The myth of copying things down
Why copying things down might be a waste of classroom time... or worse!
I hope you are all well.
A warning: this week's newsletter is a bit of an epic. I recommend getting yourself a nice cup of tea and settling down in a comfy chair. Maybe grab a biscuit too. Are you ready? Okay, let's begin...
Part 1: Once upon a time
I am going to start with a story.
As part of the support I was giving a maths department recently, I was asked to take part in a departmental book scrutiny. It was me, the head of department, the Senior Leadership Team's line-manager for maths (a non-mathematician), and a big stack of Year 9 maths exercise books.
About 10 minutes into the book scrutiny, I could see the member of SLT shaking his head. Next came the sighing and tutting, before finally he announced:
Lucy's (not her real name) exercise books are simply not good enough. There are no learning objectives copied down, hardly any notes or worked examples, and students have simply marked things they got wrong with a cross instead of correcting them in purple pen. Heck, there is barely anything in these books!
Usually, I would have kept quiet, but this had been on my mind for some time. So I asked the member of SLT what Lucy's students’ maths results were like.
"Oh, they are great", came the reply, "But she is going to have to improve her students' books".
Part 2: Three questions
At this point, let me ask you three questions:
If you were this member of SLT, would you have had the same reaction?
In terms of your own teaching, what sorts of things do you ask your students to copy down into their exercise books?
Why do you ask them to do this?
Up until a few years ago, my answer to these three questions would have been:
Learning objectives, notes, worked examples, and corrections
So they understand and remember them, of course!
Part 3: What I often see in classrooms
These days, I am in the incredibly fortunate position of watching lots of maths lessons every week. Here are three things I often see:
Students copy down learning objectives laboriously at the start of the lesson - which are often written in language that makes little sense to them - and then the learning objectives are never referred to again
Students copy down notes and then a worked example from the board, then get stuck immediately on the first practice question even though it is very similar to the example they have just written down
Students copy down the correct way to do a question they have got wrong (often in a purple or green pen), and then when I ask them to talk me through what they have written, they clearly have no comprehension of the correct solution
Can you relate to any of these? If so, what is going on?
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Part 4: The myth
These are all examples of what I call The Myth of Copying things Down.
The myth is two-fold:
Copying something down helps it make sense
Once you have copied something down, you will remember it in the future
I don't think either of these things is true.
Nothing magical happens in the process of transferring something that makes little or no sense from the board to a book. And if it does not make sense now, it feels like a pretty big gamble to hope it will make sense and stick in the future.
And yet - as I described at the start - many school accountability systems are geared up to encourage this practice. Because what do lesson objectives, notes, worked examples, and corrections look like in books? In short: they look great (especially when coloured pens are involved). More specifically, books filled with lesson objectives, notes, worked examples, and corrections are regarded as proxies for effort, understanding, and retention. But I think they are poor proxies.
Part 5: The negative effects of copying things down on learning
In fact, I am going to go further. I think there is a danger that an insistence upon copying down lesson objectives, notes, worked examples, and corrections is detrimental to learning. Why?
First, there is the time the copying down takes. Lesson objectives are particularly problematic here. When put up on the board alongside the Do Now, many students spend all their time copying them down instead of engaging with a retrieval opportunity. When lesson objectives are put up after the Do Now, they either eat into lesson time or the teacher begins crucial exposition whilst the students are still copying meaning students are unable to pay attention to what the teacher is saying.
Far more serious is the effect on thinking. I have a hypothesis: the reason students often do not understand what they copy down is there is no incentive for them to think. The way worked examples and corrections play out in many classrooms is the teacher explains and the students sit there patiently waiting for the teacher to finish. An unlucky few might be asked a question, but most can zone out until they are asked to pick up their pens and copy whatever is on the board into their books. The fact that students end up with something in their book that looks like thinking is the very reason they can get away without doing any thinking.
Part 6: Four possible solutions
So, what is the solution? I have four suggestions, with the fourth one perhaps a little controversial.
First, it is a bad idea to have students copy things down when you are explaining. Whether it is a lesson objective, notes, a worked example or a correction, you want your students’ eyes and attention on you. Often I see good students attempting to copy things the teacher is saying, and they miss a key visual gesture from the teacher as their eyes are on their books. Or students are wrestling to deal with the split attention caused by processing the words they are hearing with the notes they are reading and writing. I am convinced that the actions of listening and watching should be separated from the act of copying.
Second, we can make copying things down a more active experience. We can hide all but the first line of the worked example or correction we have just gone through and see what the students can remember and figure out themselves. Or we can ask students to add notes and annotations to help their future forgetful selves make sense of what they have written, or write journal entries summarising key concepts - although I have found students need a lot of support to get good at these approaches.
