What is sticky teaching and learning, and why does it matter?

Caroline Bentley-Davies explains all in an extract from her new book, Sticky Teaching and Learning: How to make your students remember what you teach them

The need to make our teaching ‘sticky’ has never been greater. Coursework, once the fail-safe of the conscientious pupil, has gone. No longer can coursework or long-term assessments be carefully polished or redone if they are not deemed successful enough.

Pupils are therefore increasingly reliant on their own ability to remember and utilise knowledge. Our pupils must be skilled at retrieving, shaping and utilising what we have taught them, so that in an assessment they can prove exactly what they know and can do. We can’t afford to sell them short.

There are other reasons why we want pupils to become successful at sticky learning. We want them to develop an appetite and aptitude for learning that will stay with them for the rest of their lives. We want them to enjoy learning and relish the challenge of mastering new skills and knowledge.

We want to give them lifelong skills in developing successful learning strategies for themselves. As educators, there is an increasing rebellion against just preparing pupils for the demands of a specific test or examination. In some schools, in recent years pupils have been force-fed information, a foie gras approach to education if you like, a fail-safe for examination success.

These passive pupils are stuffed full of facts, information and enough pass notes to enable them to hurdle over the examination requirements with the minimum of effort. Countless revision sessions and notes are provided for pupils by their teachers. There is little expectation that they will develop any autonomy or the will to revise and learn for themselves or by themselves.

This wasn’t the intention, of course. However, in increasingly accountable times teachers and school leaders have been under immense pressure to get results – at any cost.

However, the over-reliance of pupils on their teachers means that they become much less skilled at learning and thinking independently. Ultimately, it doesn’t work. It doesn’t get the best results and it doesn’t help to secure learning.

One of the key premises of sticky teaching is that the initial learning in the lesson must actively involve pupils. They can’t simply be passive observers. There are, of course, several advantages to this.

Firstly, if pupils are active participants in their own learning, they are more likely to engage, remember and reflect on what they have learned. Moreover, when teaching pupils who are just unreceptive recipients of the teachers’ knowledge, it is hard – if not impossible – to tell how much has been properly understood and retained.

Finally, but importantly, teaching is a demanding and time-consuming profession. If we can do all we can to ensure the learning sticks during the initial teaching time, there will be much less need to increase our workload by replicating and repeating our lessons.

Instead of running yet another revision session after school, we can use that valuable time to assess, feedback or plan more engaging and sticky lessons, so the learners engage and develop the tools to revise and secure learning for themselves.

Metacognition and sticky teaching

An underlying principle of sticky teaching is that pupils should be engaged in the thinking processes involved in what they are learning. This encourages them to use metacognition (thinking about the thinking and learning process for themselves) so they can reflect on how they found the learning activity, what helped or hindered them and how they might do it differently next time.

Research shows that pupils who practise and develop their metacognitive skills make much better progress than those who don’t. The ability to reflect and then tweak and adapt our next approach to learning is crucial in becoming an effective and resilient learner.

The Education Endowment Foundation’s Teaching and Learning Toolkit summarises the effectiveness and cost of a range of different strategies designed to raise pupil achievement. It cites metacognition as a top educational strategy: if managed effectively, it has a huge impact on improving pupils’ learning, equivalent to, on average, eight months of pupil progress.

Developing pupils’ metacognitive skills is vital on many different levels. We know that if pupils receive a range of interactive and effective learning experiences, then it is likely that they will engage and be more interested in what they are doing. This will help them to better remember and recall the ideas, understanding and key concepts that you are teaching because they are incredibly involved in the lesson.

However, it is the ability to self-evaluate and reflect on their success in learning that makes for the most independent and successful learners. The skill of self-reflection is crucial in developing resilience towards learning, which in turn allows pupils to stand back and reflect on their own performance and consider how things can be improved next time. This clearly leads to better learning and greater success. It is a virtuous cycle.

When we think about our own past learning experiences, we can see how an emphasis on metacognitive skills might have helped us to achieve better outcomes. When I was at school, being encouraged to develop better self-reflection would have really helped my learning, certainly in the subjects where I struggled.

We know now that trying to cram in last-minute revision won’t work as our working memory is soon overloaded. We need to embed, revisit and review our learning across time to become successful learners. At no point in any of the lessons do I remember our teacher discussing different methods to help us learn vocabulary effectively, and we certainly weren’t encouraged to reflect after our tests on which revision and learning techniques worked for us and which didn’t.

This would have been so useful, not only in that specific test but across a range of other subject areas. It would have allowed us, at a young age, to understand that there are different approaches for committing information to memory and that we could directly influence our own success by taking a particular approach to our revision. Most importantly, we would have realised that we had control over our learning and that our failures weren’t absolute.

How immensely helpful it would have been to discuss tactics with each other: what revision techniques had we used? How successful or otherwise had we found them? What would we adapt for next time? It certainly would have helped to maintain learner enthusiasm and resilience, because if you were less successful in a test you would be encouraged to reflect on the reasons behind this.

Could you have used a different technique to revise? Would making flashcards or listening to your speech recorded onto your phone help you? What technique did your partner use that helped them to improve their marks from the last test?

Building resilience is crucial for students. We certainly don’t always succeed first time as adults, and nor should we. If we are setting ourselves appropriately challenging goals, there will undoubtedly be false starts and we will need to make amendments and adjustments to our approach.

Resilience is important not just for passing tests but for building a successful life. Everybody faces setbacks, so it is necessary to have the right strategies to respond to them constructively. To create effective learners, it is essential that we help them to develop and hone these skills, and ultimately to own them for themselves.


Caroline Bentley-Davies is an adviser, consultant and coach for teachers and school leaders working in many independent schools in the UK and overseas.

This is an extract from Caroline’s latest book, Sticky Teaching and Learning: How to make your students remember what you teach them, which is out now.

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