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The factors that impact most on pupils’ learning are the quality of teacher instruction and the depth of teacher subject knowledge (Coe et al., 2014).The latter includes understanding both the discipline and how pupils think about it, including their most common misconceptions. High quality teaching requires judgment, skill and practice. Dylan Wiliam (2011) claims that teaching ‘is so difficult and complex that one lifetime is not enough to master it. All teachers, no matter how experienced, can fail; and all can improve.’

Teachers are now supported by a growing body of evidence about how pupils learn and which teaching methods have the most impact on their learning. The term ‘evidence-informed practice’ refers to the idea of complementing but not eclipsing teachers’ professional expertise with the best available evidence. The benefits of doing this include improved teaching techniques and improved outcomes for students (Churches and McAleavy, 2016). That said, ‘the question of what teaching practices are shown by research to be effective remains contested’ (Coe et al., 2014). Research evidence about teaching and learning can be problematic: the available evidence can be thin, contextual factors are often important, and research can be divorced from teachers’ practice. Interpreting the evidence accurately and applying it correctly are not easy tasks.

This does not mean that we cannot learn from educational research. Dr Karen Taylor (2018), Director of the Institute of Learning and Teaching at the International School of Geneva, argues that ‘There is a broad range of literature that seeks to define learning, and there appears to be general agreement on certain essential elements:

  1. Learning is social and relational, not just in terms of the relationship between student and teacher but in relation to the learning environment and the extent to which it promotes discussion, collaboration and debate
  2. Learning takes place best when it involves reflection, self-assessment and meta-cognitive awareness
  3. Motivation, readiness, and emotion all play a role in learning
  4. Learning is enhanced when organised around essential ideas and concepts of the disciplines
  5. Learning takes place best in context
  6. Deep learning occurs when students can apply learning to new situations

If we can get some good ideas from the literature about what constitutes learning, what can we glean from the literature about generic principles of effective teaching? Below I summarise the available evidence from a number of sources, which themselves draw both from research and from what expert teachers have found to work.

Understand what motivates pupils

Pupils are more motivated if they believe that their abilities are not fixed but can be improved through practice (Deans for Impact, 2015). Focus on the methods pupils use rather than on their ability, and encourage them to focus their efforts on improving the process they are using. Tap into what interests pupils to foster intrinsic motivation, since this has better long-term outcomes than using extrinsic motivators. Explain to them the importance and value of what they are doing, acknowledge any difficulties they are likely to experience, encourage persistence, and give them a sense of autonomy while they are doing it. Relating the task to their future goals has more impact on pupil motivation than compulsion or preparing for a test (Busch and Watson, 2019).

Create the right environment for learning

An environment that is conducive to learning is both demanding and supportive. Set high expectations and provide the support pupils need, which will be different for different pupils. Encourage pupils to see your critical feedback as confirmation of your belief in their ability to meet a challenge. Effort is contagious, so sit pupils according to who you want to influence whom, rather than let them choose where to sit (ibid.).

Review

Start each lesson with a brief (5-8 minute) review of the previous learning and do weekly and monthly reviews both of information and of skills (Rosenshine, 2012). Repetition of facts and ideas helps to interconnect them in mental structures or schemas and so to embed these in the long-term memory, freeing up the working memory for learning new material or problem-solving (Sweller, 1988). Similarly, thinking processes that are rehearsed become easier through repetition. Not all such practice is equivalent in its effects, however; the most impactful time to practise or review is when one has begun to forget, and the act of trying to remember itself aids learning (Deans for Impact, 2015).

Explain

Pupils understand new material by linking it to what they already know, so build upon pupils’ prior learning and experience. Use analogies to map new ideas onto familiar ones. Allow for the limited capacity of working memory by pacing the introduction of new information. Introduce new learning in steps, using models and ‘worked examples’ as demonstration (Rosenshine, 2012). Explain what it means to ‘master’ the material being taught. Learning is enhanced if you present ideas in two complementary ways, for instance through spoken explanation and matching illustration simultaneously, but not if the two ways are split (Deans for Impact, 2015).

