Seven 'Great' Teaching Methods That Aren't Backed Up By Evidence

What makes "great teaching"? It's a complicated question, made more difficult by trying to measure how teachers make decisions in the classroom and what impact those decisions have on what pupils learn.

Picture: Getty Images/Hulton Archive

In a new report for the Sutton Trust, we have tried to set out how great teaching leads to great learning. Our overall aim is to see whether setting out a framework of indicators that focus teachers' effort on things which are important can help their pupils learn even better.

Some things we are pretty sure about. Effective teachers have good knowledge about what they teach and know how best to communicate this to their students. They have a high level of skill in questioning pupils and assessing what they know and can do. They have high expectations and set a climate which promotes challenge and values success. Most of our report looks at effective classroom practices and how we can measure these.

What doesn't work

We also think it is useful to look at what hasn't been shown to work, even if this may seem a rather negative way to focus on improvement. Many ineffective teaching practices seem to be quite popular, even though most evidence is anecdotal and selective.

By stopping doing things that are either ineffective or inefficient, it should allow more time to focus on things that will make more of a difference. Here are seven common teaching practices that are not backed up by evidence.

No evidence for (1): Using praise lavishly

Praise for students may be seen as affirming and positive, but a number of studies suggest that the wrong kinds of praise can be very harmful to learning. Other research argues that praise which is meant to be encouraging and protective of low-attaining students can actually convey a message of the teacher's low expectations. What is important is praise which is valued by the learner.

No evidence for (2): Allowing learners to discover key ideas for themselves

Enthusiasm for "discovery learning" where learners undertake problem-solving activities or open-ended tasks is not supported by research evidence, which broadly favours direct instruction where children are more explicitly guided through the learning process. Although learners do need to build new understanding of what they already know, if teachers want them to learn new ideas, knowledge or skills, they should teach them directly.

No evidence for (3): Grouping learners by ability

Evidence about the effects of grouping by ability suggests that it makes very little difference to learning outcomes. In theory, ability grouping might allow teachers to create lessons that have a narrower range of pace and content. But it can also create an exaggerated sense in teachers' minds that children in one group are very similar to each other, and that they are different to other groups. This can result in teachers not making the necessary accommodations for the range of different needs within a supposedly similar "ability" group and going too fast with the higher groups and too slow with the lower ones.

No evidence for (4): Re-reading and highlighting Re-reading and highlighting are among the commonest and apparently most obvious ways to memorise or revise material. They also give a satisfying -- but deceptive -- feeling of fluency and familiarity with the material. Yet a range of studies have shown that testing yourself, trying to generate answers and deliberately creating intervals between study to allow forgetting, are all more effective approaches.

No evidence for (5): Addressing issues of confidence and low aspirations

The evidence shows that attempts to enhance pupils motivation are unlikely be successful and even if they do, the impact on subsequent learning is close to zero. In fact the poor motivation of low attainers is a logical response to repeated failure. Start getting them to succeed and their motivation and confidence should increase.

No evidence for (6): Teaching to a learner's preferred learning style

The belief in the importance of learning styles seems persistent. A recent survey found that more than 90% of teachers in several countries (including the UK) agreed with the claim that: "Individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style (for example, visual, auditory or kinaesthetic)".

But the psychological evidence is clear that there are no benefits from trying to present information to learners in their preferred learning style.

No evidence that (7): Active learners remember more than passive learners

This claim is commonly presented in the form of a "learning pyramid" which shows precise percentages of material that will be retained when pupils have different levels of activity. These percentages have no empirical basis and are pure fiction. Memory is the residue of thought, so if you want students to remember something you have to get them to think about it. This can be achieved by being either "active" or "passive".

By including some examples of "ineffective practice" in our research on what makes great teaching, we are likely to provoke a strong reaction from teachers and parents. We hope this can be challenging in a constructive way. Clearly, telling a professional teacher that some aspect of their practice is problematic is a risky way to get a productive discussion going. But thinking about what is effective as well as what isn't can help clarify how to improve professional teaching practice.

Steve Higgins is Professor of Education at Durham University. Robert Coe is Professor, School of Education and Director, Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring at Durham University. Steve Higgins works for Durham University which received funding from the Sutton Trust to undertake this review. Robert Coe has received funding from the ESRC, Sutton Trust, Education Endowment Foundation, Pearson, and many individual schools and local authorities.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


    Really surprised about number 6.

