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Fostering Independence in Sociology A Level to Improve Pupils’ Understanding of Assessment Criteria

by Claire Bishop

Purpose of the Study

As the newly appointed Head of Sociology and Politics, I am currently getting to know my new students and develop department strategies to support pupil learning. From discussions I have had with teachers within the department and members of the Teaching and Learning Team, it became clear that there is an issue with pupils taking ownership of their learning and working independently to achieve in their A Levels. I decided, therefore, to research the ways in which I could challenge pupils to become more independent learners, whilst also ensuring that pupils feel a sense of support given that they had a new teacher starting just as they were taking their first mock exams of the year.

There is research to support the idea that a greater level of independence has an impact on pupils’ ability to cope with the pressures of A Level and pride in their work. Some teachers may know the techniques used to foster independence as ‘flipped learning’. Flipped learning is not a new concept to A Level teaching and one that I have used in my previous school to varying degrees of success (NFER, 2015). Rather than focusing on content in lessons, teachers assign reading for pupils to undertake at home and they apply that knowledge in lesson time. ‘Tools for independent learning include: e-portfolios; peer mentoring schemes; study skills sessions (goal setting, time management, working to deadlines, self-appraisal, reading)…’ (Mota and Scott, 2014). I looked into the importance of pupils asking questions in the lessons and found a useful article about the topic aimed at primary school age pupils (Stokhof, Vries, Martens and Bastiaens, 2016) that supported my idea that in order to access the higher order thinking skills that my pupils will need to reach top marks in their 30 mark questions, they would need to be able to ask questions as well as answer them. As I reviewed the data for Year 12, I wondered if instilling a sense of independence and ownership of learning could improve performance in Sociology, but how to do this in a classroom? If I created the right environment in the classroom, would pupils be able to question more and reach better grades? How quickly should changes be implemented? What is the right balance of support and challenge in a Sixth Form lesson?

Research Methods

The class I am working with is a group of 16 pupils in Year 12. Three of the class are boys, and the remainder of the group are girls. Their target grades range from a C to an A grade by the end of next academic year whilst their current grades range between D and B. 6 of the class have been identified as currently underachieving (Term 2 data), two have identified SEN needs and two have been identified as bring Gifted and Talented (G&T). Three are Pupil Premium pupils and one has English as an Additional Language (EAL). To determine how independently driven pupils are, I initially asked them to take part in a self-evaluation of their revision for their mock exams which took place in January. I intentionally asked pupils to determine their own success criteria which was then discussed and each aspect they identified as important was place on a graph on the board (see below). This is taken from Steve Oakes and Martin Griffin’s (2016) The A Level Mindset; 40 Activities for Transforming Student Commitment, Motivation and Productivity which is intended to reflect on their current progress.

I asked pupils to identify where they were in terms of their revision (before or ahead of schedule), but most importantly, to assess as a baseline what pupils’ believed was high quality and low quality revision. It was during this discussion that the G&T pupils told me they mainly write out the text book as their main means of revision. Some would use flash cards or practice exam questions, but most read through PowerPoints provided by their teachers. I decided that although the resources they were using are very useful and full of key information, I do not think that the pupils are using these resources as effectively as they could.

I then triangulated my data with pupils’ recent mock exam papers. Reviewing these papers identified that whilst pupils have a good level of subject knowledge, they are not applying to the question in an appropriate way to attain their target grades; some were not using their time in exams correctly (spending too long on shorter answers and not enough time of essay questions) whilst others were simply not evaluating the arguments they are discussing in their answers. This strengthened my belief that independent learning and the ability to question/critique needed to be embedded in all Sociology lessons.

As a result of this discussion in the lesson and an in-depth analysis of their mock exam papers, I structured my research question:

How can I best ensure a good balance of challenge and support to ensure that Year 12 Sociology students make better than expected progress by using a variety of independent learning techniques?

I have included my planning sheet at the end of this article to show the process through which I made my research plans. To support pupils, I am ensuring that pupils are praised in the lesson when sharing their ideas and let them know that it is OK to make mistakes. I also support pupils by using my own subject knowledge at the beginning of lessons. To challenge pupils I decided to use peer teaching in the lesson and the set a homework task where pupils use information in a journal article to answer my questions. My lesson planning was informed by Paul Ginnis’ (2002) The Teacher’s Toolkit; Raise Classroom Achievement with Strategies for Every Learner and Stephen Chapman, Steve Garnett and Alan Jervis’ (2001) Spoon feed No More; Improving Classroom Performance – Practical Applications for Effective Teaching and Learning as these books have identified practical activities that can used in the classroom that take focus away from ‘teacher talk’ and towards pupils’ exploration of the topic independently.

To collect my data, I asked pupils to identify ways in which they felt supported and challenged in the lessons. Their views were written on post-its at the end of each lesson. I then recorded by own views on the lesson in my teacher planner. I reviewed both sets of data at the end of each week.


