How can we build characteristics and behaviours for academic success?  

The MiniPD team thanks Hannah Bradley, MiniPD Coach, teacher and writer, for contributing this article below. Hannah has worked in UK and international schools as a teacher of Science and Biology specialist. She loves learning about learning and thinking of ways to make education more efficient and effective. 

Hannah Bradley

Enjoy this great 5 minute read from Hannah.

I recently completed the Developing Mindsets for Success asynchronous course on the MiniPD platform facilitated by Martin Griffin and Steve Oakes. This course examines the VESPA model, which identifies five non-cognitive attributes of high performing students that are shown to be key factors to facilitating academic attainment and overall success of students. Non-cognitive factors, also known as competencies, soft skills, and approaches to learning are still often a challenge for educators to systematically address in practice. With this in mind, Griffin and Oakes lay out identifiers and intentional strategies to support the non-cognitive development of students in the areas of vision, effort, systems, practice and attitude.  

So, with the aim of being more intentional in my own teaching practice, in this article I will look specifically at the area of practice – what students actually do when they study – and lay out some of my own classroom strategies to support students in developing their practice.

Activity 1: If you can teach it you know it 

Research confirms that when we engage in explaining something, we learn it better. And getting students to explain their learning to their classmates is a popular teaching activity, think carousel type learning, speed dating activities or station rotations. In all of these, the teacher gives each student a topic to go away and learn and then present back to their classmates. A nice idea in principle, but in practice, students struggle unless the teacher provides sufficient scaffolding. They don’t know what to focus on, how much depth to go into, or how to pronounce words. As a result students often end up frustrated, bored or embarrassed.  

Before we can expect students to teach something to their classmates, we have to support them in building understanding and confidence. I like using the “I, We, You” format for this. For example, when teaching students about DNA replication, In “I”, I might first explain the process to students, while they add to a partially complete diagram. The “We” section of the lesson might involve students sequencing the steps using a card sort and then answering questions on the process. Finally, the “You” could involve students explaining the process of DNA replication to a classmate – helping them to identify any gaps in their knowledge and consolidating their learning of the process by teaching it to someone else.

So, when might you apply ‘I, We, You’ to scaffold student teaching in your practice? It can provide a safe and supportive environment for students to try out and develop this practice strategy. As the teacher, you are able to highlight the depth and breadth of knowledge that students need to know and they get to hear and practice saying words out loud. But perhaps most importantly, it normalises the process of teaching to and learning from other students, helping them to form a habit for successful practice.

Activity 2: Structuring exam technique 

It is highly debatable how much we should focus on exam questions when we teach. Too little and our students are disadvantaged, too much and it sends that message that the assessment is more important than the learning process. 

But at the end of the day, if our students will sit high-stakes external exams, we have a responsibility to show them how to apply their knowledge to the exam questions that they face. We can do this by teaching them to be formulaic in their approach. And being formulaic is an important skill for life – building a house, packing a bag to go on holiday and cooking a meal are all things that require a formulaic approach. 

So, to build habits of a formulaic, intentional and focused approach to answering exam questions, I provide a formula to scaffold student approach. As students begin to use the formula to form habits, and potentially even adapt the formula to best meet their own needs, I will gradually remove the scaffolding.

For example, the formula for answering a data analysis question might be:

  1. Read the question twice and underline key words 
  2. Study any available diagrams and make sure you can summarise what they show in one sentence 
  3. Look at the number of marks available for this question – these are the number of distinct points you should include in your answer
  4. Circle the command term. Write down the meaning of the command term (for example, in an “explain” question they must give a reason for something)
  5. Write down all of the keywords you want to include in your answer
  6. Once you have answered in full, read the question again and consider if you have satisfactorily answered it 

Activity 3: Coaching questions to encourage reflection on practice

As teachers we don’t just impart knowledge. We tailor what they do to each specific class or student. 

Opening up conversations about what makes effective practice helps students to understand their strengths, weaknesses and areas for development, as well as helping you, their teacher, in knowing how best to support your students. Here are some example coaching questions taken from the Developing Mindsets for Success in International Schools asynchronous course:

  • Which techniques do you prefer to use for practice/revision? 
  • If you could pick one activity to use to revise for an exam what would it be?
  • What do you do with feedback you get on marked work?

For further information on the VESPA model, visit the VESPA Academy website, take part in the Developing Mindsets for Success in International Schools asynchronous course, or watch the webinar below that I took part in with Martin Griffin and Steve Oakes. 

Join the Conversation

We invited educators from around the world to join us in a Coaches-in-Conversation on our theme, Developing Mindsets for IBDP, Alevel and GCSE Success on 17 October 2022.  Jump into the recording below to listen…. 


Hannah writes,If you would like to have a conversation about how you might support the non-cognitive development of your students, or would like someone to help you plan to scaffold successful practice, connect with me here in a MiniPD session. Alternatively, please tweet me @HannahBradley_9 – I would love to hear your opinions and any other advice you might have on this topic.”

Want to learn more about developing non-cognitive skills?

Try one of these recommended reads from the MiniPD Team and Hannah Bradley:

The MiniPD Team

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