Effective teaching and learning are highly contextualised. What works really well in one classroom could just as easily fall flat on its face in the next. This is true. But what is also true is that some things have been shown repeatedly to work better than others across a variety of contexts.
It would be foolish, I think, to dismiss what research suggests works well in the classroom on the grounds of contextualisation, ignoring the signposts set out by years of research that point toward what is most likely to contribute to great teaching and learning.
Here are the top five evidence informed strategies we discussed in a recent staff meeting:
1–Take account of what the learner already knows
Many lessons introduce new topics by referring to learning objectives and then diving into whatever new content needs to be covered. But it would make more sense for the instructor to begin with activities that require students to recall and, in a sense, to activate prior knowledge.
This recall approach is supported by cognitive science because it strengthens the connections between existing knowledge and the new concepts about to be learnt. Research suggests that learners are probably best served if we start the lesson with activities that require the retrieval of specific prior knowledge that will help make connections in the students’ minds between what’s already been learnt and what needs to be learnt.
Simply stating new learning objectives and ploughing on with a fresh topic? We may have no choice on occasion, but most times you’d bet better off connecting to previous learning before introducing new topics.
2–Interleave different but related topics and skills
Interleaving is the practice of alternating different topics and types of content. Intuitively we feel that we learn better by focusing on one topic or skill at a time. However, research suggests that better learning is achieved when students interleave different but related topics or skills, rather than focusing on one topic or skill, then another topic or skill, and so on.
Although the illusion of better learning is achieved by studying topics in blocks, it is by interleaving topics and skills that long-term retention and greater overall understanding are achieved. This is problematic for many of us, as many teachers and students might find it counter-intuitive when lessons or explanations, instead of focusing on one topic at a time, as is the norm, alternate between related topics and skills as they seek to connect to and build on already existing knowledge.
In linear courses (such as IGCSE and the new GCSE and A level), which typically last two years, it is conceivable that a topic that is covered during the first term of the course is never returned to before a hastily arranged revision session just before study leave. Although teachers can claim that the topic has been covered – it would have been – they can’t claim to have covered it in a pedagogically sound manner unless they have ensured the topic has been studied more than once during the teaching of the course.
Students and teachers may find interleaving related topics and skills in a programme of study less neat, but the research suggesting interleaving leads to better overall learning in the long term is strong.
3–Take advantage of the properties of dual coding
Dual coding is the idea that the combination of verbal association (spoken or written) and visual imagery results in better learning. Well-designed graphic illustrations contribute to depicting models clearly, representing abstract concepts and revealing underlying knowledge structures that help learners make the required connections to enable learning to take place.
That’s not to say we should populate teaching resources with superfluous illustrations – which in any case often contribute to resources becoming dated prematurely – but that we should focus instead on pairing text with carefully chosen graphics that will support learning by presenting examples and depicting overarching ideas or concepts and explaining how these ideas and concepts connect.
In short, we should avoid illustrations that merely ‘liven up’, ‘add colour’ or ‘add fun’ to a resource and use instead diagrams, tables, photographs or drawings that will serve a pedagogical purpose whenever possible. If the answer to the question ‘Is this illustration helping students to learn?’ is ‘no’, the chances are it is not needed and you should discard it unless you think it serves another purpose.
As a teacher, you are probably already capitalising on this dual coding by providing your students with relevant, learning-friendly graphics, tables or diagrams. Great teachers already make the most of the properties of dual-coding in every lesson, using the whiteboard or a PowerPoint to illustrate their verbal explanations.
But they might also want their students to create their own. Spending some time during lessons to explain to your students the importance of creating their own diagrams, illustrations and mind maps is time well spent. Not only will they find their own visual imagery very handy when it comes to revision, but it will also help them to organise and conceptualise their knowledge more effectively, so that they remember it more easily.
This example by Oliver Caviglioli, below, illustrates how dual coding works. Below are two sets of identical questions. How are you better able to answer the questions? After just reading the text? Or after reading the text and briefly studying the diagram?
4–Modelling solved problems
Modelling is a very effective classroom strategy, as it ensures that students become familiar with both the mechanics of problem-solving and the underlying principles required to master the topic in question. The student can then be guided to more complex but related problems or questions and, as the student becomes more proficient, the teacher can begin to increase the number of problems or questions for the student to solve or answer independently.
Great teaching already makes the most of the powerful effect of modelling by alternating problems with written-out solutions, worked examples – i.e. where the steps to achieve the correct solution are laid out – and problems that the student needs to solve independently. This is also a kind of interleaving (see strategy 2).
5–Teach independent study skills to boost metacognition
Although many schools already promote independent learning by, for example, pointing students to additional sources of reading, relevant websites, videoclips, films or TV programmes, few actively seek to teach specific metacognitive strategies to help students become better learners in a given subject.
The view could easily be taken that, say, a French lesson’s purpose is to teach students French, not to teach students how to learn, which is the essence of metacognition in this context. This view would seem entirely justifiable until one considers the important contribution that metacognitive strategies bring to successful learning. For example, research suggests that encouraging learners how to plan, monitor and evaluate their own learning by providing subject-specific strategies and guidance has a great impact on learning.
Effective teaching already interleaves activities in which students are asked to identify where a task might go wrong; to lay out the steps required to achieve mastery of a topic; to produce their own worked examples; or to formulate appropriate questions and provide possible answers.
“This is obvious stuff… we already do this anyway…” are some of the typical reactions after these research-informed strategies are discussed with experienced teachers. Tacitly, that may well be the case. But why wait for tacit knowledge to develop spontaneously? Why hope that this knowledge develops from experience in the 4th, 5th or 6th year of teaching when it could be incorporated and reflected upon from the 1st?