Learner behaviours in sixth form colleges

Learner behaviours in sixth form colleges
Date7th Jul 2022AuthorKate Sida-NichollsCategoriesTeaching

What are learner behaviours?

It is generally acknowledged that teaching in sixth form colleges requires teachers to adopt different strategies for student behaviour in comparison to teaching in secondary schools. For example, taking a ‘light touch’ approach is the expectation for behaviour for learning. However, there are some signs that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed this - are there other approaches regarding behaviour we should be looking at post-16? Instead of behaviour management, should we become actively focused on developing learner behaviours due to the disruption that students have had to their learning over the past two years? 

Increasingly, colleges are focusing on building long term protective – ‘learning’ - behaviours to support students in their learning and progression (Mould 2020).  A learning behaviour can be thought of as a behaviour that is necessary for a person to learn effectively in the group setting of the classroom (Ellis and Tod, 2018). The EEF has published a blog recently about learner behaviours based on their evidence from some of their recent guidance reports, and they intend to publish more material about the findings in this area.  This work highlights that learner behaviours are not the same as character strengths. Character strengths are focused on the traits (Peterson and Seligman, 2004) people need to become successful in their future lives and be positive global citizens, whereas learner behaviours are very specifically immersed in the learning environment of schools or colleges and enabling students to be successful within those. 

What are learner behaviours in our context? 

During this academic year, at our three colleges in the Eastern Colleges Group in Suffolk, we realised that many of our post-16 students appeared to be lacking some of the emotional, social, and cognitive maturity that we have come to expect in previous years. Learning is an uncomfortable experience, but staff were faced with students who were not willing to feel uncomfortable or to take risks as they had taken no external exams. They had also missed out on many of the ‘rites of passage’ of moving from secondary school to post-16 and lost many skills such as working well with others, being curious, and taking responsibility for their own learning. 

As a group of colleges, we became interested in the phenomenon we were faced with in our Year 12 and Year 13 students and their lack of experience in developing learner behaviours, which conflicted with our teachers’ assumptions based on their previous cohorts that students would start their education at post-16 with successful learner behaviours in place. 

What are the learner behaviours of our students? 

We conducted student surveys to find out how students perceived their own confidence in demonstrating learner behaviours. We were able to generate 200 responses from Year 12 students and 160 responses from Year 13 students across our two sixth form colleges in May and June.  Due to the timings, it was Year 13 who completed the survey in one college and Year 12 in a second college. The students were given a series of statements generated from the learner behaviour areas listed at the end of this blog, and had to indicate their confidence level from 1-5 with 1 meaning ‘I don’t feel confident at all’ and 5 meaning ‘I feel very confident.’ 

The students, perhaps predictably, marked themselves quite highly. 3.6 was the average mark across the two year groups.  A highlight was on the statement ‘I am aware of the impact that my actions and words might have on other students in lessons,’ where Year 12 scored 4.52 and  Year 13 4.56 on average. Another positive was that Year 12 students scored 3.99 and Year 13 4.04 on their confidence in the statement ‘I respond positively to feedback from teachers as I  know it is to help me move forward in my learning.’ This presents a positive view of the attitudes that students have towards each other and the impact that feedback can have on their learning. 

Another interesting finding was that the lowest score in both year groups was on the question ‘I have strategies that I use to ensure that I stay focused in lessons.’ For Year 12 the average was 3.08 and Year 13 3.04, and this was across two different colleges, so is definitely an area for us to look at as teachers.  A really surprising answer was to the question ‘I demonstrate curiosity in my learning by asking questions and engaging with class activities’; Year 12s scored 3.40 in one college and Year 13s 3.40 in the other college. The correlation between these two numbers across two colleges is interesting by itself, but it also demonstrates a difference between students’ perceptions of what engagement looks like in lessons in sixth form colleges and ours as teachers. We are wondering whether this is due to COVID – for example, do students perceive engagement in lessons as writing notes and completing activities in a passive way, as they had to do during remote learning?  Have we explicitly modelled/shared what engagement looks like in sixth form lessons since students returned to face-to-face teaching? 

What has been the outcome of this initial research? 

The outcome of this initial small-scale research is that we are looking at the induction materials and activities that we are delivering to both year groups in September 2022 to ensure that we are being more explicit about specific learner behaviours, e.g. strategies to stay on task in lessons and complete homework. We are also exploring further the idea of sharing with students the types of learners that will be successful in English, PE, History, etc. specifically, as well as potentially presenting ‘milestones’ to the students about the types of learner behaviours that they should be confidently exhibiting at the end of Term 1, end of Term 2, and as they approach revision for exams. I hope to be able to share more about what we do next year and its effects both on the levels of effective learner behaviours we see from students, and on students’ perceptions of their own learner behaviours.

Kate Sida-Nicholls is group director of teaching and learning, professional learning, and research at the Eastern Colleges Group, which is comprised of three sixth form specialist providers.

Overview of learner behaviours (from Kirsten Mould, EEF)


  • Names emotions and expresses them with increasingly accurate vocabulary
  • Manages impulses of personal behaviour
  • Shows pride in successes


  • Focuses on learning in class and can articulate this
  • Attentive to directions, listening to the teacher
  • Shows empathy and appreciates diversity


  • Organises time and space for own learning
  • Sets goals and monitors own progress
  • Talks purposefully with peers, valuing other opinions


Ellis, S. and Tod, J. (2018) ​Behaviour for Learning: Promoting Positive Relationships in the Classroom,  London: Routledge 

Mould, K (2020) EEF Blog: What are effective Learning Behaviours – and how can we develop them in our pupils? https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/news/eef-blog-what-are-effective-learning-behaviours-and-how-can-we-develop-them

Peterson, C and Seligman, M (2004) Character Strengths and Virtues: A  Handbook and Classification  Oxford University Press http://www.ldysinger.com/@books1/Peterson_Character_Strengths/character-strengths-and-virtues.pdf

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