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What makes great teaching?

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This article summarises the report: Coe R, Aloisi C, Higgins S et al. (2014) What makes great teaching? Review of the underpinning research. Sutton Trust, October 2014. London: Sutton Trust. Available at: suttontrust.com/researcharchive/great-teaching.

The aim of our review was to address three deceptively simple questions:

  • What makes ‘great teaching’?
  • What kinds of frameworks or tools could help us to capture it?
  • How could this promote better learning in schools?

The quality of teaching is by far the biggest factor within schools that can make a difference to the achievement of children and young people. In the report, we review over 200 pieces of research to identify the elements of teaching with the strongest evidence of improving attainment. The report also identifies some common practices that can be harmful to learning and have no grounding in research, and analyses different methods of evaluating teaching (Coe et al., 2014).

We define effective teaching as that which leads to improved student achievement using outcomes that matter to their future success. The research keeps coming back to this critical point: student progress is the yardstick by which teacher quality should be assessed.

Some teaching approaches are supported by good evidence of their effectiveness. Examples include: challenging students to identify the reason why an activity is taking place in the lesson; asking a large number of questions and checking the responses of all students; spacing out study or practice on a given topic, with gaps in between for forgetting; and making students take tests or generate answers, even before they have been taught the material.

The report offers a ‘starter kit’ for thinking about what constitutes effective teaching. This is based on behaviours, approaches and classroom practices that are well-defined, easy to implement and show good evidence of improvements in student outcomes. Six key factors that contribute to good teaching are identified.

The two factors with the strongest evidence in improving student outcomes are:

1. Content knowledge. Teachers with strong knowledge and understanding of their subject have a greater impact on students’ learning. It is also important for teachers to understand how students think about content and be able to identify common misconceptions on a topic.

2. Quality of instruction. This includes effective questioning and the use of assessment by teachers. Specific practices, like reviewing previous learning, providing model responses for students, giving adequate time for practice to embed skills securely and progressively introducing new learning (scaffolding), are also found to improve attainment.

Another four elements of effective teaching that have fair-to-moderate evidence showing a positive impact on learning are:

3. Classroom climateThis includes the quality of interaction between teachers and students as well as teacher expectations.

4. Classroom management. Such as the efficient use of lesson time and managing behaviour, with clear rules that are consistently enforced.

5. Teachers’ beliefs. For example, the reasons why they adopt particular practices and their theories about learning.

6. Professional behaviours. This relates to professional development, supporting colleagues and communicating with parents.

The following are some of the practices that the report identifies as not proven to be effective, and for which there is an almost total lack of evidence to support their use. The seven examples of strategies unsupported by evidence are:

1. Using praise lavishly. For low-attaining students, praise that is meant to be encouraging and protective can actually convey a message of low expectations. The evidence shows that children whose failure generates sympathy are more likely to attribute failure to lack of ability than those who are presented with rebuke.

2. Allowing learners to discover key ideas for themselves. Enthusiasm for ‘discovery learning’ is not supported by research evidence, which broadly favours direct instruction.

3. Grouping students by ability. Evidence on the effects of grouping by ability, by allocating students either to different classes or to within-class groups, suggests that it makes very little difference to learning outcomes. It can result in teachers failing to accommodate different needs within an ability group and over-playing differences between groups, going too fast with high-ability groups and too slow with low ones.

4. Encouraging re-reading and highlighting to memorise key ideas. Testing yourself, trying to generate answers and deliberately creating intervals between study to allow forgetting are all more effective approaches to memorisation than re-reading or highlighting.

5. Addressing low confidence and aspirations before teaching content. Attempts to enhance motivation prior to teaching content are unlikely to succeed – and even if they do, then the impact on subsequent learning is close to zero. If the poor motivation of low-attaining students is a logical response to repeated failure, starting to get them to succeed through learning content will improve motivation and confidence.

6. Presenting information to students in their preferred learning style. Despite a recent survey showing that over 90% of teachers believe individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style, the psychological evidence is clear that there are no benefits to this method.

7. Being active, rather than listening passively, helps you remember. This claim is commonly presented in the form of a ‘learning pyramid’, which shows precise percentages of material that will be retained when different levels of activity are employed. These percentages have no empirical basis and are pure fiction.

It may seem unduly negative to focus on things that do not work, but there are a number of reasons for doing this. One is that it provides a challenge to complacency. A potential problem with lists of ‘best practice’ is that they can be susceptible to confirmation bias. If the list of effective practices is long enough, and contains descriptions of practices that are open to a bit of interpretation, most teachers will be able to identify something they think they are doing well. Including some examples of ‘worst practice’ is likely to provoke a stronger reaction, which we hope can be challenging in a constructive way.

A second reason is that many of these ineffective practices seem to be quite popular. By stopping doing things that are either ineffective or inefficient, we should allow more time to focus on things that will make more difference. The world of schools and teachers is a busy one; if we don’t identify things to stop doing, we just try to cram more in to an already hectic environment.

A section of the report also reviews how we make judgements about teacher quality and questions the over-reliance on lesson observation. Given the complexity of teaching, it is surprisingly difficult for anyone watching a teacher to judge how effectively students are learning (Pianta et al., 2008).

Six approaches to teacher assessment are reviewed; three have moderate validity in signalling effectiveness:

  1.  classroom observations by peers, principals or external evaluators
  2. ‘value-added’ models (assessing progress in student achievement)
  3. student ratings.

Three other approaches have limited evidence:

  1. principal (or head teacher) judgement
  2. teacher self-reports
  3. analysis of classroom artefacts and teacher portfolios.

The report argues for a formative approach to teacher evaluation, based on continuous assessment and feedback rather than results from high-stakes tests (Danielson, 2007). This will need to incorporate a range of measures, from different sources, using a variety of methods (Polikoff, 2014). A key to appropriately cautious and critical use of the different methods is to triangulate them against each other. A single source of evidence may suggest the way forward, but when it is confirmed by another independent source, it starts to become a credible guide. Currently available measures can give useful information, but we must be careful not to over-interpret.

One of the conclusions of the report is that if that we are concerned with the learning of students, we should pay greater attention to the professional development of teachers themselves (Muijs et al., 2014). Good-quality teachers are the key to an effective school and a successful education system.

Great teaching cannot be achieved by following a recipe, but there are some clear pointers in the research to approaches that are most likely to be effective, and to others, even if quite popular, that are not. Teachers need to understand why, when and how a particular approach is likely to enhance students’ learning and be given time and support to embed it in their practice.

Sign up to the Institute for Effective Education’s fortnightly newsletter ‘Best Evidence in Brief’ at: the-iee.org.uk.


Coe R, Aloisi C, Higgins S, et al. (2014) What makes great teaching? Review of the underpinning research. Available at: https://www.suttontrust.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/What-Makes-Great-Teaching-REPORT.pdf (accessed 2018).
Danielson C (2007) Enhancing Professional Practice: A Framework for Teaching. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Muijs D, Kyriakides L, van der Werf G, et al. (2014) State of the art – teacher effectiveness and professional learning. School Effectiveness and School Improvement: An International Journal of Research, Policy and Practice 25(2): 231–256.
Pianta R, La Paro K and Hamre B (2008) Classroom Assessment Scoring System. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.
Polikoff M (2014) Does the test matter? Evaluating teachers when tests differ in their sensitivity to instruction. In: Kane T, Kerr K, and Pianta R (eds) Designing Teacher Evaluation Systems: New Guidance from the Measures of Effective Teaching Project. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, pp. 278–302.
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