Teaching and learning– what actually works?

TLDR; to improve your teaching and learning using evidence based techniques, see my top ten tips at the end of this article.

Ever since I was introduced to the ideas of learning styles back in my initial teacher training years, I have always been extremely sceptical of any new teaching and learning strategies that come my way. I have always reflected on my teaching practice and tried to deliver my subject in the most effective way(s) possible to benefit my students, but even then, I have always felt that there is still room for improvement – to be a more effective teacher. It wasn’t until I came across John Sweller’s ideas around Cognitive Load Theory and how it is put into deliberate practise at Michaela Community School that teaching and learning started to resonate with me once again.

“The aim of all instruction should be to improve long term memory, if nothing has been changed in long term memory, nothing has been learned” Kirschner et. al.

If we define learning as a change in long-term memory, then what evidence based strategies really work when it comes to getting students to learn?*

  1. Challenge misconceptions
    Misconceptions are a big problem for science teachers since students know lots of things about what you’re trying to teach them, but it turns out that many of these pre-conceived ideas are actually wrong, scientifically speaking. A list of common science misconceptions [at Key Stage 3] is given by Jonathan Whellan (@NottsAST) here, by the American Association for the Advancement of Science here and by the Physics Foundations project here.
    Dr. Derek Muller (@veritasium) of YouTube fame Veritasium recently did a TED talk on his PhD; “The key to effective educational science videos”. In the clip he talks about teaching first year undergraduate students about Newton’s 1st and 2nd laws of motion, after which he gives them a short multiple choice question exam. Next, he produces two videos on these subjects, randomly assigns each student to watch one of the videos and tests them again to see if there is any improvement in their learning. The first video is a very clear, concise & easy to understand exposition of Newton’s laws, however, in the second video he gets a member of the public to state the common misconceptions around Newton’s laws and then engages them in a social dialogue that causes cognitive dissonance. In the graphic below, each group of students is asked to give their opinions on each of the videos [regarding clarity of explanation]:

    Further to this Dr. Muller also asks both groups of students to rate their mental effort invlolved in watching the video. In Video 1 the students thought that they already knew the material so they didn’t really pay the utmost attention and therefore didn’t realise that what was being presented differed from their prior knowledge. In Video 2 they were forced to face up to their misconceptions through social dialogue which required a whole load more mental focus due to the effects of cognitive dissonance. On the post test [performed after watchting the video] there was a 5% increase in correct answers for group 1 [Video 1] but a 100% increase in correct answers for group 2 [Video 2], see graphic below.
    Many science teachers will already be familiar with the Concept Cartoons produced by Millgate House which crystallise many of the misconceptions held by students before teaching a scientific topic e.g. photosynthesis. What Dr. Muller’s research suggests is that we should engage our students in a social dialogue so that the student’s themselves see how their pre/misconceptions conflict with the world around them leading to better outcomes for all.


    “Where do trees get their mass from?” An example of a Concept Cartoon on photosynthesis by Millgate House and how Derek Muller engages with these misconceptions through video and social dialog to cause cognitive dissonance and therefore a change in long term memory.

    So you’ve finished your lesson on teaching photosynthesis to your students, how do you know you’ve dispelled those bothersome misconceptions that the students held at the beginning of the lesson? The answer to this is diagnostic questions – set a couple of multiple choice questions with one correct answer and three distractors (previous misconceptions). By using this kind of formative assessment you can readily use the feedback to inform your practise next lesson. This is further discussed in the Assessment for Learning section below.

  2. Memory is the residue of thought
    I think we can all agree that a successful lesson is one in which the content of the lesson is remembered by students many months down the line. Daniel Willingham, an American Cognitive Psychologist and author of “Why Don’t Students Like School?” has shown that the amount of learning taking place depends upon the level of cognitive engagement. He is often quoted for his definition that “memory is the residue of thought” i.e. students remember what they’ve been thinking about.  He says that teachers need to beware of preoccupying themselves too much with making subject matter entertaining and relevant to students [sometimes referred to as ‘edutainment’]..

    If a teacher has students baking biscuits to learn about the Underground Railroad or working on a PowerPoint to learn about the Spanish Civil War, what students will remember is how to bake a biscuit and how to make a smoking PowerPoint. They will remember next to nothing about the Underground Railroad and the Spanish Civil War!” – Educational Research Newsletter

    He goes on to say that “memory is not a product of what you want to remember or what you try to remember; it’s a product of what you think about.” Willingham suggests that teachers also need to find that “sweet spot of difficulty”. This sweet spot is often called the Zone of Proximal Development, the term is originally coined by Lev Vygotsky, a Russian developmental psychologist.

