8. Structured support of learning

Video transcript

Presenter intro

Pupils are more likely to attempt a task if they feel that they can do it.  This isn’t unusual. Most people put off doing something that they feel is difficult in favour of something that feels easier.  It’s important that teachers think about the supports that they can put in place to enable and encourage all pupils to access their learning.  Providing structured support of learning can lead to positive behaviour and help all pupils to thrive. 

Expert insight

Providing structured support of learning is about ensuring that all pupils can access the content and think hard.   When pupils are able to access their learning, they are more likely to experience success.  This can be motivating and lead to positive behaviour.

Learning new material can put a strain on our limited working memory capacity, as it tries to deal with lots of new information at once.   This can feel overwhelming, but there are strategies that teachers can use to help focus students’ attention and show them a clear route through.  These include reducing distractions, breaking learning into small steps and modelling. 

Breaking material into steps can really help pupils.  For example, instead of setting a task in a secondary History lesson like: “Look at the cartoon of Stalin and Hitler and label what it suggests” a teacher might break this down to 1) Look at the cartoon and circle individual parts that stand out, like their handshake 2) label each part, stating what it shows and what it suggests about the relationship between Stalin and Hitler.   These individual steps help pupils to know how to start and what to do along the way.  Teachers should also ensure that any new knowledge is built on what pupils already know.  Pupils will need to know something about the relationship between Stalin and Hitler in order to attempt this task successfully. 

Modelling learning and providing examples is another important way of supporting learning.  As teachers model, they can help their pupils to stay focused by drawing attention to the key aspects of the learning.  Thinking out loud and numbering the steps is a useful support, for example: first I add up the ones, then I add up the tens.  It is also essential to keep checking that pupils are listening, pausing during the model if pupils get off track.  

Putting supports in place like breaking learning down and modelling does not just mean making it easy.  Activities should require pupils to put in effort and to think.  But if a pupil can’t access what they’re learning, it’s likely to have a negative impact on how they act in the classroom.  Providing structured support of learning can help pupils to experience success, which has a positive impact on behaviour.

Presenter exemplification framing

In the next example, you will see Ambition Institute coach Leah Wooldridge model how to write the lower-case letter m to her pupils. As you watch, pay particular attention to how Leah does the following: 

  • Breaks complex material into smaller steps
  • Checks pupils’ understanding of instructions before a task begins.


A really good way of supporting learning is to take an end goal and break it into smaller chunks.  These smaller chunks feel more doable and help to guide pupil thinking.  Imagine that I am teaching a year 1 class how to form the lower-case letter m.  They already know what an ‘m’ looks like and have practised forming it in reception.  In year 1, pupils need to refine their handwriting and make it much more accurate: 

The sound that we are going to be doing in handwriting today is Mmm.

Now in reception we knew it as down Maisy Mountain Mountain. But remember now in handwriting we need to be more specific. That means we really need to be looking at how M looks and how we are forming our M.  

Let me show you how I would do it.  It’s really important that you all watch what I do because in a moment, you will be doing this too. 

I’m going to start at the top of Maisy here and I’m going to go straight down. Straight, straight, straight down. Great.  And I’m going to go back up and I’m going to start my mountain at Maisy’s shoulder (gestures to her shoulder). So have a look here: I’m going to go around the mountain and straight down, straight down. Oh I like that. I’m going straight down.  And then I’m going to do the mountains, they need to be the same size.  Have a look – same size. And I’m going to come straight back down again and then I’m going to do a little bit of grass at the end.  Wow.  I love that.  Did you see how long it took me to do it?  I was really taking my time.

Now I want you to tell me what to do.  

What do I need to do first?  [straight line down and back up]

Where do I go back up to? [Maisy’s mountain] 

I do my first mountain and go straight down, then back up. 

