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Academic or pastoral interventions: Which should you prioritise?

Academic or pastoral interventions: Which should you prioritise?

4 min read
  • The science of learning

Recognising the diverse needs of students is essential within education – as a result, teachers are responsible for not only managing student performance but also nurturing their well-being.

But is it a case of one being more important than the other?

It turns out that there are a number of interventions that serve dual purposes – that is, they can enhance both student well-being and academic achievement. So, let’s look at what these strategies are…

Encouraging the right types of motivation

Highly motivated students are more likely to improve, since motivation drives students to achieve their goals. However, research suggests that different types of motivation lead to a range of outcomes in terms of students’ well-being and academic performance.

For example, a meta-analysis that involved over 200,000 students found that:

  • Amotivation (i.e., having no motivation) was associated with lower effort and engagement.
  • External regulation (i.e., the motivation to avoid punishment and gain rewards) was associated with increased anxiety.
  • Identified regulation motivation (i.e., the motivation to fulfil personal goals) was mostly associated with greater effort and engagement.
  • Intrinsic motivation (i.e., the internal desire to do something for personal satisfaction and enjoyment) had consistently positive academic and well-being outcomes, and no association with any negative outcomes.

Here, we can see that intrinsic motivation and identified regulation positively influence students the most. The researchers suggest that you can promote these in your students by explaining why tasks are meaningful and giving them (some) choices. From this, students develop a sense of purpose, which ultimately facilitates academic achievement.

Using Retrieval Practice

While it is primarily a learning strategy, incorporating Retrieval Practice in the classroom contributes to students’ well-being as well as their academic success.

To illustrate this, one study looked at students who frequently used Retrieval Practice in their lessons and then asked them how they felt about their upcoming assessments. The researchers found that 72% of students felt less nervous, which demonstrates that Retrieval Practice may alleviate test anxiety.

But how? As Retrieval Practice strengthens memory connections, this makes it easier for students to recall information when they are under pressure.

When it comes to academic performance, research consistently shows that it propels students’ results. For example, one recent study found that students who learned 60 pairs of words using Retrieval Practice remembered approximately 20% more words than those who just re-studied them. These results were valid regardless of students’ working memory capacity or personality traits, so using Retrieval Practice in a productive way benefits a diverse range of students.

Learning about how important sleep is

Most students are sleep deprived, but they may not realise that getting enough sleep is important for their grades as well as their overall well-being.

Specifically, one study found that the quality, duration, and consistency of sleep matters for students to get better grades. The reason for this is because students’ brain cells recover when they sleep, enabling cognitive functions like attention and memory to work at their optimum.

Sleep also forms memory connections and is particularly effective when students combine a good night’s sleep with Spacing. So, a productive sleep routine functions as an important revision strategy.

Sleep plays a vital role in students’ wellness, as it is important for the development of the prefrontal cortex in a student’s brain, which is responsible for emotional regulation and cognitive functions.

Yet, research shows that adolescents with poor sleep habits are more at risk of developing anxiety, mood disorders and behavioural issues due to poor prefrontal cortex development. Since low mood makes it harder for students to acquire and retain new information, learning becomes more difficult.

Therefore, interventions targeting sleep support students’ mental health alongside their academic progress.

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Helping students manage their phones

In this digital age, phones pose a threat to students’ academic performance and their well-being so targeting excessive screen time is another useful intervention that is both pastoral and academic.

Firstly, research shows that mobile devices distract students from engaging in important tasks with their presence alone. Then once a student picks up their phone and attempts to multi-task during study time, they can experience a significant decrease in productivity by not focusing on the task at hand. The long-term implication is that students’ grades suffer, as recent research found that the more time a student spent on their phone, the worse their academic performance was.

Excessive phone use has also been associated with heightened stress in students. One of the main culprits is social media as it can pressure students to conform to unrealistic standards so they can fit in. Social media can also create feelings of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), which leads to lower moods and increased anxiety but also prompts frequent phone checking during lessons or independent study time. It can be tempting to ban phone use altogether, however it may benefit students more if they know to better manage their devices.

Final thoughts

When it comes to helping students, thinking about academic vs pastoral interventions is the wrong lens to view it through. It isn’t a case of “either-or.” It is, and always should be “both.”

If we can help students with regards to their motivation, their use of retrieval, regularly getting a good night’s sleep and managing their mobile phone overuse, we can hopefully foster a holistic approach that helps students flourish.


About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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