Making it stick

Measuring the long-term impact of online professional development.

A team at the University of Reading looks at the impact of a popular online course on professional practice in primary schools, Dr. Helen Bilton reports.

The course for TAs and Support Staff may also be of interest to teachers returning to work, newly qualified teachers, as well as providing a refresher for current teachers.

The course

Schools spend money and time on training their staff. But how often do they measure its impact on working practices or learning? How can we be sure that the learning sticks?

Supporting Successful Learning in Primary Schools is an online course created by the Institute of Education at the University of Reading and hosted on the social learning platform, FutureLearn.


The course takes place over four-weeks, three hours of study per week which participants can take in their own time – with periods of facilitation from schoolteachers and the lead educator responding to questions and comments in the discussions boards.


It has been phenomenally successful, with over 27,000 enrolments since it first launched in 2019. We were interested to see what the impact would be if all the staff from a single school rather than individual support staff took the course together and with the full support of the headteacher.

The study

The research was carried out with our partnership schools at the University of Reading. Participants in our study completed surveys about the development of their professional practice as a result of the course and on the way that the course was delivered online. We tracked participant progress and their levels of confidence in their role prior to starting, as they completed the content and then three months later.

These are the findings from one school.

Key findings:
1. All participants felt more confident in their role as a result of the course.

The head teacher commented that as a result of the course, support staff were more “confident, committed and enthusiastic”. Teachers commented that TAs were taking the initiative and had a much better understanding of how they could contribute in class. A TA noticed that a particular child needed more input in terms of gross and fine motor coordination; another suggested a particular extra phonics input and another started coming in to set the room up before the teacher arrived. As one participant noted:

During this ‘lockdown’ period, TAs have been running and organising many more groups in order to free up the teachers for zoom meetings.  My learning has really given me the confidence to lead groups and plan activities accordingly”.

Regardless of level of training, previous qualification or years in the role, we found staff became more confident because of this course – a conclusion further validated by the survey conducted three months after the course had finished.

2. The course was useful and relevant to the participants’ working practice.

The participants and headteacher appreciated the fact that the course was led and informed by experts in their fields from the University of Reading. They also appreciated that the lead trainer took the time to read and respond to their postings.

We were pleased to find that the style of learning suited the support staff, particularly ideas which could be tried out in the classroom.

3. Course style and delivery method enabled course completion

All participants agreed or strongly agreed that the course format and delivery motivated them to finish the course in the time frame given. They found the flexibility of the course helpful in setting their own time for learning. According to the headteacher, on a traditional course, trying to get all the TAs in a room at the same time is impossible and there is not the funding to support after school training. The online approach, however, enabled participants to complete the content which may not have been possible in a face-face course.

The staff also set up a WhatsApp group, which suggested working together to develop their skills.

Implications for the future

We think that the success of this course has important implications. Our findings suggest that CPD

  • conducted over a period of time may be more effective than a one-off session.
  • works better when it can be put into practice immediately.
  • should include activities which learners can try out within their working practice.
  • needs to be led by academic experts and leaders.
  • taken in a group can create a community of learners, supporting each other in their development.

We think there is an appetite for this type of learning for this audience, especially one which doesn’t cost the earth and can be completed at the learners’ own pace.

What next?

This small piece of research also suggests that for online courses to have an impact on learning and the development of best practice:

  • There needs to be someone in a senior position taking interest and monitoring progress,
  • Training should be organised for groups of staff,
  • It should be over a period of time,
  • It needs to be created and led by experts in the field of education and digital learning,
  • and most importantly it needs a method by which the impact of the CPD is measured through the learners/children.

Otherwise, much training is probably a waste of time and money. Learning has to be stickable to be worthwhile.


The training and research team at the University of Reading responsible for the course are:

 Dr Helen Bilton, Professor of Outdoor Learning and Play,





Anastasia Rattigan, Senior Digital Learning Producer





Yen Tu, Digital Learning Producer, all at the University of Reading





Find out more about the courses run at Reading and register:

Primary:Supporting successful learning in Primary School

Secondary: Supporting successful learning in Secondary School 

Other free online courses from the University of Reading:

Research framework

Guskey, T. R. (1994). Professional development in education. In search of the optimal mix. Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New Orleans.

Guskey, T. R. (2000). Evaluating professional development. Corwin Press.

To find out more about ensuring effective continuing professional development see: Goodall, J., Day, C., Linday, G.. Muijs, D. & Harris, A. (2005).  Evaluating the Impact of Continuing Professional Development (CPD) RR659. Nottingham: DfES.


Feature  Image: Kindly provided by The University of Reading





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