Task design: Five pedagogical habits to maximise learning

Written by: Robbie Burns | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Students really begin to learn when they take on challenging tasks during their lessons, making task design a crucial element of teaching pedagogy and practice. In this two-part article, Robbie Burns looks how to design effective tasks

The curriculum – however thoughtfully planned and developed – comes to be known and understood by the learner through tasks in lessons.

Of course, the quality of teacher instruction is important, but it is only when students are cognitively engaged in taking their new learning and assimilating it into their own mental architecture that we can truly say they have “learned” what we intended to teach.

In two previous articles (Burns, 2022), I wrote about the transfer from teaching to learning, using the work of Sweller, Lovell and others to articulate how teachers can more fully appreciate the transfer of knowledge from an expert to a novice mind. In these articles, I discussed how teaching through worked examples and backward fading can support this.

However, I want to now consider what happens in the classroom when teachers have decided that students are able to work by themselves, or at least in pairs or small groups.

I want to shine the spotlight more fully on the moment when the teacher is not providing whole-class instruction and students are learners left to assimilate new learning to their own memory.

Our first area of exploration, though, is not in the design or the structuring of the content of tasks, but in the habits that teachers can develop in the way that they use tasks in the classroom and in their lesson preparation.

To make the most of rich and meaningful tasks that students do in lesson time, this is the important first step to consider: teachers need to build robust habits around these moments so that they can get the most out of each one. In other words, we need to look at the “pedagogy of tasks” before we look at the design of them.

So let’s dig into five habits teachers can develop, each in order, to maximise student engagement. Three of them happen before students even walk into the room and two of them happen during the lesson.

1, Standardise the format
Make the way students present their learning clear by organising it effectively

Standardising the format refers to being clear with students, through the way templates, worksheets, or work completed in exercise books is completed. Two outcomes are achieved when teachers do this habitually. The first is that the cognitive load on students having to think about how they present their learning is removed; they can simply focus on engaging in the learning they have been asked to do without thinking about transcription or organisation.

The second outcome is that teachers can clearly gather, at a glance, data on student learning with minimal effort, freeing up working memory space to consider how they will respond and adapt their teaching. This is because where student learning will be on the page will be the same in every book or on every sheet in a class. As Lemov (2022) writes of this habit: standardising the format focuses on streamlining data-gathering and making observations (of student learning) efficient and accurate.

When teachers standardise the format of their tasks, they can swiftly change course in a lesson if they notice that every student is, for example, getting question 8 wrong in maths, or they can see a misconception developing in the way in which students use a relative clause in a writing lesson.

Standardising the format means that teachers can provide feedback in seconds on student learning or make very quick corrections to a student before moving to the next person. Because every answer on every page on every student’s desk is in the same place, every single lesson, teacher’s working memory is free to focus solely on the learning of students.

2, Chart the course
Plan and communicate progression of student learning before students begin

The next pedagogical habit teachers need to develop to get the most out of the tasks they design is known as charting the course. This habit is about making sure that the pathway of independent learning is sequenced effectively and progressively, becoming more challenging in a way that ensures deeper understanding by the end of the lesson if students successfully follow it.

Charting the course means that students engage in work that is simpler to start, but still sufficiently meets the learning objective for the lesson, and then move on to increasingly challenging work as the lesson continues and time allows.

Importantly though, given the name of this habit, teachers need to be clear with students about the path they need to take when learning independently so that they do not waste time “wondering what to do next” when they finish.

Charting the course enables quick and effective adaptive teaching and maximises task design. When teachers chart the course of the task, they can move learning forward when it becomes clear that students are moving quickly through the tasks that have been set but also provide more work at the same level to students who need further time to consolidate new knowledge.

Without charting the course, it is possible that teachers can become tied down to working with students who are struggling to work independently, which in turn means they cannot provide feedback to all students and monitor the progress of everyone in the room. Over time, the danger is that lesser attaining students become too dependent on teacher support to access independent work, while the higher attaining students do not receive teaching bespoke to their need.

3, Mark up the lesson
Note down the key knowledge and understanding students will need to access the learning intended

Marking up a lesson is a discipline focused not simply on “knowing the answers” or “getting a feel for the lesson”, but a systematic review of key elements that will make learning as rigorous as possible.

Knowing the answers to problems or expected extended responses is not enough to maximise teaching well-designed tasks, teachers need to have a rich understanding of the following things.

Prior knowledge: Teachers must consider what key knowledge students should have before the lesson begins. By which I mean, knowledge that if not known will put students at a disadvantage to developing their understanding in the lesson.

For example, if teaching year 6 adding fractions with unlike denominators, students need to understand how to find common multiples and, more specifically, the lowest and highest common multiple. Without knowing this, students will struggle with any independent work in this lesson.

If teaching question marks in year 2 English, students will be at a disadvantage if they do not know types of sentences such as statements or questions and what constitutes their make-up.

Vocabulary: Teachers need to be aware of the vocabulary they will be using in the lesson that their instruction hinges on. If it is likely that students will not know the meaning of the words used, then it is important that these are explicitly taught to students before the lesson begins.

Marking up the lesson with vocabulary in mind means that teachers can be conscious of the words and phrases they use and not take it for granted that students will know their meaning.

For example, in maths when teaching fractions, it is critical that students understand what a numerator and denominator is, and this terminology must be consistently used throughout key stage 2. This makes expositions clear and if teachers use the same terminology year after year, students can build strong mental models of the concept and how each element builds on the previous one.

Student knowledge: Marking up the lesson to be clear about what students should know in lesson time is important, for it keeps this at the forefront of the teacher’s mind in the classroom. It supports teacher decision-making when time is running out or if things do not go as planned so we are clear what the essential knowledge that must be taught is. By marking up with student knowledge in mind, teachers can more accurately make decisions about what they do and when.

Student outcomes: Marking up a lesson with student outcomes in mind means teachers can know exactly what students are expected to “show” them to demonstrate the knowledge they have gained. By considering this carefully before the lesson, scaffolding can be given by teachers more accurately, for they have a clear picture of what students should be able to do during the task.

In our context, we spend time analysing our most challenging tasks through this lens, marking up lessons together, using a “Know – Show – How” grid and discussion template. This provides us all with clarity about the sorts of issues that may occur and things we need to keep in mind as we teach in our teams. We are also able to pre-empt where problems may arise with the knowledge of our students in mind.

4, Feedback laps
Purposefully lap around the classroom providing small step feedback linked to the learning objective

When students have begun working independently, it is important that teachers have considered how they will support the learning of the whole class.

Thinking about the “laps” that teachers will take around the classroom is an important way to maximise efficiency and not waste time. Feedback laps are a habit of movement around the room by a teacher to gather data on student learning according to the demands of the learning objective or outcomes expected of the lesson.

Instead of a teacher simply “circulating”, picking up every error noticed, feedback laps focus on small steps, providing precise individualised feedback to each student.

Circulating is responsive and subjective to the experiences of teachers and students; there is no specific plan. Feedback laps are pre-planned and objectively focused on the outcomes for the lesson. It aims to support every student to meet the demands of the curriculum with small interventions, teaching moments and feedback where it is needed.

When observed for a few moments, circulating the room may look identical to feedback laps. However, on closer inspection, laps provide a way for teachers to move learning forward far more quickly and focus their decision-making more precisely.

For example, in English, during independent writing applying a new sentence type or writing technique, teachers can focus their laps on key items of the success criteria.

Their first lap may focus on presentation, giving quick reminders to students where it is needed to form letters correctly, underline dates and titles and so on.

Then, once a teacher feels the presentation and handwriting in the class is of a sufficient standard, they can dive in to consider how well students have written their first sentence that is aimed at building tension (through short sentences, well-chosen adjectives, and a simile).

Each of these teaching elements constitute a “lap” of the classroom. By breaking each walk around the room, checking student work, into tiny steps, teachers can build a far more accurate picture of the efficacy of their teaching than simply reading every student’s work and giving lots of points of feedback. More than this, students are also more able to act on the feedback they have been given by their teacher because it is simple, concise, and clear.

5, Evaluate and adjust
Adapt the lesson according to student need building on the data gathered from feedback laps

The four habits above, built over time, enable teachers to become more responsive to student need in the moment, save time and safeguard workload. First, by getting ahead of the task before the lesson, marking up the lesson, charting the course, and then in lesson time giving short, sharp, precise feedback, teachers are more able to respond to the needs of students in the moment.

They can consider whether they stop the whole class to re-teach acting on accurate data; they can consider if they are noticing a few students who are falling behind and intervene there and then; they can consider whether they push the whole class forwards faster since the content is being mastered more quickly than planned. All these things are possible when teachers develop these habits because they provide a solid foundation of teacher knowledge of student learning.

These habits also help workload. Instead of evaluating and adjusting lessons after the lesson, with a pile of books and tomorrow’s lessons to plan, teachers can act on student learning when it matters most – in the lesson.

With these habits, teachers rarely need to mark books after the lesson and this time can be spent adjusting tomorrow’s lesson based on accurate data gathered in the lesson, if this is needed.

Most of the time, the evaluation and adjustment of the following day’s work has already been done in the moment, when it really mattered. After the lesson can be spent planning further ahead, engaging in other important teacher development tasks, or going home early.

Final thought

Our focus here was on the pedagogy of tasks, rather than the curricular design elements of them. Much attention is and has been paid to their design and this is often an overlooked aspect of the issue. I will consider this more fully in the second article, which has now been published and can be found here.

Further information & resources

  • Burns: Using worked examples: From teaching to learning, Headteacher Update, 2022: https://bit.ly/htu-worked
  • Burns: Using worked examples: An alternative approach, Headteacher Update, 2022: https://bit.ly/3XpAAxJ
  • Lemov: Teach Like a Champion 3.0, Jossey Bass, 2022.

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