Applying the methods

Structuring a topic: steps to successful learning

This flow-chart applies the most effective teaching methods to the way a topic can be more successfully taught.
An example of these methods applied to the topic of "Waves" can be found under Curriculum>sample waves

Skills of the learner


Learners who attribute their success (or failure) to their own efforts do significantly better than those who attribute results to things outside their control (“intelligence”, the teacher, etc). Reinforce effort by repeatedly referring to good pupils’ work as the result of effort.

Independent learning skills

Skills such as summarising, note-taking, meeting deadlines etc are all important components of successful learning. These skills need to be explicitly taught.

Connect with prior knowledge.

What do we have to learn this for?

Introduce the topic using current or “exciting” questions. These are re-visited at the end of the topic.

What do they already know?

Pupils learn new topics more effectively if new material is linked to what they already know. “Activating prior knowledge” has several dimensions: It brings the current knowledge to mind, reminds them, so that the links can be made in the lesson. It tells the teacher the state of current knowledge. (Failure to learn often results from unreasonable assumptions about current knowledge by the teacher.).

Concept map, advance organiser.

While the course will fill in the detail, learners need to know, in broad terms, what the whole topic is leading to. This overview can be presented graphically and referred back to during the unit. Revision at the end can be based on it.

Use graphics, animations and video.

We do not have to learn to see, it is a primary brain function. PowerPoint slides used for explanations should be mostly graphical, with minimum text. Where possible, the use of mind-maps, flow charts etc are all better than text for most learners (particularly slow learners)

Build knowledge step-by-step

Use ordinary language first, then introduce technical term or symbol.

Technical language is usually just shorthand. New keywords take time to be absorbed. Explain the concept in everyday language first, only introducing the technical term at the end. The everyday language version may sound ungainly, but initially elegance must be sacrificed to convey meaning. New terms will take several repeats to become familiar to the learner.

Use a logical sequence

Learning often fails because there are earlier steps missing. Build on the prior learning by ensuring that all the steps are in place. (Do they know the difference between elements and molecules?) . New knowledge is “constructed”: it needs firm foundations

Building “understanding”.

Use examples which are familiar/observable.

Illustrate concepts with familiar contexts or with demonstrations which are obvious. Using unfamiliar contexts to explain a concept means that the learner has to deal with two new pieces of knowledge at once.


The brain files knowledge in categories, linking things which are similar (mammals give birth to live young). Using and teaching classification aids learning. Identifying similarities and differences reinforces it.

Teach the theory

Theories are another form of classification – several pieces of knowledge are explained by the same short set of statements. (Plate Tectonics explains mountain building, ocean trenches and volcanoes) The brain is designed to look for these patterns and the “Aha!” moment usually gives pleasure to the learner.
Without the theory, learning the facts is nearly as difficult as learning telephone numbers. Understanding the theory/concept means the facts can take care of themselves.

Use similes and analogies

Abstract concepts (atoms, diffusion etc) are not observable and so need to be linked to current knowledge; similes, analogies and metaphors are all ways to link new ideas with current knowledge.

Secure learning with spaced rehearsal.

The brain is designed to forget most things which it experiences only once. Long term memories can only be secured by at least 3 spaced repetitions.
Review the learning at the beginning of the next lesson; set short homeworks which simply practise what has just been done; set short tests etc. Card-sorting exercises appear simple, but cannot be done without thinking through the question and are therefore very effective. Hot Potatoes ‘Drag & Drop’ can be done online.

Provide feedback

Feedback is a checking process which helps prevent wrong memories forming. It can take many forms: marking, formative marking, commenting, questioning, self and peer assessment all provide feedback to the learner.

Link to current affairs/society and environment.

Besides “knowing the science”, we need to prepare pupils to be citizens in a technical world. Once the concepts are reasonably secure, their application to the sociological or environmental implications can be addressed. This generally needs to come at the end of the topic (unless raised by the pupils).

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