Although I am still new and the class are adjusting to my teaching methods, I can see that I am going to have to work quite hard to foster independence in my Year 12s! Pupils have a ‘just tell me what I need to know’ attitude and have expressed a wish to return to PowerPoint led teaching in all lessons.

Peer Teaching – Failures in the Lesson

My use of peer teaching in the lesson was ambitious and unfortunately did not go as I had planned. The lesson before the set peer teaching activity, I put pupils into groups and gave them their area of the topic, giving them plenty of time to prepare their subject knowledge for the lesson. When they arrived the next week, it became clear that pupils had not prepared for the lesson as most had forgotten which group they were meant to be working with. Throughout the task, ‘experts’ taught the rest of the group about their area of the topic (ethnicity in education), whilst others made notes. Pupils were resistant to this task and so I spent much of my time having to remind pupils to focus and listen to their peers. Frustratingly, when reading through the feedback given by pupils, most said that they did not like learning from their peers who ‘did not know what they were talking about’. I could not help but think that if the group took collective responsibility of their learning, this would not be the case. The group did say, however that they like that I do not ask for hands up or pick the same pupils over and over again. Pupils stated that they felt challenged in the lesson as they never knew who was going to get asked a question next or what it was going to be about, whilst at the same time feeling supported as I would guide them to an answer if necessary.

Homework using a Research Journal

This part of my research was much more successful. I gave pupils an interesting sociological study that is written in a peer reviewed journal and aimed at university students. This challenged them to read a piece of evidence of a higher academic standard than the textbooks they usually used. To support this, I provided them with questions, telling them to not just simply read the text, but search for the specific answers in the article. Pupils were much more open to this task and I had some very interesting answers to read in their homework. To open up pupils’ minds away from just ‘what we need to know’, I asked them to read through the references at the end of the article and pick another piece they would be interested in reading. I hope that over time, this type of homework will spark an academic curiosity in the group.

Key Findings

Fostering independence is not a fast process and I do not believe there are any ‘quick fixes’ that will help us to instill independence in our sixth form. Although it was not the focus of my study, I have learnt the importance of questioning in the lesson and am now working on how to develop my skill in using Socratic questioning in the classroom to develop pupils’ answers. There are pupils in the lesson who seem very open to the ideas put forward in this study, but there are many who are unhappy with the changes being made in their lessons. Interestingly, pupils cannot differentiate between something they ‘like’ in the lesson as opposed to something that helps them learn. I read many comments such as ‘I like it when you read through a PowerPoint at the front and I can make notes.’ In further discussions with pupils I will talk about how perhaps they like that way of teaching because it is easy, not necessarily because it is effective.

What can be learnt from this research?

· Questioning is central to developing pupils’ sense of support as well as challenge in the lesson

· Year 12 pupils do not differentiate between what they ‘like’ and what helps them learn

· Even at A Level, there are pupils who will not complete homework

· Copying work from a PowerPoint makes pupils feel ‘safe’ but does not provide them with the appropriate challenge to make expected progress

· Peer teaching cannot be rushed and instead I would suggest starting out with a very clear structure and teacher involvement, then slowly removing the ‘stabilizers’ as learners adapt


Although it was not an explicit goal of this research, I think that conducting this study has helped me get to know my pupils much quicker than I would have otherwise. I understand that my class feel nervous, particularly now that they have a new teacher and are unsure of the outcomes that they will have at the end of next year. By explaining my research to them, I made it very clear to my pupils that teaching them in the best way possible is something that is really important to me and although they may not be fully on board with my style of teaching, I think that they appreciate that I am developing my practice for their benefit. At the ends of lessons, pupils were actually reminding me to hand out the post-its and so although we had a bad lesson when I attempted peer teaching, I think pupils are now engaging with the concepts of challenge and support as a result of the study.

I plan to continue my study, implementing a series of further independent learning tasks to develop the challenge in Sociology lessons. However, I think I will work with pupils more gradually in future, given them time to get use to me and the new techniques we are using in lessons.


Chapman, C. Garnett, S and Jervis, A. (2011) Spoon Feed No More; Improving Classroom Performance – Practical Applications for Effective Teaching and Learning Bethel: Crown House Publishing

Ginnis, Paul (2002) The Teacher’s Toolkit: Raise Classroom Achievement with Strategies for Every Learner Bethel: Crown House Publishing

Mota, Ronald and Scott, David (2014) Education for Innovation and Independent Learning London: Elsevier

NFER and NESTA (2015) Flipped Learning; Practitioner Guide

Stokhof, H., Vries, B, Martens, R.L., and Bastiaens, T.J., (2016) ‘How to guide effective student questioning: a review of teacher guidance in primary education’ Review of Education doi:10.1002/rev3.3089

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