Providing Sufficient Opportunities to Learn

This is the 3rd post in a series exploring what the New Zealand Curriculum says is effective pedagogy. The first posts were about Creating a Supportive Learning Environment and Making Connections to Prior Learning and Experience.

Now that we know our students and where their knowledge is at, we can think about our learning design.

Students learn most effectively when they have time and opportunity to engage with, practise, and transfer new learning. This means that they need to encounter new learning a number of times and in a variety of different tasks or contexts. (NZC p34)

Graham Nuthall’s research in the early 1990’s found that students needed to encounter information 3 times to understand a concept. This also applies for skills based subjects as the Maths BES states: “To achieve fluency, meaningful practice opportunities include significant variations each time, providing students with a sense of the range of possibilities in a topic” (Effective Pedagogy in Mathematics Best Evidence Synthesis, p125).

“The more we fire a particular circuit, the more myelin optimizes that circuit and the stronger, faster and more fluent our movements and thoughts become.” (Daniel Coyle, The Talent Code)

Neuroscience supports this by explaining how the more often we practice a skill, the more myelin grows around our nerve fibres.

This increases the speed of those neurons firing when we use that skill again. An article on this process that is more approachable than the full on research papers can be found here.

The Social Sciences Best Evidence Synthesis expands on this to say that best practice teaching will include students interacting with this information in a variety of ways. This is why if you walk into a Science classroom you will see students studying theory and then doing practical experiments.

We also see the impact of encountering ideas in a variety of ways, when students use programmes like Education Perfect, Maths Whizz or Schoology quizzes to practice what they have been learning in class. Matrices of activities such as that used in our Year 9 Digital Citizenship programme are also designed to take advantage of this effective practice.

All this extra encountering of information can put pressure on the most precious of commodities for teachers: TIME. This is where one of the most interesting sentences in the whole effective pedagogy section of the New Zealand Curriculum comes in:

It also means that when curriculum coverage and student understanding are in competition, the teacher may decide to cover less but cover it in greater depth. (NZC p34)

This is where we need to be constantly reviewing our class programmes. Is all of the material in here completely necessary? Even the New Zealand Curriculum says that we shouldn’t be teaching all Achievement Objectives at every level. Pg 44 tells us to: “select achievement objectives from each area in response to the identified interests and learning needs of (our) students.” The NZC is encouraging us to teach less and teach it well, that the depth of understanding is more important than covering every possible part of the curriculum.

Appropriate assessment helps the teacher to determine what “sufficient” opportunities mean for an individual student and to sequence students’ learning experiences over time. (NZC p34)

This is where we enter the realm of formative assessment. We should be checking student understanding regularly through their learning so that we can see when they understand the material sufficiently. This is where digital technology helps us out. Google Drive and our Hapara folders allow us to see the documents as students are working on them. We can give feedback in a far more timely fashion, than a few years ago when we needed to collect their books in every week or so.

Those of us in other faculties can also learn from our Arts and Technology colleagues and their formal assessment practices. Rather than just one deadline and waiting to see if students have made the necessary progress, there are checkpoints throughout the whole process. Final summative assessment is only given after a number of checkpoints and feedback throughout the project.


This post was initially written for use by teachers at Lynfield College. The reflection prompts that were shared with it were:

1. How are your students encountering ideas or skills in multiple ways?

2. What parts of your curriculum could be sacrificed if students were not understanding the critical ideas and skills?

3. What forms of assessment are you using to formatively gauge student understanding?


1 thought on “Providing Sufficient Opportunities to Learn

  1. Thanks for linking to the image on my site. I’m glad you found it useful for your post.

    I had not heard of Hapara before reading your post. I just checked out their website – it looks like a really interesting product.



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