Teachers: your guide to learning strategies that really work

Research on effective learning reveals that an awful lot of what goes on in the classroom simply doesn’t matter. There are many pointless activities that take up valuable time in the name of engagement, merely demonstrating progress as opposed to actually making progress. Often, these approaches not only have limited impact on student learning but can have a hugely detrimental impact on teacher workload and wellbeing. Writes Carl Hendrick in an extract from his book for The Guardian.

There is significant evidence to suggest that teachers should prune back what they do and focus on a more streamlined approach in the classroom. So it’s less about spending hours cutting things up and putting them in envelopes, and more about creating conditions in which students can gain long-lasting knowledge that can be applied in a range of situations. The following six principles are a distillation of key research on what really matters in the classroom. 

Revisit previous learning

A core element of effective learning is that a class is exposed to new information a number of times. For education researcher Graham Nuthall, students should encounter a new concept on at least three separate occasions in order to learn it properly. The beginning of a lesson is an excellent place to consolidate previous learning and to create a sense of continuity as Barak Rosenshine notes (pdf):

“The most effective teachers in the studies of classroom instruction understood the importance of practice, and they began their lessons with a five- to eight-minute review of previously covered material. Some teachers reviewed vocabulary, formulae, events, or previously learned concepts. These teachers provided additional practice on facts and skills that were needed for recall to become automatic.”

Check for understanding

This is a deft skill that needs both a strong knowledge of your students and an understanding of common misconceptions. Various techniques can achieve this, but probably the most useful tool in the box will be judicious questioning that is both open and closed in nature and, crucially, informs what you will do next. Dylan Wiliam suggests that “hinge-point questions” are of great use here:

“Firstly, it should take no longer than two minutes, and ideally less than one minute, for all students to respond to the questions; the idea is that the hinge-point question is a quick check on understanding, rather than a new piece of work in itself. Second, it must be possible for the teacher to view and interpret the responses from the class in 30 seconds.”

Marking student work is another good way of checking understanding – but doesn’t need to be an onerous task. Some marking should simply function as a quick signpost to the teacher of how they could adapt their teaching in response to what students have or have not learned.

Give feedback on students, not work

Once a teacher gets into the habit of regularly checking for understanding, they are in a position to provide meaningful feedback. But marking and feedback are not the same thing. A key aspect of a successful classroom is that feedback is given to improve the student rather than the work, as Wiliam points out:

“Too many teachers focus on the purpose of feedback as changing or improving the work, whereas the major purpose of feedback should be to improve the student. If the feedback isn’t helping the student to do a better task and a better job the next time they are doing a similar task, then it is probably going to be ineffective.”

Affording students the opportunity to consider their own progress against their peers through the evaluation of exemplar work is another way to conceptualise improvement: it’s very hard to be excellent if you don’t know what excellent looks like. For students, feedback should be more of a mirror than a painted picture.

Carl Hendrick is an English teacher, head of learning and research at Wellington College and co-author of What Does This Look Like in the Classroom? with Robin McPherson. 

Read more principles from Carl Teachers: your guide to learning strategies that really work

Please tell us your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~ Tamsin

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