Shelley Parry’s CogSciSci ‘Bath 2020’ Quick Wins and Slow Gains

Shelley is here with her first ever blog!! Here is her take on the talks she heard yesterday. It’s great to help teachers find a platform to share their thoughts. We fund Shelly’s to be a great insight for those who were unable to travel. Enjoy!

‘Does anyone have a £2 coin? What is the inscription along the side?’

‘Standing on the shoulders of giants’ was how Bill Wilkinson kicked off the event at Beechen Cliff School in Bath, and was definitely how I felt as a first time attendee at a CogSciSci event. A serial Twitter lurker, I was excited to meet and hear from people whose work has supported me greatly in recent months. Shoutout to Rachel @BioRachProject for her fantastic OCR A Level Biology videos which help me deliver clear explanations to my students each week, and Adam @MrARobbins whose book ‘Middle Leadership Mastery’ has been incredibly helpful as I started my first middle leadership role this September.

As someone who likes to get stuck in and trial new things, I thought I would share my top ‘quick wins’ from the day and how I plan to implement them in the coming weeks at school for GCSE and A Level classes.

  1. ‘Box Questions’ in SLOP to support ongoing assessment

Tom Millichamp suggested a whole host of mechanisms which can be used when writing Shed Loads of Practice (‘SLOP’) – from non-calculable calculations, adding redundant information and using ‘because, but, so’ questions. But one that I will definitely be adding into my Year 11 Electricity booklets for this half term is the idea of a ‘box’ question.

When students are faced with 10 or 15 minutes of independent practice on a particular task, avoid using terms such as easy, medium and hard, but have in mind your checkpoints where you can identify how students are getting on with the task. For each checkpoint question – I suppose, they are almost like hinge point questions – prompt students to draw a box around it in a different colour pen. As you circulate the room, this will quickly allow you to identify a) who has already moved on to the box question and who is struggling with the easier questions and b) what ratio of students are getting this question correct? By using this ongoing assessment, you could even tell some students to skip a few questions which will boost their confidence and motivation.

While SLOP is incredibly valuable, I have sometimes found that giving feedback to students who are working at different paces can be tricky. Hopefully, with some careful thought on what my box questions will be, I will start to feel more informed about my students’ progress and sticking points while they work independently.

2. The 5Ps for problem solving

Elizabeth Mountstevens discussed a common problem which I encounter in my classroom – students seem to have the hang of a concept, but as soon as you ask them a question in a different way or they need to apply that knowledge to a new exam question, their minds go blank! The 5 Ps is a metacognitive approach to help students realise they probably can have a good attempt at the question and begin to solve the problem:

Problem – what are you being asked to work out?

Parts – what information do you have? How many parts to the question?

Prior Knowledge – of course, this question links to what you have been learning. So what do you know?

Proceed – attempt to write an answer

Post-Mortem – evaluate your response. Could you structure it better?

I have recently created an A Level Biology practice booklet and have incorporated the 5 Ps in here to support students when answering more difficult exam style questions. When I want students to use this method, I have made it clear at the top of the page and left more space for them to annotate the question and plan their answer before they ‘Proceed’.

3. Goal Free Problems

Adam shared the theory behind the ‘Goal Free Effect’ – that students experience a lower cognitive load when a question / task has a non-specific goal. Ollie Lovell has written a short piece which summarises his use of it here, commenting that ‘what I hadn’t anticipated was how asking such a question reduced the barrier to participation for students’.

This links really well to Elizabeth’s talk on problem solving and how students can become overwhelmed with text, data, graphs – all the different parts to a question – that they can forget that they do have the core knowledge to have a good attempt. I think this applies not only to exam questions, but problem solving in the real world.

I will be implementing this concept particularly in my A Level Biology booklets and Year 11 lower set lessons, using the diagram above and modelling how to use the 5 Ps before encouraging them to do so independently. Both cohorts can recall core knowledge well but find it difficult and overwhelming to apply that knowledge in new situations, so by having more focused practice on problem solving and reducing the cognitive load, I hope to see improved engagement with these trickier questions.

Reading List Additions


The day was full of recommendations for books, blogs and articles. Here are some key ones which I will be adding to our A Level Biology library (which students can borrow) and recommending to my colleagues.

Nick Lane – The Vital Question

Nicholson & Dupre – Everything Flows: Towards a Processual Philosophy of Biology

Teaching the Science of Learning – Weinstein, 2018

TeacherHead – What is a knowledge rich curriculum?

Clio et cetera – Curriculum as the progression model

And not forgetting the one we heard about maybe eight or nine times…

Adam Boxer – Teaching Secondary Science

Slow Gains

Of course, not everything we discussed on the day will fit every context and may not be possible to implement quickly without the support of a wider team or SLT. So here are the things I will be considering over the coming weeks / months and striving to improve:

Clear Explanations – supporting the Science team

I’m already a convert to explaining using a graphics tablet and blank canvas, regulating the flow of information to students and directing their attention clearly – thank you Adam Boxer for a really clear and helpful overview of how to do this (I can recommend Dual Coding For Teachers Who Can’t Draw if you haven’t seen it before). I’ve felt a huge positive impact on my workload, subject knowledge and student engagement by changing this practice.

As a Curriculum Leader in Science however, I will now start thinking about what barriers are present that prevent my team, particularly newer colleagues, in moving towards this method of delivering clear explanations. My instinct is that my colleagues may not be totally confident in their subject knowledge / pedagogical content knowledge, so I’ll be thinking about what steps I can take here, such as recommending CogSciSci’s Library of Explanations.

Curricular Thinking – an ongoing project

My school has a big focus on curriculum at the moment and Helen Skelton’s talk has provided lots of food for thought. As the Curriculum Leader for A Level Biology, I will be looking for more opportunities to meet with the A Level team to discuss the below ‘Curricular Questions’ as well as putting these into motion through Helen’s recommended ‘Department Time’ actions.

On a more practical level, in our Biology team of eight teachers, we have recently decided to do more collaborative planning with others teaching the same topic, so I will share the list of Curricular Questions to guide those co-planning discussions.

All in all, such an insightful day which has given me just the half term boost that I needed! Please note that this is not an exhaustive list of my takeaway messages from the conference and the discussions which followed, and I’m very grateful to all of the speakers for their valuable input and ideas.

Thank you to Bill, Rachel and Beechen Cliff for hosting the day. Looking forward to seeing everyone at another CogSciSci event soon!

Shelley Parry

Curriculum Leader (Science / Biology)
@slparry14

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