      So basically a deaf and/or blind child has no excuses

        You're confusing the fake world of 'learning styles' with the very non-fake world of sensory disabiltiy. Clot!

    The study's definition of effective is deeply flawed.

    An army of clones is not the objective.

    In addition to imparting facts, education is intended to instill skills and traits such as:
    -Instilling a love of learning.
    -Imparting an understanding of how to approach problems.
    -Imparting self-confidence.

      I'm inclined to agree with the others.. Does anyone know what the socratic method is?
      "No evidence for (2): Allowing learners to discover key ideas for themselves"

      The socratic method suggests rather than telling others what to think, we encourage others to think and draw their own conclusions. There must be some form of direction, but ultimately, the Socratic Method (for my preference) tries to avoid drawing obvious conclusions.

      I would also argue that you should apply different learning styles based on the individual. For example, if some young children have a short attention span (which is common in young boys), you can't expect them to sit down and stay focussed for longer periods of time as you may find with some other younger students. I spoke with a Speech Therapist (friend) on Friday who re-iterated the "learning by playing for very young boys to address the issue of short attention spans". Then again, she's only a trained professional.

      If you are a teacher, home-schooler or parent, i'd skip this article and find one that's a little more thought out and backed up by solid research. I'd consider some of the views in this article to vary from true to highly ignorant. This makes this a dangerous article to take seriously.

        That's exactly the point though - this article is backed up by solid research; you can read the author bio and follow the links to multiple relevant studies and other sources.

        Your speech therapist friend may be a trained professional, but that does not rule out the possibility that some of her training was incorrect or that some of her methods are based on unproven intuition rather than solid evidence.

        As an example, you specifically called out point #2 as something you disagree with, but the link in that paragraph is to a paper backing up the point made - can you similarly link to a peer reviewed source supporting your alternative point of view, or are you just going on intuition and/or "conventional wisdom"?

        I'm not saying every point is definitely true, but I don't think you're giving the article the credit and consideration that is probably due. You recommended parents and teachers to search out articles that were better researched, but this one is very well researched with respectable sources provided for every point. :)

        Last edited 10/11/14 11:13 am

        Dan, I think you missed the point."a little more thought out and backed up by solid research".
        This IS the research.

          Precisely - it doesn't really get much better thought out and researched than this - anyone doubting the points can check the credentials of the authors and read the relevant studies with the links provided in each point.

          I think Dan may have made the common mistake of confusing "poorly thought out/researched" with "disagrees with my[his] opinion".

          Last edited 10/11/14 12:05 pm

            Just because his thoughts are formed by opinion does not mean it's meaningless compared to this "well researched" article. It seems you're too trusting just because it uses so called "evidence", even though every form of research has its weakness.

            I would also counter this article with a hermeneutic argument and say that science hasn't rationalised the intuitive ways we teach kids yet.

              Actually 'opinion' is almost always meaningless in such instances. One's opinion in an academic setting will not improve grades or a students ability to learn, especially when the most current and up to date research in the field refutes those deeply ingrained misconceptions.

              EDIT (for clarification): This is why we have adopted the scientific method. To test the validity of a hypothesis (or opinion). The methods addressed above have been tested and the results are summarised in the article above.

              Last edited 10/11/14 10:13 pm

              Hence the last paragraph of my first reply; I'm fine with taking this with a grain of salt and doing further research, but I think Dan is doing it a disservice by dismissing it outright and recommending parents and teachers look elsewhere with nothing to support his position.

        Short attention span is not a learning style thing, but a developmental thing. Of course we teach cognisant of a person's developmental characteristics, what we do not do is enter the new-age fakery of 'learning styles'.

    I'm glad that 'motivation' was mentioned. People are motivated by a sense of competent achievement...using explicit instruction, and 'fading' under the guidance of an instructor (see work by Sweller at UNSW) is the most effective way of building competence and therefore motivating through experience of actual achievement.

    It seems that we ignore countries that have teaching methods that are obviously working as they have the highest world scores for literacy and numeracy , the Scandinavian countries ,especially Finland ,they do not start school till 6 or 7 years. They must be doing something right.
    Best investigate how they achieve ,their results.

    When leaving high school, don't the Aussies only have to have an ATAR in the sixties to become a teacher? If this is the case, god help us.

Join the discussion!