Third, we can change the point of the lesson where we ask students to copy things down. Lesson objectives, notes, worked examples and corrections are likely to make little sense at the point most teachers ask students to write them down. At the start of the lesson, the lesson objectives are often meaningless. Notes and a worked example often only make sense after students have some experience and practice with the idea under their belts. And students only really know if they have understood a correction once they have tried a similar question to the one they got wrong. Shifting the time we ask students to copy down lesson objectives, notes, worked examples and corrections to later in the lesson will allow students to attach more meaning to them. Returning to my second suggestion, shifting the time also gives students the best chance to add notes and annotations that make sense to them now and in the future.
Fourth, we can be bold. I think there is a good case to be made for not using any classroom time to copy down lesson objectives, notes, worked examples, and corrections. Lesson objectives, notes and worked examples may be useful in the lesson so students have something to refer to, but the teacher could simply leave the original versions visible on their board. They may be useful in the future if students use their notes to revise, but I am not convinced that many students actually do this, preferring instead to use revision guides, videos and online platforms. I am even less convinced by corrections. Maybe students will find these useful when revising, but only if they can find the correction, and only if the correction makes sense. And remember, copying each of these things down has a cost, both in the lesson time they take and the way they reduce the need to think. Here is a key question to ask yourself: if your students did not have to copy down lesson objectives, worked examples, and corrections, how else could you use that time?
Part 7: The most important thing
This brings me to the most important thing we could do. Instead of asking students to copy down lesson objectives, notes, worked examples, and corrections, we could instead spend the time we have saved checking students understanding.
Consider these two scenarios:
Scenario 1: The teacher goes through a worked example, the students watch, and then copy it down.
Scenario 2: The teacher announces that they are going to model a worked example, give students an opportunity to ask questions after it, and then immediately check their understanding by asking them to complete a similar worked example on their mini-whiteboards, which they will all hold up so she can see.
Both scenarios will take roughly the same time, but the second is surely more beneficial to learning than the first. The incentives to pay attention are there, as is evidence that students have followed the key points so far - and if not, the teacher can respond immediately. The mini-whiteboards are there to facilitate mass participation instead of hearing from just one or two students.
The same approach can be applied to corrections: I will show you how to do this one, you can ask me any questions, and then I am going to test whether you have been paying attention by getting you to complete a similar problem.
And also to lesson objectives: Okay, it is the end of the lesson, please write down three bullet points on your mini-whiteboards to tell me what this lesson has been about.
Part 8: But, but, but...
You may have objections to this approach. So too might your students and your leadership teams. There is something comforting in an exercise book full of lesson objectives, notes, worked examples and corrections. I am not suggesting you change your practice. I also have no idea if this is true in subjects other than maths. I just want you to consider whether books full of such things really are the proxy for learning we hope they are, and if there is anything better we could do with our classroom time.
What our community says
Since this post went live there have been some great comments both on Substack and Twitter. Below are some of my favourites.
In the Substack comments, Lee made this point:
I would really hope that your fourth suggestion isn't controversial. I would also hope that adults realise how easy it is to copy text without reading it, let alone engaging with it in any meaningful way.
Andrea shared a perspective from New Zealand:
I emigrated to New Zealand in 2020 after 20 years working in the UK education system, Over here we still have to share learning goals and success criteria but the SLT don't do book checks and so long as we can show we have shares goals and criteria with students that is enough for any observation that may be done.. I know some teachers get students to copy them, I don't as I have them on my lesson slides which the students can access from classroom should they wish, and I'd rather students spent their time doing the maths. I think your suggestion of using whiteboards to try a similar question to the worked example is a good one, and i'll be trying that next term.
Marcmaths started a great thread on Twitter where he asked:
Follow up from @mrbartonmaths newsletter yesterday. Worked example - Model and students don't copy. Your Turn - Completed on whiteboard. Does anyone do this? Do we need exemplars in books? Do students need something to refer to during practice?
Jemma Sherwood replied:
I don’t think we need exemplars in books at all. We have revision guides and myriad websites with practice questions (which is the only way to revise maths) so books aren’t needed past the lesson. Their point is to help the student think and to practise writing maths
I do a lot of my teaching on OneNote which is then distributed to the students. They then have copies of all of the worked examples gone through and can use them to refresh/revise from later at any time they want to
And then MissB followed up with:
I model using "I do, we do, you do" on whiteboards religiously with all my classes - I do always explicit, we do more challenging, you do with simple numbers to focus on method... never ask pupils to copy things down in their books, keep the 3 examples on the board
Finally, FantasticMaths had an alternative take:
Going to go opposite. I think we should copy down the worked example. But this is about structure. Novice learners benefit from very precisely copying a structure and layout. This first step of copying gives them the overall structure of the question. Without the cognitive load. If they are proficient at using worked examples they can then use this as a model to work from. By having it in their books they then avoid split attention of having it up in the board. Once copied I would have them work on MWBs
Three final things from Craig
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