7 ways to get students back on track

The start of the new academic year is always an exciting time. Enthusiastic students (on the whole), rested teachers (mostly), new books and a world of potential ahead of us.

This year, of course, things are a bit different. Across the world, students are starting new courses or looking ahead to exams against the backdrop of the largest disruption to education in living memory. All of which presents teachers with a unique challenge: how do you start from scratch when you don’t quite know what ‘scratch’ is for each student?

None of this is insurmountable, of course, and if the last year or so has proved anything, it is the infinite resilience and adaptability of the teaching profession. So here are some top tips for how you can get yourself and your students back on track and looking ahead with confidence.

1 – A fresh start for everyone

It’s always important that all students start the new academic year with a clean slate but this year more than ever. The young people you teach will all have had very different experiences of lockdown: some will have had loads of support and all the right technology, some will have had little or none. Also, the uncertainty around Covid-19 and the isolation of home-schooling will have affected students in different ways, so give them space to find their feet again.

2 – Set the ground rules

While students deserve to be cut some slack, it’s also important that your ground rules are established early and understood by everyone. The school that students are returning to this year might be very different to the one they left in the summer, if they were in school at all before now. Clarity and consistency are key to ensuring students know what is expected of them and feel comfortable in the new school environment.

3 – Where are the gaps?

Teachers and students have both done an amazing job of keeping education going over the past 18 months or so, but there is no substitute for classroom teaching and there are bound to be gaps in your students’ knowledge and skills. Take some time at the start of the year to assess what your students don’t know that perhaps you would have previously expected them to know.

4 – Diagnosis – Therapy – Testing

Once you’ve established the gaps in your students’ knowledge base, make sure these are addressed before you go any further, otherwise they will go into the course without a solid foundation. Assessment at this stage should be formative, purely to establish strengths and weaknesses. Once you know these, you can put suitable intervention in place, either at a whole class or individual student level.

5 – Tracking

It’s really useful – for you and your students – to track progress, especially in these early stages when there is such disparity in the work students are producing. Not only does it help you both understand where the improvements need to be made, which is a useful dialogue in itself, it also helps with motivation as students can see the progress they’re making.

6 – Use advance information wisely

If you are preparing students for International GCSE exams in November or International A-level exams in January, you will be aware that there are some changes to OxfordAQA assessments in these two series, in recognition of the uniquely challenging circumstances students have faced. The changes we have made involve adaptations and/or advance information about the focus of the content of exams. You can find more information here. From a teaching point of view, this will help you focus your teaching and revision in the build up to these exams, ensuring students have the best chance to be successful.

7 – Hone technique as well as knowledge

Success in exams isn’t just a case of what you know, it is also how well you demonstrate that knowledge. One of the biggest challenges of teaching during Covid-19 has been fewer opportunities to practise exam technique and working in exam conditions. Make sure you explicitly teach how to approach exam questions in your subject and give your students the chance to work in the way they will ultimately be assessed.

It goes without saying that all of this advice will look slightly different from school to school and from subject to subject, so think about how it would work in your context and apply as you see fit.

For more subject-specific ideas, we are running a series of webinars to complement the Teacher Toolkit webinars we ran in the summer: Teacher Toolkit: Back on Track. These free sessions will give detailed guidance on how to help your students transition into the ‘new normal’ in your classroom.

There are sessions for all OxfordAQA subjects and you can sign up here or on the qualification links below: