How Teachers are using Seneca to Fill Post-COVID Knowledge Gaps
Richard Broad
Head of UK Education @ Seneca Learning
July 06, 2020

How Teachers are using Seneca to Fill Post-COVID Knowledge Gaps

Students up and down have missed weeks of in-class teaching as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.

School closures have meant that teachers will need to change their approach when schools return to normal to make sure students are given the best possible chance of catching up for any lost time.

We heard from Clare Johnson on how she will approach the return to school.

Clare Johnson - Head of Geography at Marling School

Clare has 16 years of teaching experience. She's a self-confessed nerd with particular passions for reading and enjoys keeping up with the latest research on teaching & learning and Geography-specific pedagogy.

What are your major concerns for students returning after the COVID-19 school closures?

We've all been thinking about how to fill those big gaps with students who haven’t engaged very much at all, and we’re really worried about.

I want to think about the 70% or so of students in all year groups who have actually engaged well over the period of school closures: maybe they've lacked a bit of depth, maybe they've completed work but they haven't learnt quite what you wanted them to learn; even the best students will have missed something. They will all be missing depth and complexity of understanding, missing those connections between ideas, missing that big picture stuff that comes from teachers in the classroom doing what we do best - explaining that tricky concept with a well-placed analogy or diagram, making links with prior learning, re-explaining for students to see an alternative perspective.

What is your strategy for filling gaps in learning?

In class, we use continual questioning to spot those gaps and then respond to it. That's just not possible to do really well remotely.

The first thing I think is important for me to do as a Head of Department is to think about which parts of the curriculum that we will be teaching this year are based on prior learning that students might have missed in these months. I think this is an important process for all teachers but it is especially important for Heads of Departments to have a clear picture of this across the department.

The key questions I'm looking to address here are:

  • What is the key knowledge that they have to build on?
  • What are the threshold concepts that might have been missed? Threshold concepts are the foundation ideas, without which our ‘house of cards’ of learning is unstable.

For me, I'm thinking as one example in Y7 where they are currently doing some work on ecosystems. A key idea there is how the sun’s energy is transferred through an ecosystem. This concept is crucial when we come to look at year 8 work on climate and how and why climate varies across the globe and how that impacts on world biomes and their characteristics. So identifying where those key bits might pop up is really important to consider in advance of teaching it.

We can use the upcoming content to be taught to backfill gaps in understanding. When I come to teach those year 8s about how energy and climate varies over the globe, I can actually re-teach the concepts of energy in ecosystems. Or when I’m looking at how climate change is a huge factor in water scarcity or uneven development with my year 9s, I need to be aware that some of them missed out on the big ideas of climate change in term 5 of year 8 and I can do some work with that topic then.

What practical steps will you take to identify and plug knowledge gaps?

We need to spot precise gaps in understanding as well as find of those big key concepts. Lots of us will be doing multiple choice questions, Google Forms and other assessments that are effective diagnostically.

At the moment my plan is to use Seneca Learning for much of this. It is not appropriate for everybody, of course, but:

  • It's free to use.
  • They have broadened their curriculum hugely over the last few months and now do Key Stage 2, Key Stage 3, GCSE and A level (all specs);
  • They've added courses focusing on common misconceptions that have been drawn from their data from students completing the usual courses;
  • There are GCSE exam-style questions where students have to engage with more complex and multifaceted questions;
  • They have Adaptive Learning and Smart Homework tools so you can set a load of work and then you can easily reset personalised tasks for individual students based on what they didn't do so well in the first time around. It makes setting personalised learning tasks so simple;
  • And you have ready-made diagnostic tools. Everything's automatically marked so you can find out where a significant chunk of students have struggled. It’s all there, done for you.

For me, that's a huge time saver. I don't want to spend time making quizzes, then having to do them in class, marking them, and then analysing the results when something Seneca Learning does it all for me!

There are a couple of other benefits to Seneca too:

  • The students can do that easily from home (we mustn’t let that momentum of ‘working well at home’ slide). Seneca can be used on laptops, computers, tablets or smart phones.
  • Seneca provides continual retrieval and revision - so for me, it's a win-win situation

I've also been thinking that our teaching has to be just far more responsive. We cannot just launch into our schemes of work as if nothing happened. We can't just pick up the lesson on “differences in global development” and teach it just like we did last year.

I'm going to need to continue using retrieval quizzing at the start of the lesson, as I have done for a year or so, but instead of just making sure we cover a range of topics - a scattergun approach - it's going to need to be really targeted. For example, our Key Stage 3 quizzing at the start of the lesson will be on the topics and the content that will help them to access the work we're doing in that lesson or in that unit.

Our teaching generally needs to be far more focused on activities that we haven't been able to do remotely. For us that will be:

  • Lots of extended writing skills and techniques.
  • Teaching the links between concepts really explicitly - more explicitly than we usually do to develop students schema so that they can use the knowledge and understanding that they have effectively. Some students have done an amazing job of getting really good detailed knowledge in this period. Other students might need support to connect everything together.
  • Unpicking student misconceptions. Some of those misconceptions might have taken root. I'm already aware there were a few little bits of my year 9 coasts work that a significant minority have misconstrued and I know that's something I need to spend time on unpicking

Could you summarise your approach in three points?

There are three things I'm thinking about:

  1. Where are the gaps in threshold concepts going to be and what are the impacts of those gaps in our teaching over the next year or two? Can I use those connections to actually backfill ‘lost’ learning? Can I plan that out now?
  2. I'm going to be using the tools and resources readily available, like Seneca, to make the most efficient use of diagnostic assessment. This will ensure I will not need to take up class time that could be spent with teacher input, direct instruction and to do the stuff that we can't do remotely. I’m not going to reinvent the wheel when my time will be far better spent doing number three...
  3. I'm going to be thinking about how to teach far more responsively, improving my planning, my questioning, and not just following the lessons or the way I've always done it in the past.

What is Seneca?

Seneca is a free online learning platform for students from age 7 to 18. We are used by over 3.5 million pupils and 185,000 teachers.

Seneca offers exam board scpecific and curriculum-linked online learning resources for students. Teachers and parents are able to track student progress for free.

Seneca has been shown to help students learn 2x faster in a peer-reviewed and published randomised control trial.

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