Characteristics of effective learning

by Louise Young
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Children learn best when they are engaged (through playing and exploring the world), motivated (through active learning and achievements), and thinking (through creative and critical thinking, such as decision making). Characteristics of effective learning outlined by Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) are:

  • Playing and exploring
Wooden building blocks spelling play

Who doesn’t love to play? As adults, we often ignore our inner child, but playing and exploring really should never end. For children, playing and exploring are critical for development and effective learning. Having an interesting, unusual, and stimulating environment, filled with elements that students can touch, see, taste, and smell helps them to explore individually and learn about the world.

As much as new experiences help children to play and explore, it’s also familiarity that’s important too. Learning a new skill takes time – and may mean repeating an action over and over until it’s achieved. This is why students will hone in on the same toy or watch other children play, until they feel confident enough to join in themselves. This is all part of learning behaviour.

Introducing students to new activities can be difficult, as although children tend to be very curious creatures, they’re also still gaining confidence, which can cause them to hold back when it comes to trying new things. This is where the two elements above join together – exploring new elements and skills and then doing them over and over once they feel confident. Once a student has shown evidence of this, it’s easier then to move them onto new challenges, with new things to explore. 

  • Active learning

Motivation is key to active learning. Students need to be encouraged and praised whenever a task is completed – no matter how big or how small that might be. Children who are particularly shy and unsure of trying new things will benefit from this dramatically, with the aim to build their self-esteem and eventually they’ll feel more confident in independent playing and exploring. From the very beginning, children should be encouraged regarding achievements, even if those achievements aren’t perhaps what they initially set out to do.

Whatever tasks you set EYFS students, encouragement and support is key. During active learning, students will need to be set on the right track, with tasks that are challenging, but also age appropriate. Some students will struggle more than others, so it’s important to set an easy task first, then build students up to the more challenging level. This provides you with a better outline of which students are at what level.

Active learning should be teacher-led and a healthy balance of both teacher-led and child-led learning is what brings together the characteristics of effective learning. 

  • Creating and thinking critically

A good example of showing the balance between teacher-led and child-led learning is through creating and thinking critically. Teachers will set the task or activity, but there won’t necessarily be an end goal to the task. The student is simply encouraged to participate in the activity, using their own creativity and thinking to complete it, based on how they perceive the instructions. Usually, this can be attained through craft based activities, such as painting. Without setting a goal for a child, their creativity isn’t limited and they should be encouraged to use their imagination. 

When it comes to thinking critically, encourage students to make links between activities they may have done outside of school and in the classroom. Whatever themes you have on your curriculum, try and use that theme throughout many of the tasks you set. For example, if the theme is ‘family’, you can use this as a craft activity to encourage your students to paint a picture of their own family, or each child could dress up as a member of their family, or you could discuss different families throughout the world.

Frequently asked questions about the characteristics of effective learning

  • How do I know if my students are engaged when playing and exploring?

Provide them with the resources they need in order to be engaged. A stimulating environment, filled with sensory activities, as well as new equipment and toys will ensure they’re playing and exploring with new items. Students are more likely to play with toys or activities that they feel confident in, for example, they might have the same toy at home; when you see that child playing with a different toy or using a different piece of equipment or engaging with a different child to their usual playmate, that’s how you know that they’re fully engaged through playing and exploring.

  • What are the best ways to encourage active learning?

Don’t set students up to fail. If you set a task or activity that is too challenging, your students will become frustrated and lose interest quickly. Something that they can grasp quite easily, with encouragement and praise, will provide them with a confidence boost. They can then move on to the next level or stage of the activity and are less likely to fail. 

Students should be left to become deeply involved in play, or the activity you’ve set. If you see them struggling or they can’t get past a certain point, encourage the student to find the solution for themselves, by suggesting other ways of doing it. Praise the student for overcoming the challenge.

  • What questions should I ask to encourage students to create and think critically?

As mentioned above, if you find a student struggling with overcoming a task or issue, encouragement is key to helping them think critically or more creatively. Don’t simply tell the student what they should do next, but invite them to work it out for themselves, through open-ended questions, such as ‘how can this be solved?’, ‘What do you think?’, or even asking them ‘what else do you need to help you with this?’.

  • How do I teach my students the characteristics of effective learning?

Look at the environment that you’re teaching in. Although sometimes teachers are limited in what they can do to that environment, having a space that’s filled with elements that children can explore, investigate, and play with sparks their curiosity, leading them to ask questions and discover new materials or objects they might not have come across before.

Recording the characteristics of effective learning through an online learning journal, such as Kinteract, especially straight from EYFS, is ideal for providing students with a learning journal throughout their educational life, helping them to adapt, engage, and achieve.