What do students’ beliefs and feelings tell you about the quality of education in your school


Before embarking on my career in education, I worked as a physiotherapist. The overlap with teaching I believe is significant; I could only make a difference to my patients if they believed and trusted in me. I had to nurture in them a belief in their ability to get better and live a healthy and fulfilling life. To do this I had to understand how to influence and change the neurological pathways in the brains of my patients to support them in learning or relearning correct movement patterns whilst also nurturing a robust self-belief that they had the capability to achieve wellness.

On entering the teaching profession, I realised that teaching was no different. It was my job to engender in every student, a feeling of self-belief and confidence in their capabilities to attain their goals; to use my knowledge of how students’ brains learn best to ensure every student made good progress, whilst facilitating the development of effective learning strategies, a love of learning and a passion for my subject. I also knew that, just like patients, students needed to know you cared about them and strong, trusting relationships with clear and consistent messages were key to a productive and happy classroom.

An evidence-based approach

Over my teaching career, educational ‘fads’ like learning styles, brain gym and triple marking have appeared and disappeared from ‘best practice’. Despite claims made that they improved student outcomes, evidence from our classrooms did not support this.

What has been a refreshing development in education is the growing trend for evidence-informed practice. Research bodies such as the Education Endowment Foundation and The National Center for Education Research (NCER), research professors such as John Hattie and Dylan Wiliam and grass roots teacher led organisations such as ResearchEd, are all increasing our knowledge and understanding of what really makes a difference to student outcomes. These people and organisations are providing us with clear evidence on what we should be focussing on in educational if we are to positively impact student outcomes and develop our education systems for the better.

The importance of self-efficacy

What is unsurprising is that we now have a clear body of research to prove that what we knew all along is true. Positive student teacher relationships not only improve student outcomes they also shape how students think and act in school. A student’s self-efficacy, i.e. their confidence in their ability to complete a task or achieve a goal, has an extremely significant impact on their academic outcomes. Teaching students learning strategies, such as metacognition and self-regulation, and employing research informed practice in the classroom, such as cognitive load theory, scaffolding and effective feedback, are fundamental to ensuring students make excellent progress and achievement.

Understanding students

I first encountered the Pupil Attitudes to Self and School survey (PASS) seven years ago and after some research and reading I realised that this was the one assessment that could really impact student outcomes. PASS tells you how students feel about themselves (Learner Self-regard, Perceived Learner Capability and Confidence in learning) and how connected they feel to their teachers and their school (Attitudes towards Teachers, Feelings about School, Attitudes towards Attendance). It tells you whether students feel they have the learning strategies to be successful learners (Preparedness for Learning), it tells you whether students love learning in your schools, and if they are motivated to learn (General work Ethic and Response to Curriculum Demands). Research tells us that these are the things that really matter and have a significant impact on student outcomes.

Every day in school we make judgements on how well we feel students’ have learnt, how positive they are towards their studies and their attitudes towards their learning, peers and teachers - i.e the behaviours of our students as we see it. As teachers, however, we need to know why these behaviours are happening and if they do not support a student achieving the best outcomes possible what we can do about it.

PASS gives us this ability. PASS enables us to understand why students are behaving in this way, why their progress may have stalled, why they have a negative attitude towards their studies or a bad attitude towards their learning, peers and teachers. PASS is an extremely powerful tool to find out a student’s beliefs and ultimately give us a better insight into what we are doing well in our schools and how we can improve further.

For example, Learner Self Regard measures a student’s academic self-efficacy and this has a profound influence on their academic development (Bandura et al., 1996; Dweck, 2006). Research stretching back to the 70s has shown that if students do not believe they have the capability to achieve their goals, it is far less likely that they will be successful in achieving them even if they have the ability to do so. Students with a low self-efficacy for academic success underachieve because their perceptions of their academic capabilities cause them to adopt lower aspirations (Bandura, 2006) and when faced with challenges they have very little motivation to act or persevere (Bandura & Locke, 2003). Furthermore, it significantly increases the likelihood of developing ‘stress, depression, anxiety and helplessness’ (Bandura et al., 1999; Zulkosky, 2009), a significant issue in our schools today.