    Vygotsky recognised that in order for students to learn they must be presented with tasks that are just out of reach of their current ability. Tasks that are already within a student’s current ability does not promote learning (students get bored). Tasks that are too complex also don’t promote learning (students become frustrated). Tasks in the Zone of Proximal Development are the things a student can almost do but still need help to accomplish. As help is slowly withdrawn and students are actively engaged/thinking about the task, they [eventually] become successful whilst laying down new long term memories.

  3. Learning requires forgetting & spaced practice
    All teachers will be familiar with the experimental work performed on memory by the German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus, summed up by this famous graphic entitled the “Ebbinghaus forgetting curve.”forgetting_curve_en
    Ebbinghaus’ research showed that after first learning a new piece of knowledge you start forgetting this information almost immediately. In fact, you forget it most quickly immediately after you have learnt it! Ebbinghaus showed that the most effective way to retain this newly gained knowledge was to revisit it, repeatedly. The more repetitions you do, the flatter the forgetting curve becomes, until, at last, you have retained almost all the newly learned knowledge i.e. successfully stored in in long term memory where you will be able to recall it weeks and years into the future.The million-dollar question then, when should this first repetition take place? Robert Bjork, a distinguished research professor in memory at the Department of Psychology at the University of California, says..

    When we access things from our memory, we do more than reveal it’s there. It’s not like a playback. What we retrieve becomes more retrievable in the future. Provided the retrieval succeeds, the more difficult and involved the retrieval, the more beneficial it is…. You should space your study sessions so that the information you learned in the first session remains just barely retrievable. Then, the more you have to work to pull it from the soup of your mind, the more this second study session will reinforce your learning.  If you study again too soon, it’s too easy [i.e. retrieval is best when it’s effortful, when some forgetting has set in].” – Wired magazine

    While Ebbinghaus’ research applies to something that had already been taught/learnt, it also works in reverse. In their book “Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning”, Brown et. al. talk about spaced & interleaved practice. A great blog post by Shaun Allison (@shaun_allison) summarises the findings here. Shaun concludes that in order to maximise the retention of knowledge: the first few minutes of every lesson should be focussed on looking back to previous material (to last lesson, last week, last month); Year 11 revision of topics A, B, C and D should be interleaved as ABCDABCDABCD and that the curriculum needs to account for spaced practice and the interleaving of topics from the outset. Hin-Tai Ting (@HinTai_Ting), a maths teacher at Michaela Community School has had amazing results with his weakest students using Siegfried Engelmann’s Connecting Maths Concepts – a teaching method that deliberately uses spaced practice and interleaving to maximise the retention of maths knowledge in students’ long term memory. You can read more here.

  4. Cognitive Load Theory
    Dylan Wiliam, emeritus professor of educational assessment at University College London, recently tweeted

    Cognitive Load Theory states that in order to learn, students must transfer information from working memory (where it is consciously processed) to long-term memory (where it can be stored and later retrieved). Students have limited working memory capacities that can be overwhelmed by tasks that are too cognitively demanding. The idea is summed up by imagining the brain as a bottle:

    Working memory has limited capacity, contrary to long term memory which has unlimited capacity. Since working memory can only hold 4 or 5 chunks (elements) of information at a time it acts as a bottleneck to learning. CLT aims to maximise the space we have in working memory by minimising extraneous cognitive load, this leads to greater transfer of knowledge into long term memory i.e. more learning occurs.There are various “effects” which have an impact on our cognitive load and it is these we need to bear in mind when considering our instructional design (source here):

    1. Worked Examples Effect – clear (and varied) worked examples reduce cognitive load providing they also reduce the….
    2. Split-Attention Effect – text should be included within the diagrams of worked examples to stop learners splitting their attention between multiple sources of information.
    3. Goal Free Effect – if working memory during problem solving is overloaded (so no learning occurs), instead remove the end goal. Ask students what could they work out from the set of information that they have.
    4. Modality Effect – by using both the auditory and visual channels working memory can be increased. When dealing with a diagram and text, instead of presenting the text in written form alongside the diagram, instead present it in spoken form – this opens up a second channel to working memory.
    5. Transient Information Effect – when demonstrating the modality effect, any spoken material should be short and to the point as the auditory channel is transient in nature.
    6. Redundancy Effect – Providing learners with any unnecessary information can overload their working memories.
    7. Completion Effect – when students are asked to complete the solution to a partially solved problem they learn more rapidly i.e. transfer knowledge to their long term memory more quickly than students who have not been shown any of the partial moves.
    8. Isolated Elements Effect – since cognitive load is high when there is a high degree of element interactivity, presenting element in their isolated form improves learning when compared to presenting them in the combined natural state i.e. don’t introduce GCSE exam questions too early, instead break down problems into their component parts.
    9. Imagination Effect – students asked to imagine concepts or procedures learn better than those who just study the materials.
    10. Expertise Reversal Effect – increased expertise reduces element interactivity and therefore cognitive load.