What size does my second mountain need to be?  [same size]

Then I go straight down and what do I do at the bottom? [a little bit of grass]

In this example, I was careful to break the learning down into smaller steps.  Individual steps included: drawing a line straight down, starting the first mountain shape at about two thirds up – equivalent to Maisey’s shoulder, ensuring that the two mountain shapes are the same size.  These are the most important steps that I want pupils to remember.  It is easier for them to focus on these smaller parts one by one rather than have to remember how the whole letter is formed at once.   

Before I started the model, I made sure that every pupil was paying attention by explicitly telling them to watch me because they would be doing the same task on their own.  During the model, I was constantly checking the whole group to make sure that all pupils were watching me form the letter.  Notice how I was repeatedly telling pupils where to look: I’m telling them what to focus on.  I also reduced other distractions by writing on a blank sheet of paper.  Pupils can easily get distracted so it is important that I think of ways to direct their attention. 

After I delivered my initial model, I asked pupils to help me to do form another letter, this time prompting them to tell me the key steps.  Not only did this give them another concrete example, but it also meant that I could check that they understood the task before asking them to work on their own.  When pupils are clear about what they should do and how they can be successful, it motivates them to get started.  

Presenter summary

In this video we have explored how providing structured support of learning can improve pupil behaviour and considered some of the ways in which teachers can do this. 

Now, read through the following key ideas that they video has covered.  Which ones do you feel that the example illustrated the best? 

  • Breaking complex material into smaller steps
  • Reducing distractions that take attention away from what is being taught
  • Checking pupils’ understanding of instructions before a task begins.

When pupils find learning too difficult, they can easily disengage.  Breaking complex material down into smaller chunks and taking them through it step by step shows them that they can be successful.  And when pupils feel like they are able to do something, they are much more likely to give it a go. 

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Teaching challenge

Ms Sterling notices that, while pupils are willing to attempt class work, when they perceive tasks to be too hard this leads to off-task behaviour – including getting distracted and sometimes distracting others. How can she make learning more manageable, supporting pupils to persist at tasks?

Key idea

Breaking challenging tasks into steps and providing support when necessary makes it more likely pupils will persist with tasks.

Evidence summary

Making learning manageable supports on-task pupil behaviour

Challenging behaviour can arise when there is a mismatch between classroom academic demands and pupil capabilities (IES, 2008). This happens because working memory capacity is limited and can become easily overloaded when pupils are asked to complete tasks which are unfamiliar or overly complex (Gathercole et al., 2008; IES, 2008). Pupils may seek to avoid a task if it seems threatening to their sense of self (Kluger & DeNisi, 1996): for example, if a pupil thinks they might fail at the task.

By making learning manageable, teachers affect how pupils behave, as well as how they learn (IES, 2008). Ms Sterling has already been thinking about the foundations of managing behaviour: telling pupils the types of behaviour she expects, modelling this, and responding consistently. Refining her instruction is another way to improve pupils’ learning behaviours since students’ success can build their motivation and confidence (Coe et al., 2014). Introducing new material in steps is a particularly effective approach to making learning more manageable (Rosenshine, 2012).

Introducing new material in steps and using examples makes it more manageable

Checking pupil prior knowledge and explicitly linking new ideas to what has previously been learned makes it less likely pupils working memory will be overloaded (Deans for Impact, 2015). Ms Sterling could use several instructional principles to support pupils in this way (Rosenshine, 2012):

  • Briefly reviewing what pupils have already learned.
  • Introducing new material in small steps.
  • Checking pupil understanding of the new knowledge regularly.
  • Allowing pupils to practise using this new knowledge in steps whilst providing models and scaffolds for this practice.

Introducing new materials in steps like this helps make new material more manageable, making it more likely pupils will persist with the task. 

Guides and scaffolds also help pupils think about key ideas to be learned

Learning can also be made more manageable by providing pupils with ‘scaffolding’. This can be tools that complete part of the task for the students, or a model of the completed task itself (Rosenshine, 2012). In the early years, scaffolds might even be physical objects such as counters and toys (EEF, 2017); among older pupils they could be cue cards or checklists (Rosenshine, 2012).