Amanda Spielman in her recent HMCI Commentary (September 2019) emphasised the importance of developing school communities based on strong values and high expectations due to the significant impact these have on behaviour in schools and ultimately student outcomes.

Our understanding of psychology tells us that the behaviours a student exhibits are underpinned by their attitudes, beliefs and perceptions of the world. Therefore, if a student believes your school curriculum is not relevant to their goals in life (low Response to Curriculum Demands) or they do not feel connected to their school or their peers (low Feelings about School), they perceive that they do not ‘fit in’ and are unlikely to exhibit behaviours that promote the achievement of their learning goals.

PASS and the interventions

This is why PASS is such a powerful tool for school development, it not only gives you an insight into what students are feeling about themselves, their teachers and school in general, it also provides an excellent insight into the quality of teaching in your school. Is the teaching in your classrooms enabling students to feel successful, are you effectively teaching self-regulatory strategies, tools for learning and developing a strong sense of agency and independence? Are you enabling your students to discover their passions and talents? Are your behaviour policies and procedures effective in creating an inclusive, nurturing and safe environment and preventing intolerance and bullying? Are you developing a life-long love of learning and curiosity in your students?

Over the last seven years my research around PASS has given me the opportunity to work with schools in order for them to develop a better understanding of the research and evidence behind each factor and how a low or high score in each factor may impact their student outcomes. Through this work and my ongoing research, I have also established what a low or high score for each factor may look like in the classroom and what questions schools need to ask themselves about individuals or groups of students when analysing their percentile scores for each factor.

Furthermore, this has enabled me to gain an excellent insight into what strategies we can employ in our schools to improve scores for each factor and positively impact their student outcomes - both academic and psychological. All of this I have used to author the ‘PASS Interventions’.

I want all schools to benefit from this information so that we may work together to measure the things that matter, identify areas of development and create an education system that truly nurtures positive wellbeing and a love of learning in every individual. For example, a low preparedness for learning indicates students do not feel they have the learning tools and strategies to achieve their learning goals. Effective strategies to remedy this are: explicitly teaching literacy skills across the curriculum; providing time to teach organisational skills within the curriculum; explicitly teaching metacognition; or simply using stop clocks in classrooms to time activities in order to facilitate in students a better understanding of the concept of time.

The PASS Interventions are the culmination of my research around PASS and work in schools. With the current focus on mental health in our schools, it is our duty of care to listen to what the PASS data tells us about our schools and our educational systems. PASS gives us the ability to measure the impact we are having on our students’ beliefs and feelings, and therefore academic outcomes and as a result make positive changes to our education systems. In this way, we can say with confidence that we have provided every student in our schools with the very best environment to develop a positive mental health and wellbeing, a love of learning, growth in character, resilience and success in achieving their goals.

About the author

Nicola Lambros is Cognita Director of Education for Europe, and has leadership experience at schools in the UK, Europe, Asia, the Americas and the Middle East.

She is a passionate advocate of research in education and the importance of educators understanding how the neurology of learning, i.e. Mind, Brain and Education (MBE) science, can be effectively applied in schools to promote outstanding student outcomes, positive mental health and wellbeing. Nicola’s own research in this area has provided her with opportunities to present at numerous conferences across the world and write for various educational publications such as Conference and Common Room, WLSA Record, The International School magazine and various publications from GL Education.

Nicola recently authored the PASS Interventions for GL Education. Nicola’s research on PASS has evidenced how each of the PASS factors has a significant impact on student outcomes. Nicola hopes that through the increased use of PASS in our schools educators can develop learning environments that not only enable every student to achieve the very best educational outcomes but also nurture a robust love of learning and positive wellbeing.

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