Expert stickers to facilitate reciprocal learning

It is well known that all students go crazy for stickers, and that this phenomenon does not diminish with age. Many of the best lessons I’ve seen recently have featured “medals and missions”, where learners are rewarded early and often for achieving small milestones in their work. Young people like to see their names on the star board; they like to move their post-its along a big progress chart; frankly they’ll even settle for ticks in their books as recognition that they are doing the right thing.

The challenge is to reconcile this effective motivational technique with the apparently conflicting task of developing independence and resilience in learners. We won’t have served students well if at the end of the course they’re thrown by the prospect of a two-hour exam in an environment totally devoid of support and acknowledgement.

Perhaps you’re hoping I can follow that paragraph with a solution. I can’t. But I’d like to share a lesson which I think struck a bit of a balance.

I provided four worksheets, deliberately designed to test the limits of students’ understanding in topics we had covered recently. The class, a Year 10 group, were to have the whole hour to complete as many as they could. Crucially, I explained that I wasn’t going to be available for answering questions – but that everyone could move around the room to work collaboratively (sharing ideas, not answers). There was a sticker available for each sheet, and stickers would be awarded for fully correct solutions only.

Instantly there was a buzz of activity as students set about on whichever tasks they liked the look of the most. To begin with, I limited my intervention to guiding individuals who hadn’t yet internalised good strategies for getting unstuck. “Have you looked in your revision guide?”, I said a few times. Then when the first few completed sheets came in, I marked them – just ticks and vague circles where things had gone wrong. A couple of students earned their first stickers for perfect work.

Soon it was time to take the activity to the next level. I stopped the class. From now on, I explained, when you finish a sheet you should find someone else who has already earned the corresponding sticker and ask them to check it. I would no longer be marking work, but all students who had earned stickers were given the authority to certify others for the same stickers. This exponentially accelerated the propagation of feedback. I reminded students that they were allowed to give each other hints but not answers.

Rapidly, everyone earned more and more stickers. I spent my time with a couple of learners who were still stuck on their first sheets, helping them to make the necessary shifts in understanding. After about 45 minutes, the first student proudly announced that he had completed all four sheets and brought them to me for checking. I tasked him to earn the one remaining sticker – a “mighty lion” – by genuinely supporting three of his peers and gaining their signatures as evidence.

It was a fun lesson. Students were motivated by the stickers but I like to think that many of them just appreciated the excuse to flaunt their intrinsic enjoyment of the problems, which I had carefully pitched. With everyone working at their own pace and usually met with only right/wrong feedback, resilience was necessary to succeed. And while the environment was abundantly supportive, that support was very rarely coming from me; hence I hope that some independence – at least independence from the teacher – was instilled.

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