    Oliver Caviglioli (@olivercavigliol) has put together a series of visuals summarising the main points of Sweller, Ayres and Kalyuga’s book. More on this can be found here.

    More on how CLT can be used to reduce cognitive load in science can be found in blogs written by Niki Kaiser (@chemDrK) here and also Jasper Green (@sci_challenge) here.

  5. The Novice versus Expert learner

    In essence, when approached with a new problem, unless we are an expert, we are less likely to make links with existing knowledge and prior experiences to solve a problem… With this in mind, teachers need to be modelling explicitly how to approach problems making use of prior knowledge “ – Dan William’s (@FurtherEdagogy) excellent blog post on experts and novices.
    As novices, students don’t have enough mental schema to draw upon when faced with complex problems to solve. They instead tend to focus on the detail of the problem rather than think back to problems of a similar structure that they’ve faced before in order to make informed decisions. There is therefore a need to provide novices with information that is essential for their understanding. In order to minimise extraneous cognitive load, novice learners should receive detailed, explicit instructional support (see Chapter 12 of Sweller et al ).

    5a) Direct/Explicit/Didactic instruction
    So how do we deliver explicit instruction to our novice learners? Greg Ashman (@greg_ashman) has written an excellent post on the benefits of explicit instruction . This type of instructional design (compared to say inquiry based learning) minimises extraneous cognitive load by fully explaining and modelling ideas to students before they attempt to put them into practice themselves. Greg goes on to say that “teaching explicitly forces us to confront the curse of knowledge and break things down even more than we might initially”. This idea follows that of Japanese educators who are trained in the art of Bansho (the study of boardwork). Bansho is different from “chalk and talk” in that “80% of what the teacher writes on the board is still there at the end of the lesson. The board becomes a summary of the development of the lessons and students are encouraged to reflect back and make connections and new relationships between the different ideas” – Dylan Wiliam 52m30s


    Japanese educators trained in the art of Bansho – source here

    Explicit instruction further encourages the students to master skills and procedures through deliberate practise and worked examples before exposing them to a range of ever more varied and complex problems (see Isolated Element & Worked Example Effect in CLT). Some particularly good suggestions on great direct/explicit/didactic teaching have been written in a blog by Ben Newmark (@bennewmark) below:

    5b) Knowledge Organisers & key subject knowledge
    We have seen that novice learners require repeated exposure to knowledge that is essential to understanding their subject. Deans for Impact go further and say

    Each subject area has some set of fact that, if committed to long term memory, aids problem-solving by freeing working memory resources and illuminating contexts in which existing knowledge and skills can be applied.” – the Science of Learning.

    So how do repeatedly expose our students to this knowledge? Michaela Community School use Knowledge Organisers in each subject detailing all the key information students are expected to commit to memory. Homework at Michaela involves the student not only learning this information but also self-quizzing reinforce that learning. Teachers then monitor retention of this knowledge through regular low-stakes tests and less regular cumulative assessments.

    But what is a Knowledge Organiser (KO) and how do they work? Essentially a KO is a brief 1-2 page doc/ppt/pdf which sets out exactly what knowledge is vital in the curriculum for a given topic. It will often contain key definitions / timelines / equations / diagrams with numbering alongside each element (this allows teachers to set low-stakes quizzes on the relevant sections). James Theobald (@JamesTheo) has put together a fantastic “Knowledge Organisers: a how to” document that goes over these points and more.


    Knowledge Organisers have certainly been gaining traction in recent years, you can find out more about how schools have been using them in blogs by Joe Kirby (@joe__kirby ) here and Shaun Allison here. Some of the best KOs I have seen in science are produced by Nova Hreod Academy in Swindon.

  6. Assessment for Learning (of all students)
    The majority of teachers suffer from the Dunning-Kruger effect; we over estimate our abilities in successfully imparting knowledge to our students. Since we have spent time carefully planning the content and delivery of our lessons, we expect the majority of the students to ‘get it’. We check for understanding by asking the class a pre-determined question, a handful of students raise their hands, they give the correct response and we move on. But are these three or four responses a good guide for what the rest of the class has learnt? No. What we should be doing is getting responses from students who have not raised their hands. Even better to check for understanding from every student every 20 minutes before moving on.

    Dylan Wiliam, co-author of the now legendary “Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment”, suggests that the most effective way to check for whole class understanding this is through diagnostic multiple choice questions carefully designed to have ‘distractor’ answers that test for previous misconceptions. Students can then use finger voting, ABCD cards or mini white boards to their cast their individual choices. What students like about finger voting / MWBs is that as soon as their answer is erased there is no record of failure. A teacher can then use this immediate feedback to inform his/her practice going forward.
    fvotingTwo fantastic source for diagnostic questions are by Craig Barton (@mrbartonmaths) here (mainly Maths, Science, Languages & computing diagnostic questions) and the University of York Science Education Group here (science specific).

