How do we make John Hattie’s “Visible Learning” work in maths?

visiblelearningVisible Learning is John Hattie’s mantra. I’ve written previously about being a big fan of Hattie’s work about what affects achievement. He’s collected just about every piece of academic research and collated a ranked taxonomy of  factors that affect achievement. Visible Learning is his suggested approach to teaching in a way that incorporates many of the significant drivers of achievement.

He sums up what Visible Learning looks like using the analogy of teaching someone to abseil. The main features of the learning being:

  1. The success criteria is explicit. The learners not only know what they’re trying to achieve, but also what success looks like. Giving learning objectives isn’t enough, they need to see what success looks like.
  2. The tasks are challenging. Trusting in the rope to support your weight requires real trust. Learners find it extremely challenging, but when they complete it the first time they get a real sense of satisfaction and have the hunger to repeat it again.
  3. Student expectations. Ask students to state how they think they will do before they start a task. Human nature is for them to play safe in their prediction. When they exceed their forecast, their belief in themselves as a learner increases. This ratchets up over time and their expectations of themselves rise. This has by far the highest ranking effect size in all of Hattie’s findings.

Know thy impact is another of his mantras. He argues that formative assessment is vital in quality teaching and teachers should constantly be using evidence to reflect on the impact their practice had on their learners. Hattie says assessments are more for teachers than students; they are for you to find out what you taught well and to whom. This reflective, evidence-based mindset, he argues captures the essence of what educational research concludes has a high-impact on achievement. Teaching is to D.I.E for, says Hattie: Diagnose what they do/don’t know, Intervene, Evaluate your impact. Repeat.

I’ve been experimenting with an approach to teaching maths that meets the Visible Learning criteria and allows me to systematically know my impact by using the D.I.E philosophy. This has been the biggest step forward in my practice this year and the learners really like it. The problem is, I can’t see a way of embedding it permanently in my practice. Let me explain…

At the beginning of a topic students are given this sheet that gives the learning objectives.


The students then make a prediction of how many questions they will get right on the pre-learning assessment and enter this number into the table.

The students then sit the pre-learning assessment:


This is class-marked and the students then highlight the appropriate smileys on the tracker sheet (after the pre-learning assessment, not before it) to record their success against each learning objective on the pre-learning assessment. They update the score in the table with what they actually got. Finally a grid is passed round with the students’ names vs the learning objectives. They tick and cross the grid so I then have a record of how each student did on each question.

I plan my lessons based on this pre-learning assessment feedback. I structure my lessons based on who knows what. I know exactly where to pick up from to avoid teaching things they really already know.

After the series of lessons student predict how they will do on the post-learning assessment, sit it, record their actual score, update the smileys and set targets about anything they still haven’t mastered.

The students love it. Comments include: “It really helps me understand what I’ve got to learn”, “It makes me realise that I am actually making progress in maths even when my grade on the exams isn’t going up every time”, “It makes the things I’ve got to learn a lot clearer” and “the assessments help you figure out what you do and don’t know. Stuff I thought I knew, I found out I didn’t and the other way round too. It’s been really useful”.

There are other things I really like:

  1. Using formative feedback from assessments has allowed me to be much more diagnostic and really impacted on my lesson planning. Rather than making assumptions about where to pick up from, I know without any doubt now. Things I would have spent whole lessons on before are now little-and-often starters. The pitch of my activities has changed. When I can see they have visited things before I set deeper learning activities much earlier than I would have previously. What was a chatty class are suddenly much more focussed and on task more regularly. I’m pitching work much better than ever because of the better than ever information I have on what students already know.
  2. I’ve never been a fan of giving students a list of learning objectives and asking them to RAG (red/amber/green) how good they think they are at them. RAG-ing doesn’t account for student ignorance! The conscientious, high attaining students underestimate what they can do and the overly-confident, lazy ones overestimate. By doing the RAG-ing based on what they can do on an actual assessment, the results are much more accurate. This is confirmed by the score students predicting they will get prior to the pre-learning assessment and the actual score they get being different; significantly so in many cases.
  3. I think the approach captures the spirit of the forthcoming assessing without levels reforms. The pre and post learning assessments document progress in a formative portfolio. Targets can be set based on accurate diagnostic assessment of their weaknesses. Progress is very clear to external observers, me the teacher and to the students.
  4. Supplying the learning objectives in conjunction with the pre-learning assessment really gives students focus from the start. They see the learning journey and buy into it. “I can’t wait until we get to the trapezium lesson”, was one student’s comment after the pre-learning assessment. I’ve never had students consistently looking forward along their learning journey like this before.

