What do students remember?

I’ve recently had a conversation with a colleague about how students rarely remember the content you teach them after they leave school. We concluded though that students will always remember how you treated them, whether it be favourably or unfavourably.

But I realised later that how you approach your work and subject, including the thought processes you model and teach the students, is one of the most valuable things you can share with them. These are ways of thinking and behaviour your students assimilate over time.

This got me thinking about how my approach to teaching has changed over the last decade from ‘content focused’ to ‘skills, attitudes and processes focused”.

What do I mean by Content focused?

Being content focused is all about teaching the prescribed material on the syllabus as it is displayed in the syllabus or the textbook. There is a logical progression between classes and topics much the same way as there is a logical progression between material in a textbook. It’s not a good or bad means of approaching the idea of teaching.

I’ve found this approach to be unsuitable for me though as it encouraged me to become the centre of knowledge in a classroom, and it promoted rote learning a little too heavily for what I value in teaching right now. My thinking is that the students have access to much more information than I have (via the internet) so there’s no need for me to position myself unrealistically as the most knowledgable person in the room. I also prefer to encourage a student to become the centre of their own learning, and hopefully surpass me by the time they reach the Leaving Cert exam. As for rote learning, I believe it has its place but doesn’t need to be the focus for a teaching strategy.

Skills, Attitudes, Processes

There are certain ways of thinking and approaching science study and education. These are what make up the nature of Science as a subject. My particular view of the Physics Leaving cert course is that it is an apprenticeship of sorts, where students become familiar with the skills, behaviours, attitudes, concepts and ideas that are the foundational building blocks of the subject. These may include how to carry out an experiment, how to obtain, assess, interpret data, how to interpret and carry out calculations etc.

So I start my 4th year Physics students with plenty of emphasis on fundamental skills like graph drawing, how to carry out and interpret relationships between variables and the other such skills mentioned above (and others). Classes at a later time build on these skills, with the students solving real-world problems and sometimes discovering relationships and formulae.

In short, my students practice or develop existing skills in the class, with the goal of becoming practising Physicists. I am always monitoring their progress in this regard and providing them with feedback to adjust their direction as they go, while ensuring they are constantly engaged and challenged in activities that a Physicist would engage in (at an age appropriate level).

Is the content taught?

Of course! On the surface it may even appear that there is very little difference between the two approaches, particularly from the student’s perspective. But how I talk about the material and approach classes is very different. And I always cover the material in plenty of time, allowing me time to revise for the Leaving cert exam.


I’ve found my biggest win with this approach is the positive change in student engagement, and with the relationships built with the students. Classes are more interesting, and challenging, and students are able to better assess how they are doing as Physicists.