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Research School Network: Putting teaching interventions in place? Here is what the research evidence suggests works best As students return to school with disparate learning experiences, careful intervention plans are more important than ever.

Putting teaching interventions in place? Here is what the research evidence suggests works best

As students return to school with disparate learning experiences, careful intervention plans are more important than ever.

As all students return to school post the partial closures, teachers and school leaders are focusing on identifying gaps in students’ learning. However, as well as this assessment activity, we need to also consider what we do with this knowledge. As Rob Coe explains, there is no point conducting assessments if we are not in a position to do anything with the results.

This will inevitably lead to discussions and plans around teaching interventions, so what does the research suggest works best?

The EEF advocates that our best bet is to focus on the classroom first before looking at additional intervention. If assessment data is used effectively to plan classroom strategies, the number of students requiring additional support can significantly decrease. However, there will still be some students that need another layer of intervention. For this latter approach to be effective, it needs to be sustained and incorporate careful monitoring and evaluation.

As part of their Thinking Reading’ work, Diane and James Murphy look specifically at reading interventions for secondary students who are struggling to read. Whilst their focus is very specific, the Murphys’ advice on interventions can be used to generate some fundamental principles for all teaching intervention work in schools, as described below.

1. Screening

In order for any intervention to be meaningful, be it classroom-based or as part of additional support, the students need to be accurately matched to the aims of the programme. This comes about through meticulous assessment or screening. All too often, assessment data reveals that a cohort, e.g. middle-attaining boys, are underperforming but the diagnosis stops there. Consequently, this leads to one or two generic strategies being used for a group of students who, in fact, have a wide variety of needs. For example, among those middle-attaining boys there might be some who lack motivation (see below) whereas for others the cause of their underperformance is due to lack of knowledge about a very specific part of the curriculum. Even in this latter group, the diversity of those knowledge gaps could be huge. It is, therefore, essential that any intervention starts with identifying the specific problems for individual students before putting potential solutions in place. Heterogeneric understanding must overrule a homogenous approach.

2. Intervention Group Sizes

It is probable that schools are doing more carefully-designed formative assessment this spring term compared to this point in any other year. Thus, we are in a position to not only really hone in on students’ gaps but also differentiate how big those gaps might be. Coe suggests leaving assessment for a few weeks for this very reason. If we test students to early we cannot be sure that any gaps we identify are due to lost learning or learning that never occurred. By leaving assessment for a short while upon students’ return, we allow the rustiness’ to wear off.

Once the gaps have been accurately diagnosed, what next? Should interventions that need to take place outside of the classroom use a small group or individual format? Diane and James Murphy are quite clear in stating that this depends on what we find: It is not an either/​or situation. The key deciding factor is how far behind the student is in comparison to expectations:

Groups can be an effective format for teaching if four conditions are met:

- The students are all working at much the same level;

- The students are not a long way behind;

- The content to be taught is limited and clearly defined;

- The programme of teaching has been carefully designed to ensure efficient coverage and long-term retention.

Groups are NOT appropriate where:

- Students are a long way behind expectations;

- The students’ needs are disparate;

- Students need to work on a number of different strands of […] skills at the same time;

- Motivation is a serious issue.

Students who are a long way behind’ expectations, i.e. three years or more, will need individualised support because they are likely to have their own individual patterns of knowledge gaps and therefore require uniquely targeted support.

3. Motivation

‘…the effect of achievement on self-concept is stronger than the effect of self-concept on achievement…’ Muijs and Reynolds, 2011’’.

In a nutshell, the quotation above sums up the well-documented research finding that we are more likely to be motivated to do something if we feel confident of success. For example, the person who is already a professional footballer is going to be more motivated to run a marathon because they have already experienced excelling at exercise and sport. Alternatively, the teacher who has just spent three months sat at a computer screen with little in the way of physical activity other than the too-frequent trips to the fridge is going to be less inclined to don their trainers on a rainy Sunday morning.

That success begets motivation, and not the other way round, is critical to keep in mind when planning interventions for students who are struggling with any aspect of their learning and are therefore likely to not have previous successes to draw upon. Whether it be in the classroom, as a small group, or on an individual basis, it is imperative that the person delivering the intervention creates an environment in which students can experience genuine achievement, and quickly. This does not mean overly praising students for meaningless accomplishments, but rather planning intervention programmes carefully by breaking down the parts that students need to secure into manageable steps that are easier to achieve.

Teaching Interventions: Questions to Consider

Do you have assessments in place that enable you to diagnose specific learning gaps so that you can match students to the most appropriate interventions, starting with classroom practice?


How are you going to make sure that only students who really need intervention are targeted?


Have you got the infrastructure in place to offer group intervention and highly-targeted individual intervention for those who need it?


How will you design interventions to create genuine successes for students who have previously struggled?

Fran Haynes

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