Those small regular ‘wins’ can really help keep students motivated.)
Strategy 2: Ask good questions
Use a mix of question types (closed and open) in your International GCSE lessons and be aware of their different purposes. Ask closed questions, which have a specific answer, for a quick knowledge or memory check. Ask open questions, which require students to explain, describe and give opinions, to prompt them to think a little deeper; these will give you a better insight into students’ level of understanding and their ability to apply their knowledge.
It isn’t just the asking of questions that is important, but also the way that you phrase them. For example, ‘What is the answer?’ will only get a response from those students who are certain. Change this to ‘What do you think the answer could be?’ and students who are not sure of their response may engage too. Even better, add on an encouraging: ‘Go on, give it a go!’, and you may persuade some students to take a risk and suggest an answer even if they are uncertain.
Once you’ve asked a question, pause, and give students time to think. A good length of time is 3 – 5 seconds. This may feel like a long interval of silence, but it is worth the wait! Not only does this allow students time to absorb and ponder the question you have asked, but also allows them to rehearse their answers. As a result, you should get more considered responses.
Sometimes, rather than asking for volunteers, it is a good idea to select a student to give an answer. This encourages students to stay alert and pay full attention, as they may be picked next! However, to eliminate any possibility of bias, try this: write all your students’ names on slips of paper – one name on each– and put them in a jar. When you want to pick a student to give an answer, take a slip of paper from the jar and read out the name. Always put the slip back, though, so the student knows they may be picked again!
Finally, whatever the question, encourage students to justify their answer in some way. For example, ‘How did you work that out?’ or ‘Why do you think that?’ This will help students to develop their reasoning and communication skills.
Strategy 3: Provide opportunities for collaborative learning
When students share knowledge, ideas and opinions among themselves, this will often result in higher level thinking and better retention than when working alone. However, if one student in a group is doing all the talking and the other students are simply listening, the benefits are much more limited. For that reason, when you ask students to work in pairs or small groups, you should provide them with structure. For example:
- Ask students to take it in turns to each contribute at least one idea to the group for how to tackle a task or answer a question – emphasize that it doesn’t matter how small or big the idea is – every idea is valid.
- Now ask students to discuss, compare and analyse all their ideas and choose the one (or ones) they think will work best – state that you expect everyone in the group to have the opportunity to voice their opinion on which idea (or ideas) to carry forward.
- Finally, ask the group to work together to refine their response. Ensure everyone gets a turn at feeding back on behalf of their group, so that it is not always the same student who does the speaking.
Strategy 4: Foster a culture of proactive learning and perseverance
As the teacher, of course, you can do your utmost to promote, facilitate and support learning. However, obviously, you can’t do the learning for your students – they must want to learn – and you must make that clear to them.
This means then when a student doesn’t understand, they must be proactive and do what they can to address it – try to understand for themselves, by referring to books or the internet, talking to a fellow student, an older sibling, or asking their teacher. The key is that even when something is difficult to understand, students must believe that with perseverance they can succeed. Emphasize (and then emphasize again and again!) that there is no fixed upper limit to anyone’s achievement in your subject.
Even when students think they have understood something, encourage them to double-check that they have ‘got it’! We have all been in a situation where we believe we have understood, and then later discovered that, in fact, we only partly understood, or didn’t understand at all! For that reason, when students are learning important concepts, encourage them to, first, convince themselves of their understanding, and then convince others, to be sure!
Strategy 5: Make feedback count
It is all too easy to feedback with words such as ‘ok’, ‘good’, ‘well done’, ‘try again’. However, this kind of feedback has minimal effect. Feedback has been shown to be more meaningful, and have a much greater impact, when:
- It relates to a task rather than a person. For example, ‘This part of the task is good… ‘
- It is specific rather than general. For example, ‘This part of the task is good, because…’,
- It notes areas of strength and how to improve, rather than just giving a grade. For example, ‘This part of the task is good, because…. but I wonder if you could improve it even more by…’
The above relates not just to teacher feedback, but also to students giving feedback to their peers. Encouraging a student to give meaningful feedback to another student is an opportunity for the student giving the feedback to learn as well. By considering someone else’s work, learners are forced to make comparisons with their own work and identify ways in which they too can improve.
Striving for excellence
These are just five strategies you can use in your International GCSE lessons to make your teaching more effective. However, this blog is just a starting point, and there are other strategies you may try too.
The key thing to remember is this: just as we should be encouraging our students always to be striving to become more effective learners, we (as teachers) should also always be striving to become more effective teachers.
A good example of how to encourage students to give positive and meaningful feedback to each other can be found in this video.
Dos, B., Bay, E., Aslansoy, C., Tiryaki, B., Cetin, N., & Duman, C. (2016). An analysis of teachers questioning strategies. Educational Research and Reviews, 11(22), pp. 2065– 2078.
Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), pp. 81-112.
Laal, M., & Laal, M. (2012). Collaborative learning: what is it? Journal of Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 31, pp. 491-495.
McCombs, B.L. (2010) Developing responsible and autonomous learners: A key to motivating students. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. (Available online, retrieved 26 May 2023)
Seifert, T. L. (2004). Understanding student motivation. Educational Research, 46, pp. 137–149.
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