All sorted then, the world is fixed! No. I just can’t see a way of making it work all the time. I’m not trying to be defeatist. It’s not the preparation involved, it’s simply the time required to run it. There are 30 modules on the scheme of work, 352 learning objectives and it is already a struggle to cover the course content within the allotted time. Two extra lessons for the pre and post learning assessments mean 60 more lessons needed over the KS4 course. It’s simply not possible to sacrifice 60 lessons to this and still cover the course content. Do you agree?

This has been an issue causing me great frustration recently. The learning is so good with this system. It encapsulates so much of what Hattie says really boosts achievement and I have seen at first-hand why. Visible Learning is really, really good learning.

I want this to be something that is practical. I can’t see where the 60 lessons are going to come from. Schools just can’t do it. In theory, because you don’t need to teach everything (some topics students already know are identified on the pre-learning assessment) there are some savings here, but it’s not enough. Perhaps set the pre and post learning assessments as homeworks? That would have pitfalls! Where’s the time going to come from?!

I’m out of ideas currently. Do you have any? How could I make this work? Please make any suggestions you have in the comments section.

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19 Responses

  1. Alex Crookes says:

    Interesting post. I was thinking of doing something similar, although I was toying with an assessment at the half way point then one at the end to demonstrate progress/learning. Just wondering why you feel you have to so this in lesson time: could it be set for a pre-topic homework?

    • Hi Alex,

      Thanks for your thoughts. I agree with you. Giving it a go as a homework is certainly something I’d like to do. It would be a way of doing it without taking up lesson time.



  2. Jon Hinchliffe says:

    I am only just completing ITT so I expect my views are naive but here goes:

    I have seen this approach in several schools and wondered about the balancing act of the time it takes against the progress it helps achieve. It is therefore interesting to see you trying this approach out.

    How would it be if you did the pre-assessment form and questions in homework? Do you think their would be any loss of efficiency? I would expect the ones that won’t benefit from it won’t make much effort but those students that do want to succeed will try just as hard.

    Having said I like this approach I do have concerns about the whole principle that students need to know what success looks like. As teachers we know there is no universal single solution to improving learning. It is a combination of different approaches that probably change from class to class, person to person and lesson to lesson. When students are in the real world they will face lots of situations where a 70% guess is about as good as we can get. If we have a check list that we need to know the area of parallelogram that implies we there is a specific rule for working this out and of course there can be but if we teach how to work this out from scratch the student will have learnt more principles of thinking mathematically and should be able to apply it to areas of other compound shapes etc. It is not as efficient for an exam but it is good maths technique to me.
    I am therefore wondering it the check-list is based at the wrong level of thinking. Whether it should be about the techniques and approaches of solving maths problems rather then specific types of maths problem. We are then back to the time problem does teaching higher principles save time because there needs to be less detailed content or is it a luxury that will impact on exam results? To me it seems a better way I don’t have the experience to know yet.

  3. steve says:

    Is there a risk that students will think “Oh I can do area of a trapezium already (based on the pre-test) and not fully engage with the trapezium lesson whereas they actually mean ‘I can do that individual question on area of a trapezium’?”

