Supporting students with a low starting point

sbo3Tonight’s 15 minute forum was led by Deputy Leader of Mathematics Shane Borrett.   Last year Shane taught a Y11 class, all of whom had a very low starting point in maths.  At the start of the year, they were all fairly demotivated and were underachieving.  They had slipped into this cycle:


Where this cycle starts and so what causes the low motivation in the first place, is a point for discussion, but for a variety of reasons, these students had low motivation.  As a result, their effort was low and so they achieved poorly – gaining the label ‘low ability’.  Furthermore, the students had enough self-awareness to realise that they were achieving poorly and didn’t like it.  Their response?  Avoid further failure by disengaging and not trying – the fixed mindset.  So, this underachievement results in low confidence in maths, which then in turn, compounds their low motivation.  And so the cycle continues.  This aligns well with this quote from Muijs and Reynolds:


So what can we do to address this issue?  Shane suggests that there is no magic formula – it’s simply about having high expectations of what they can achieve and then teaching them well, in order to support them with meeting these high expectations.  Shane considered this in three ways:

Success & Motivation

  • The quote above provides a simple solution – if students are to have a positive self concept and so feel motivated, they need to experience success.  So, we need to create opportunities for them to experience success, by starting off with activities that are within their reach.  As they succeed, you can then ratchet up the level of challenge a step at a time.
  • Teacher expectation appears to have an impact on student expectation of themselves and also their achievement.  Psychologist Robert Rosenthal, looked at this in the 1960s – a summary can be read here.  Essentially Rosenthal found that if teachers were told that students had the potential to achieve well, based on some predictive tests (that were actually unable to predict any such thing), those students would end up achieving well.  Why?
    • Climate factor: Teacher will create a ‘warmer climate’ i.e. a nicer environment, for those students who they believe are going to achieve well.
    • Input factor: Teachers teach more/harder material to children they think can learn well..
    • Response opportunity: Students get more of a chance to respond when you believe in them. They may get longer to respond.
    • Feedback: If more is expected, more feedback and praise is often given.
  • By no longer setting students a ‘target grade’ in KS4 or ‘target level’ in KS3, we are taking away the false ‘ceiling of expectation’ we have placed on students for years in schools.  This gives an important message to students – ‘irrespective of your starting point, we want you all to aspire to excellence.’
  • So the lesson here is to take risks and be brave – up the level of challenge and work towards teaching them the hard stuff – and share your belief that they can all achieve great things.  The trick is to find the ‘sweet spot’ so the content you teach them is hard enough to challenge them and make them think, but not so hard that it overwhelms and panics them. Find their ‘struggle zone’.


  • Praise the effort and the process over the intelligence – make the struggle good!  Dweck explains this here:


This is not about ‘having fun’ and diluting  our expectations of them, simply to keep them on task.  It’s about working with them in such a way, that they will stay on track and not switch off because they get overwhelmed.  So how can we do this?

  • Be relentlessly enthusiastic and passionate about your subject!  Don’t dumb it down and allow the beauty of your subject to shine it’s own light – your passion for your subject will eventually rub off on them……be patient!
  • Find out what they know about the topic – even if it is at a very low level – and then build on this, through your explanation and questioning.
  • Don’t overload their working memory – break the topic down into chunks and give them the opportunity to master each idea before moving on.
  • Build their confidence by modelling together e.g. working through a written answer on the board with them.  This then provides them with a model answer to use as an exemplar to refer to, when practising on their own.
  • Give them the opportunity to feel a sense of pride over their work.  Shane gave his students ‘excellence portfolios’ where they would store and share their ‘best’ maths work’, that had been set to challenge them, from their low starting point:


Retaining information

  • Repetition – provide opportunities for regular retrieval practice.  Low stakes quizzes at the start of the lesson are a great way to do this.
  • Mastery – rather than trying to steamroller through the curriculum, focus on the key ideas and teach these well.  Keep going through these key ideas, until the students have mastered them – or are as confident with them as they are likely to be!
  • As they become more confident with particular ideas, use questioning and feedback to push their thinking and develop their ideas further – but….
  • … don’t worry about ‘pacey’ lessons – take your time and give them the opportunity to consolidate these key ideas.



This entry was posted in 15 Minute Forums, General Teaching and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Supporting students with a low starting point

  1. Reblogged this on Mel the Literacy Coach and commented:
    This is a great post with tips for working with low ability students. Embrace the principles of growth mindset and instill them in your students. Success is possible and your students can experience it regardless of their starting point.

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