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Getting students to perform better with innovative teaching

There is certainly some variation in terms of pupils’ performance and motivation. This is evident from the GUTS teaching innovation project conducted by education specialist Lindy Wijsman in the first three classes at a secondary school in Rotterdam. In the first three years, the level of pupils’ performance and motivation is higher, but a downward trend is clearly visible. PhD defence 30 May.

What happens with secondary school pupils’ grades in the first three classes? In the first year, the average final grade is a 7; in the next two years the pupils’ motivation drops, which has consequences for their school career. PhD candidate Wijsman and her Leiden colleagues wanted to find out whether there is any scope for improving both pupils’ motivation and their performance. So in 2013 they initiated the Differentiated Challenging of Talent in School (Gedifferentieerd Uitdagen van Talent op School, “GUTS”) teaching innovation project. Pupils at the Wolfert dual-language secondary school in Rotterdam showed better performance and higher motivation in the first and second classes; unfortunately the decline apparent over the first three school years continued in later classes.

Special context

Pupils chose their own extra talent classes in subjects that interested them and that they wanted to spend more time on. They also had to contend with a higher pass grade for being allowed to move on to the next year. Instead of an average grade of 6, the new standard to pass a year was a 7. Wijsman: ‘This way we combined the stimulation of students’ intrinsic motivation with talent classes and a higher pass level.’ For Wijsman, the pupils’ motivation is interesting because of the special context of a school. ‘Motivational theory is based on intrinsic motivation. But however much fun learning in school is, in secondary school you have to pass all the subjects. That’s what makes the project so interesting. How do we make learning fun for pupils when they have that threat hanging over them?’

Into the school with GUTS

To research the GUTS innovation, all eight first-year classes of the Wolfert dual language school were monitored over a period of three years by means of questionnaires and a grade analysis. Students also explained in interviews whether the talent classes motivated them. Wijsman compared pupils’ performance with previous groups from the school and with the results from other schools. She compared the students’ motivation with the national standard. Wijsman: ‘Pupils performed better than the groups that were chosen for the best possible comparison. The research involved real pupils in real classes in real schools; this wasn’t a lab experiment.’

 ‘Most exciting year of my career’

Wijsman is especially fascinated by this research project because it is embedded in the school’s standard practice. The project group comprised the team leaders of the first, second and third year classes, a number of teachers and the director of the school, who were keen to find answers to a number of questions: ‘What do we want, what is feasible and what is appropriate for us? How can we implement talent classes?’  The director was concerned about a declining pupil influx due to the stricter policy on passing a year before going on to the next class in what he called ‘the most exciting year of my career’. But the intake remained the same. It’s nice to see that the school continued with the talent classes and the new standard even after the research period. Wijsman: ‘GUTS appears to make it possible to increase both performance and motivation. At every point in time, the level is higher, but the rate of decline is comparable.’

Wijsman suggests

The GUTS innovation project is a proposal by Leiden professors Michiel Westenberg and Jan van Driel to counter the ‘a pass is good enough’ culture. Wijsman, currently education adviser at Utrecht University, understands that reforms in education are often at class or school leel. ‘Differentiation per student is important in education although a general theory about what does and doesn’t work is also very useful. Average grades don’t show trends. My findings are related to trends within a specific context. It will be interesting to see if GUTS also works in other secondary school years or in other types of less academic schools.’ Wijsman has a tip for future research: ‘This complete package is nice, but it could also be interesting to look at talent classes and raising the pass level separately so that you can distinguish the effects.’

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