  4. Craig Wilson says:

    I use this approach on larger assessments at the beginning and end of term. I’m pretty confident I can get most kids to score well on a topic I’ve just taught but what do they remember at the end of the term/year? I think it also gives a better idea of progress.

    I wouldn’t consider time spent doing tests as wasted time though. Daniel Willingham etc have shown some pretty convincing evidence that just doing a test helps learning.

    I use very short one or two question tests at the end of lessons and questioning to assess understanding of what I’ve taught recently.

  5. bbking212 says:

    I am very interested in your approach as we have started to implement pretest in our school rather than just formative assessment. My problem at the moment is the recording of progress. Do you record their smileys on a spreadsheet or is book sheet evidence enough of “progress”?

    • Hiya. Thanks for your reply. I’m recording it in a spreadsheet. I pass a sheet of paper round with the pupils’ names vs learning objectives on. They tick and cross then I quickly put it into a spreadsheet. Sounds a lot of work, but only a couple of times a half term…

  6. Tim Dolan says:

    It’s interesting to read your thoughts on this as we are looking at pretests at the start of learning blocks in our new schemes of work. What do your post learning assessments look like?

    How do you communicate the success criteria to students? is i just a list of ‘calculate …’ or do you use examples of questions they should be able to answer, or something else?

  7. Kirsty Martin says:

    This looks like a fantastic way to really enhance the learning of the pupils. I can’t see how I cannot be a better more reflective teacher implementing this approach. I’ve got a couple of questions before I start planning this into Septembers lessons.

    Did you find it difficult to chose just one question to test each of the learning objectives? Did you experiment with different questions for different classes for instance to see if the assessment varies depending on the question?

    When you do the post-learning test do you repeat the same test or give the pupils a new test?

    Thank you for sharing this. It has given me the drive I needed to really look at visible learning, confidence and achievement for the new term!

    • Hi, thanks for your kind words. The pre and post learning assessments have different questions, they are different tests. However, the topics are the same, e.g. Q3 on the pre learning test is on the same topics as the post learning test: they assess the same objective.

      I haven’t experimented with different questions for different classes. Despite the time issue (!), I’ve been focussing on making the questions like the ones that would appear on exam papers. The thinking being, we take different routes to our destination with different classes, but with all classes we’re trying to get the to the point on being able to answer a GCSE style question…

      I’m going to start work next week on designing pre and post learning assessments for the whole syllabus. I’ll post these on here when I’m done for others to use if they’d like to.

      Visible learning is certainly something worth investigating. I can’t speak highly enough of Hattie’s work. It’s given me real focus in my CPD in a way that nothing has before. Rather than being flooded with too many ideas to try, I’m focussing on what has the biggest impact. Definitely check out his videos I blogged about a while back.

  8. Marc Evans says:

    Thanks, I love this and I’m making these to use in my lessons.

  9. Victor says:

    Would time be less of an issue if this technique was incorporated as part of a mastery curriculum ala King Solomon Academy?

  10. N Millar says:

    I was really interested in this article as it is something I am really trying to push with the department- we want to move away from traditional homework being the assessment. I was wondering if your resources on this are available to purchase anywhere please?

  11. Naomi says:

    this made very interesting reading. I have only just come across your website, but already lots of interesting information and food for thought.
    Do you have the materials/ assessments available to buy at all??
    Many thanks

  12. Tonya Girle says:

    This is a technique I have been incorporating, too, but I use the ‘homework’ time for it by creating online tests that self mark and automatically populate an excel spreadsheet for me (recording the whole classes results by individual students). Students complete the test outside of class time, we have discussions either in class or on a discussion board about the work and all other homework for the unit is based on a ‘flipped classroom’ ideology with students required to watch ‘preparatory learning’ tutorial videos directly linked to the learning objectives from the pre-test. They also have to post a response on the discussion board (I give a discussion topic that is a check-for-understanding open ended question) to ensure they have processed the knowledge from the video. Best thing about this system is once you have the digital bones in place, it is low maintenance 🙂

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