Practise

Guide practice so that pupils rehearse new material. To enable them to store it in their long-term memory, give them time and opportunity to summarise, re-express, or elaborate on it. Provide scaffolds for difficult tasks and gradually remove them. Increasingly require and guide independent practice. Use retrieval practice that requires pupils to come up with answers. Encourage pupils to gauge their own learning accurately not by how familiar something feels but by self-testing or explaining it to other pupils. Use a variety of techniques, including whole-class and structured group work, guided learning and individual activity (Husbands and Pearce, 2012; Rosenshine, 2012).

Use a variety of questions to check for understanding frequently

The right kinds of questions both check and deepen pupils’ understanding by having them explain and rehearse material, and help them to develop higher order thinking and metacognition. Questions might include asking pupils to summarise what has been presented, asking them to express an opinion about it, asking them why this might be true in some instances but not in others, or asking them ‘What makes you think that?’ when they have expressed an idea (Husbands and Pearce, 2012).

Seek feedback

The key reason for seeking feedback on the pupils’ understanding is to help you plan the next step in your teaching (Wiliam, 2011). ‘When teachers seek, or are at least open to, feedback from students as to what students know, what they understand, where they make errors, where their misconceptions are, when they are not engaged, then teaching and learning can be synchronised and powerful’ (Hattie, 2008).

Give feedback

Quality matters more than quantity. Focus on correct rather than incorrect responses and make feedback low-stakes since stress makes pupils less open to receiving feedback. The most important thing about feedback is what pupils do with it (Wiliam, 2011). Effective feedback is focused on the task rather than the pupil, and on what and how they can do better rather than what they can already do (Deans for Impact, 2015).

Teach the transfer of knowledge

To transfer knowledge taught through specific examples to a different problem requires an understanding of that context and of the underlying structure of the problem. Present problems that appear unalike but have the same structure underneath. Have pupils recognise the structure of a problem by identifying the steps to solving it. Alternate concrete examples with abstract representations (Deans for Impact, 2015).

These generic principles are not prescriptive. They won’t necessarily work in all situations in all subjects, and it is important that a teacher trusts his or her professional judgment and expertise. Nor are they meant to homogenise teaching: it’s important that teachers are themselves and play to their own strengths and enthusiasms. They do not discount the importance of the relationship a teacher creates with pupils. What these principles offer are evidence-based ideas teachers can use to inform their practice, complement their expertise and expand their repertoire of teaching techniques.

The theme of this journal is openness. Adopting an open attitude towards the ways research can inform practice can benefit all teachers, experienced and less experienced alike.

References

Busch, B. and Watson, E. (2019). The Science of Learning. London:
Routledge.

Churches, R., and McAleavy, T. (2016). Evidence That Counts: What Happens When Teachers Apply Scientific Methods to Their Practice – Twelve Teaching-Led Randomised Controlled Trials and Other Forms of Experimental Research. Reading: Education Development Trust.

Coe, R. et al. (2014). What makes great teaching? Review of the underpinning research. Durham: CEM and Sutton Trust.

Deans for Impact (2015). The Science of Learning. Austin, TX: Deans for Impact.

Hattie, J. (2008).Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement. London: Routledge.

Hattie, J. and Timperley, H. (2007). The Power of Feedback. Review of Education Research.

Husbands, C., and Pearce, J. (2012). What makes great pedagogy? Nine claims from research. National College for School Leadership.

Rosenshine, B., (2012). Principles of instruction: research-based strategies that all teachers should know. USA: American Educator.

Sweller, J. (1988). Cognitive Load during problem solving: effects on learning. Cognitive Science, 12: 257-285.

Taylor, K. (2018). What do we mean by research informed practice in education? http://www.cem.org/blog/what-do-we-mean-by-researchinformed-practice-in-education/ [accessed 17.05.19].

Wiliam, D. (2011). Embedded Formative Assessment. US: Solution Tree Press.