    Dylan goes on to say that if there are only 3 students who ‘got’ the last part of the lesson, ask all three to work out a way of explaining the idea to the rest of the class at the start of next lesson. The rest of the class can then vote for the best explanation. This has the additional benefit of creating a community of learners, stretching those higher ability students and enabling those students who didn’t get the concept first time around a chance to catch up.

  7. Effective group work
    Teachers often avoid group work because it is ineffective – you always seem to get a couple of students not pulling their weight while the others, usually the girls, do the majority of the work. How can we change this? Citing the work of Robert Slavin and Roger & David Johnson, Dylan Wiliam tells us that there are two essential prerequisites for effective group work:

    1. group goals: students should be working as a group, rather than just in a group.
    2. each member has to be accountable to the group’s success i.e. one student failing to put in their best learning efforts needs to have a negative effect on the likelihood of the group achieving its goals.

    As teachers, we rarely structure group work to achieve the second prerequisite, which ultimately leads to some students being passengers rather than active learners.

    Perhaps the most well-known strategy for achieving the goals above is to use home/expert groups (sometimes called jigsaw groups)  which is particularly good at incentivising each member of the group to pull their weight to work as a team.

    While this strategy is good, my favourite example is in a comment by Dylan responding to David Didau’s (@DavidDidau) blog on this subject. In his comment Dylan says:

    One particularly effective approach to this implemented by Brazilian maths teacher Roberto Baldino – students work in teams of four to master a chapter of a textbook, and when they think they are ready, they are tested individually. Each person in the group receives the score achieved by the lowest scoring member of the group.”

    While many teachers find this approach to be a little extreme, we must remember that this is what happens in the real world; one student missing a penalty in football harms the whole team’s chances, one student in an orchestra hitting a bad note harms everybody’s performance. If we are therefore serious about effective group work, we must ensure that the second prerequisite is always met.

  8. A mastery assessment system.
    Joe Kirby has written at length about creating a mastery assessment system here  and here. The main idea behind the mastery assessment system is to make use of frequent low stake testing (that the students mark) and less frequent cumulative testing (that the teachers mark, although this is a high impact, low effort exercise).

    The benefits of regular low stakes testing are two-fold (see Mr Barton’s podcast at 56 minutes):

    • students get the benefit of retrieval practice which is one of the most effective ways to transfer ideas into long term memory, see the learning scientists concept map on the benefits of retrieval practice here.
    • when students self-mark these low stakes tests and they find out what they did was incorrect they benefit from the hyper-correction effect; if you thought you were right, get the answer wrong then correct it you are likely to remember it for much longer.

    The frequent tests are low stakes since no data is collected by the teacher, instead pupils are asked ‘hands up who got 4 out of 5? Hands up who got 5 out of 5?’ Pupils who do well in the tests feel successful and motivated to work hard to revise.

    The less frequent (bi-annual) cumulative testing is also hugely beneficial since students are tested on everything they have learnt up to that point in their academic year (using their Knowledge Organisers as their main source of revision). As we have seen from first Hermann Ebbinghaus, then Robert Bjork’s research into how memory retains information, this constant reviewing/retrieval of older information maximises the transfer of knowledge into long-term memory.

    And finally, for teachers…. If you would like to learn more about evidence based pedagogy that has been developed to take account of the most important principles to emerge from research in cognitive psychology, please see:


    And for students… watch “How to Study Effectively for School – Top 6 Science-Based Study Skills” produced by the Learning Scientists and Memorize Academy:

    *NOTE – These strategies are not mine but sourced from great educational minds around the globe. I attach links to the relevant research papers / books / blogs in the text above.

    TLDR; improve you teaching and learning using these top 10 evidence based techniques:

    1. Check for misconception and challenging them through social dialogue.
    2. Students remember what they’ve been thinking about (ditch those poster lessons!).
    3. Curriculum design should account for spaced practice and interleaving of topics.
    4. Working memory has limited capacity; teachers need to minimise students’ cognitive load in order for learning to take place.
    5. Explicit instruction is far more effective than inquiry based learning.
    6. Consider using Knowledge Organisers to help students memorise vital information in your subject.
    7. Check for understanding from every student every 20 minutes before moving on.
    8. Effective group work requires each member to be accountable to the group’s success.
    9. Regular low stakes testing and less regular cumulative testing aids transfer of knowledge into long-term memory.
    10. Teach your students how to study more effectively!
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2 Responses to Teaching and learning– what actually works?

  1. Pingback: Thoughts on Assessment & Reporting within Secondary Schools | Reflections of a science teacher…

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