Scaffolding simply means providing pupils with support to tackle a problem or demonstrate their learning (Rosenshine, 2012). By making the task more manageable, Ms Sterling can avoid overwhelming her pupils’ working memories and make it easier for them to focus attention on particular aspects. For example, worked examples can be particularly helpful for Ms Sterling’s pupils as these stop pupils searching for any possible answer to a task. This reduces distractions by supporting pupils to focus only on each step of a successful solution (Deans for Impact, 2015).

Scaffolded tasks should be challenging as well as manageable. Making learning manageable doesn’t mean lowering expectations of all or some pupils. Where this balance isn’t achieved, pupils may become frustrated or bored, as the task can be perceived to be beyond (or beneath) their capability (van de Pol et al., 2015). This frustration or boredom can then result in low-level disruption. Scaffolding should therefore be used in a targeted way and be removed when pupils show they are able to be successful at a task, supporting pupils to become independent (Rosenshine, 2012).

Nuances and caveats 

Ensuring pupil working memory doesn’t become overloaded doesn’t mean setting unchallenging work – it means helping pupils to think hard about what they have just learnt by providing structured support as appropriate (Deans for Impact, 2015).

While teachers provide pupils with temporary ‘scaffolds’, it is important that these are withdrawn once pupils are experiencing success, as scaffolds inhibit independent practice once pupils have mastered the material taught (Rosenshine, 2012).

While good task and lesson design can help pupils to focus, ultimate responsibility for a pupil’s behaviour rests with the pupil, not with the teacher. If a pupil is unfocused, a teacher may wish to consider whether a change to the task design might avoid this in future. But this does not mean that the solution to pupils’ lack of focus is always the teacher’s lesson design.

Key takeaways

Ms Sterling can make learning more manageable for pupils by understanding that:

  • When academic demands are not well matched to pupil capabilities, pupils’ working memory can become overloaded, causing them to stop trying or go off-task.
  • Introducing new material in steps, building on prior knowledge and using guides and scaffolds all help to avoid overloading pupils’ working memory and make it more likely that pupils will stay on-task.

Further reading

Rosenshine, B. (2012). Principles of Instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know. American Educator.


Coe, R., Aloisi, C., Higgins, S., & Major, L. E. (2014). What makes great teaching. Review of the underpinning research. Durham University.

Deans for Impact (2015). The Science of Learning.

EEF (2017). Improving Mathematics in Key Stages Two and Three Guidance Report. 

Gathercole, S., Lamont, E., & Alloway, T. (2006) Working memory in the classroom. Working memory and education, 219-240.

IES (2008). Reducing Behavior Problems in the Elementary School Classroom.

Kluger, A. N., & DeNisi, A. (1996). The effects of feedback interventions on performance: A historical review, a meta-analysis, and a preliminary feedback intervention theory. Psychological Bulletin, 119(2), 254–284.

Rosenshine, B. (2012). Principles of Instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know. American Educator.

Van de Pol, J., Volman, M., Oort, F., & Beishuizen, J. (2015). The effects of scaffolding in the classroom: support contingency and student independent working time in relation to student achievement, task effort and appreciation of support. Instructional Science, 43(5), 615-641.


Answer the questions in the quiz to check your understanding of the evidence summary.

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Reminder of key takeaways

Ms Sterling can make learning more manageable for pupils by understanding that:

  • When academic demands are not well matched to pupil capabilities, pupils’ working memory can become overloaded, causing them to stop trying or go off-task.
  • Introducing new material in steps, building on prior knowledge and using guides and scaffolds all help to avoid overloading pupils’ working memory and make it more likely that pupils will stay on-task.

Reflect on the following questions

  1. What did you see in this module that you already do or have seen in other classrooms?
  2. What do you feel is the gap between your current practice and what you have seen in this module?
  3. Which of the ‘key takeaways’ do you need to focus on? Where and when might you try to apply them to your teaching?