Teaching the 6th Form – 7 Strategies to Improve Performance

I remember the excitement of teaching my first 6th Form class. The joy of teaching self-motivated and independent students who were mature enough to behave appropriately. It was going to be great!

Quite what I expected to have happened to the Year 11s over the summer holiday I don’t know! They certainly hadn’t metamorphosed into my dream class.

Assumptions we can sometimes make about 6th formers are that they;y help.

  • have the ability to think
  • have an interest in the subject and the curiosity to expand their own knowledge
  • will be self-motivated
  • will be mature
  • have the skills needed to tackle a higher level subject
  • are resilient
  • will be well behaved

All too often we are faced with a ragtag, silly bunch of lazy and helpless students. Or a silent, inert group. Worse still are the arrogant ones who feel like you cant really teach them anything.

Do we start by scaring them with some of the most challenging topics or guide them gently?

I used to throw them in at the deep end, then throw them lots of life rafts. They would get used to initial confusion and failure, but then be able to clarify and learn.

So what do we do? Here are 7 strategies that may help

1 – Relationship Building

Who are these students that you are going to take on the most important journey of their school career? What are their hopes, fears and dreams?

Some useful questions you may want to ask them:

  • Why did you choose ….(subject)? please be honest!
  • What aspects do you enjoy about ….(subject)?
  • What aspects do you not enjoy about ….(subject) and why?
  • What do you hope to do after leaving school?
  • What are your interests?
  • Tell me one interesting thing about you
  • Describe yourself in 3 words
  • How would others describe you in 3 words?

I use a lot of quick  icebreakers  to get the group to know each other and me to know them.  I also use McClellands Theory of Needs to roughly categorise them into achievers, affiliates and power people – See here for more information as to my interpretation in the classroom.

2- What do you want your students to be like?

I have taught lessons and observed them in a huge range of schools across the World. I always ask the students what they consider an outstanding student to be. The answers are usually the same and totally performance orientated;

  • Gets top marks in tests
  • Knows all the answers
  • Always does homework
  • Well behaved

Students then tend to say that they themselves are not outstanding, are not capable of being and don’t particularly want to be.

What are the features of an outstanding student?

Mentimeter teachers ideas of outstanding

Note that the teachers choice using https://www.mentimeter.com/  word cloud has resilient, curious and inquisitive as the desired qualities. Everyone can have these qualities. Should we explicitly let students know this is what we want?

3 -Mindsets

This is probably more important than for any other age you teach. Your students will almost certainly struggle at times and this may be a new feeling. Many have sailed through the first 11 years of school without having to deal with failure.  Having a strong relationship with your students based on trust will facilitate the development of a growth mindset; The ability to see their failures as learning experiences. To be able to distinguish ‘I have failed’ from’I am a failure’ and the potential subsequent feeling they are not smart enough to do well at the subject.

Often students feel their prior successes are down to them simply being clever.  Now they are struggling their cleverness is suspect and they may withdraw from challenges. They may feel they have no power to control their performance. It may be helpful to talk to them about internal and external loci of control.

Performance does depend on an innate ability to some extent, but this is not fixed. Neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to adapt and change structurally with new experiences indicates we all have the ability to be more effective learners whatever our age 

It is easy to talk about growth mindsets, but the reality can be that failure crushes self-confidence. Students will sometimes blame you for their failure. It is important for them to understand that success is usually a combination of;

  • Experience – They can correctly interpret the requirement of the  questions
  • Knowledge – They know enough about the topic in order to answer the question and to see the connections between related topics.
  • Skills – They can explain or use concepts and can transfer these skills to possible unfamiliar material.

Failure is due to a deficiency in one or more of these areas. All of these can be addressed with more effort (or more effective effort)  My full blog on mindsets is here

4- Upskilling 

It is unlikely that your students will have all the skills needed to be successful at this higher level. Many will have passed GCSE with flying colours simply by learning what the examiner wanted from them -Parroting answers without any deep understanding. I passed my degree in Physics largely by getting past papers with the answers and working backward to learn the processes needed. It was only when I started teaching it that I realised that I had a good mathematical perspective, but not a clear understanding of physics principles. I started again

What are the most important skills for your students to have? Narrow them down to four or five and teach them explicitly.

5- Note Taking – More information in my blog here 

M Friedman from the Harvard Initiative for Teaching and Learning has some useful advice . Full content here

For students:

  • Avoid transcribing notes (writing every word the instructor says) in favor of writing condensed notes in your own words. Review your notes on the same day you created them and then on a regular basis, rather of cramming your review into one long study session prior to an exam.
  • Test yourself on the content of your notes either by using flashcards or using methodology from Cornell Notes. Testing yourself informs you what you do not yet know from your notes and successful recall of tested information improves your ability to recall that information later (you will be less likely to forget it).
  • Carefully consider whether to take notes on pen and paper or with a laptop. There are costs and benefits to either option. For example, note-taking on a laptop may allow you to include more content in your notes, but at the risk of being distracted by unrelated tasks.
  • Avoid the misperception that you know lecture content better than you actually do, which can lead to poor study habits. While course topics may appear easy to understand in class, they may be rather difficult as you are reviewing them several weeks later while preparing for the exam. Be aware that you will forget some of what you have learned and adopt better study habits to address the gaps in your knowledge.

For instructors:

  • Explain your course policies on note-taking and/or better learning practices and their rationale at the beginning of term. Support your reasoning with data from prior terms and/or educational research, particularly if students feel that your policies are counter-intuitive or different from their preferred practices.
  • Provide students with materials prior to lecture that allow them to become familiar with the main ideas or topics. Students will be more likely to identify the important concepts during class and take more selective notes. However, avoid giving students so much material that they elect poor study behaviors such as relying on the materials instead of attending class and taking notes.
  • Encourage students to take notes in their own words rather than record every word you say in class. Doing so will lead to deeper understanding during lecture, more student engagement in class, and better retention of course content.
  • Make connections between current and previously discussed course concepts, and encourage students to make such connections on their own. Doing so will help students retrieve related ideas when they are needed (i.e., during an exam).

6-Maths Skills – Many students have a problem with maths and panic when asked to do calculations or manipulate formulae.  These students may need more scaffolding and support. For science specific maths skills this blog may be helpful.

7-Thinking Skills – We all tend to have an aversion to deep thinking. See Daniel Kahnemans work on thinking fast and slow  I outline these ideas in more detail in my blog here and 9 strategies to get your students to think 

Using Pose Pause Pounce Bounce as outlined by Prof Dylan Wiliam below is a great way to improve thinking

If you combine PPPB with Soctratic Questioning then deep thinking becomes part of your classroom routine

If you now add visible thinking to your classroom. Then we can constantly model good thinking and scaffold learning. There are many visible thinking routines that can add value to learning.


Technology can be helpful in using Educreations or Shadow Puppet for visible thinking. Diagnostic tools such as socrative, zipgrade and plickers can slash your marking and enable you to spot and deal with misconceptions.Follow my blog for the updates on how I use these (coming soon)

Feel free to add anything I may have missed in the comments or contact me through [email protected]

If you want to have a CPD with teachers or for me to work directly with your students then contact me through the CPD form




One thought on “Teaching the 6th Form – 7 Strategies to Improve Performance

  1. This is a really helpful post Neil, I’ve been teaching 6th form for 12 years now and never realised how much I’m taking for granted in terms of my expectations of the students. Thank you for the food for thought!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *