Student self-confidence and grouping in English and maths

By Dr David Pepper 

Dr David Pepper

The Best Practice in Grouping Students project is not just about attainment in English and maths but also about wider outcomes of learning, including self-confidence. We think that how students are grouped for English and maths could affect whether they think they can really succeed in these subjects. This in turn could have implications for their engagement and persistence with challenging English and maths tasks. These learning outcomes – self-confidence, engagement and persistence – are targeted in international surveys such as PISA.

Our concern with wider learning outcomes was one important reason for asking schools participating in the project to help us conduct online questionnaire surveys of their Year 7 students (the cohort the project is targeting) and their English and maths teachers. Although perhaps not a transformative use of technology, the fact that our questionnaires were online hugely increased the efficiency of the surveys. Until quite recently, we had to print and post copies of questionnaires to schools and then face an anxious wait for completed questionnaires to be posted back.

Now that schools are online, services such as SurveyMonkey make it easy for them to access questionnaires – notwithstanding the need for teachers to notify parents and book the ICT suite. And, as a researcher, it is reassuring to log into your survey and see the number of questionnaire responses multiplying in real-time. Indeed, thanks to the efforts of teachers, parents, carers and students themselves, we received 750 responses to the teacher questionnaire and 13,000 responses to the student questionnaire. By comparison, the OECD’s PISA 2012 paper-based survey was completed by 4,000 students in schools in England.

One thing the internet hasn’t changed is the importance of piloting questionnaires with teachers and students. Part of our approach to piloting was to sit down with a small number of students in our pilot schools as they responded to draft versions of the questionnaire. Their feedback resulted in important modifications to questionnaire items, notably clarifications to what we meant by sets, streams and classes. However, since we’ve been able to progress directly to checking and analysing the survey data without the need for any laborious data entry, we already know that some Year 7s aren’t sure whether they are in such sets, streams or classes for English and maths.

The grouping blindness of some students is an interesting finding in itself but further analyses could explore what this means for students’ learning outcomes in English and maths, including their self-confidence. Other analyses will compare the learning outcomes of students taught in sets, streams or mixed-attainment groups as reported by their English and maths teachers. This will provide a baseline for comparisons between our intervention and control groups, including the effect size of our interventions, when our questionnaire surveys are repeated in summer 2017.

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