A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog about Ratio: a concept which I have found to be incredibly powerful when discussing and describing classroom practice. By way of  reminder, there are two types of ratio:

Participation ratio: how many students are thinking?

Think ratio: given that they are thinking, how hard are they thinking?

At the end of the blog, I described a number of scenarios which I had either witnessed or participated in myself in which the ratio was sub-optimal. They were designed for departmental discussion in my school and in my department, but I’m glad that a number of people got in touch with me and said that they found them interesting and thought provoking.

Some of the scenarios are a little vague and subtle. That was deliberate. I didn’t want to put something blindingly obvious in there because then people would be like “yeah but I would never do something as daft as that,” robbing the Ratio principle of any ability to actually help people reflect on and improve their practice.

But because they are vague, a number of people got in touch to ask me what was actually happening in them and why the ratio was high or low. I have therefore copied the scenarios below and added my own thoughts. For each scenario I’ve described what is happening to the ratio and what you could do instead.

My thoughts aren’t definitive in the slightest, and I know different people might interpret events differently. Don’t feel the need to use them as the foundation of your Teaching and Learning policy, please just use them as something interesting to mull over, discuss with colleagues and potentially use as a helpful tool when reflected on or observing teaching.

A teacher is questioning students and walking around the classroom, moving towards students who are answering questions. Their movement goes into the classroom as opposed to around the edges and their body and head are facing the student who is answering the question.

In Teach Like a Champion there is a technique called Be Seen Looking. This is where the teacher visibly moves their head around and cranes their neck to overemphasise that they are looking around the classroom, checking that students are engaged. Students see that you are looking and refocus themselves (nice video here).

This is missing from this scenario: moving towards a student sends a signal to the rest of the class that you have stopped paying attention to them and those students will potentially switch off and stop listening, lowering your participation ratio. Sometimes I refer to this as “classrooms within classrooms;” where different parts of the room are doing different things and zoning in and out. It’s a lot easier to maintain engagement when all students are doing the same thing at the same time.

In Get Better Faster, Bambrick-Santoyo encourages trainee teachers to “move away from the speaker.” Fight the temptation to step towards a speaking student and instead take half a step back. You don’t have to keep eye contact with the speaker, and my students get used to me looking backwards and forwards from them to the rest of the class. At the beginning of the year I will even say things like “I am listening to you, I just want to check everyone else is too, because it’s incredibly important that they hear what you have to say.”

Therefore, when questioning students, try to:

  • Stay in one place
  • Be Seen Looking to ensure students are engaged
  • Move away from the speaker if necessary
  • Make the speaker project if they are being too quiet
  • Couch your instructions positively as “you have to pay attention to this because…” or “I need you to hear this because it’s such an interesting point” or “it isn’t right if you talk and others can’t hear, they deserve to hear what you have to say” and the like

Students are working quietly but one of the questions in the practice set relates to material they covered a very long time ago and haven’t revisited since. The teacher is moving around the classroom supporting students with that question. The support they are providing is very similar from student to student

Problem here is that there is a question that is obviously too challenging for these students and they need more support. As you flit from student to student, the ones who are waiting for you aren’t doing anything, meaning for those students your participation ratio is very low. It’s also questionable whether students learn anything from something that’s too difficult, which kind of messes a bit with their think ratio too. Here are some general rules of thumb:

  • Plan better – you need to think about the challenge of your questions not just in terms of the content, but also in terms of retention and forgetting. More here.
  • Make sure to monitor – be on the move around the classroom whilst students are working. There are different schools of thought about whether to go to the strongest or weakest ones first, but either way you need to be getting around quickly
  • As a rule of thumb, if three students are all stuck at the same thing you should probably just pause the class as a whole and reteach

Students are learning about organ systems in groups. Each group has been given a fact sheet about a particular organ system, told that they need to learn it and that any member of the group will be asked to explain what is on their sheet to the rest of the class

Loads of problems here, mostly to do with discovery learning/minimally guided instruction. If you don’t break down material into small chunks, you privilege your students who already have prior knowledge. So ones who know stuff about the digestive system will pick up more information about it, those who don’t will rote learn at best, switch off at worst. Low think ratio, low participation ratio. Instead, try:

  • Breaking material down into small chunks
  • Reading Rosenshine

The teacher is going over an assessment going question by question. The students have their test papers out in front of them. At each question the teacher carefully describes how they would approach the question and models how they would answer it.

If you’re a student who got a question right, and the teacher is waffling on about that question, are you going to be listening? No, you aren’t. Which means Low Participation Ratio.

If you’re a student who got it wrong, are you going to really be reflecting on your missing subject knowledge and the subtleties of language and where you dropped marks, or are you going to either be lying to yourself by a) “oh I just made a silly mistake. Won’t happen next time.” or by b) searching desperately for a word you wrote that matches a word the teacher just said “but sir I wrote exactly that and didn’t get the mark!!” Either way, your Think Ratio is low.

Instead try:

  • Making students put their papers away during review
  • Just using a few questions that everyone struggled with
  • Go back to those topics and do a mini-reteach and provide students with practice

You also might find this helpful.

A student answers a question and the teacher uses a series of Stretch It follow-ups to test the reliability of that student’s responses.

Pushing a student further and interrogating their responses is important, but you always run the risk of other students stopping listening, lowering your participation ratio. Instead, try:

  • Popping the questions around the room
  • “Ok I want everyone to listen carefully to Daniel’s answer to my next question because I want you to check for mistakes”

During whole class questioning, a student demonstrates poor behaviour. The teacher tells them to leave the classroom which results in a short conversation. Once the student has left, the questioning continues as before.

This one’s pretty subtle. The teacher has dealt with the issue quite neatly here, but again put yourself in the shoes of a student. Your teacher has been talking about A then B then C then had to stop. If they’ve stopped, you’ve stopped. You’re now listening to the drama between the teacher and the student. Ok the teacher’s back and talking about D. But hang on – what was C? What was A and B for that matter? *switches off*

…and there goes your participation ratio.

This happens all too often and it’s part of why poor behaviour is so pernicious – it starts a black hole of attention. Instead, once you have asked the student to leave try:

“Sorry everyone, I’d like all eyes back up here…[Be Seen Looking]…waiting for two…waiting for one. Great, thank you. Ok let’s go back to the top…[Start again from A…]”

The teacher expertly models a difficult concept and does a check for understanding via questioning. Seeing that the students understand the concept, the teacher moves on to the next concept to be taught.

This one’s even more subtle, because in truth both ratios are ok. Modelling is good, checking for understanding is good, and it looks like the students got it. The thing about this one is that the ratio could be better. The reason it isn’t perfect is because there isn’t any independent practice. There is no doubt in my mind that the single best way to have a high participation and think ratio is by giving students time to practise independently on well-crafted and sequenced drill questions. Robbing them of that opportunity robs them of the opportunity to think hard, and decreases the chance that students will learn.

That’s the end of the scenarios for now. I’d be really interested in thinking about and discussing any that you might have come across, and would be especially interested to hear if you have used some of these principles in your own practice or in helping others think about theirs. As ever, thanks for reading and be in touch.