What affects student learning?

As we are at or near the end of the semester, we often look back and think what worked and what did not work.  What could we do better next time? How can we help students learn more? In that vein, I offer a bulleted summary of John_Hattie‘s 2003 article “Teachers Make a Difference: What is the research evidence?” It is a meta-study that combined insights from various other studies to understand what affects student learning and what are the traits of a good teacher.

Studies have attributed the variance among student achievement to a variety of factors:

  • Students: 50% of variance. This is essentially student’s innate abilities.
  • Home: 5-10%. This is more about the levels of encouragement and expectations than about parental involvement at school.
  • School: 5-10%. This is the school’s finances, size, class size, quality of the building, and environment set by the administration.
  • Peers: 5-10%. This can range from peer-to-peer teaching to bullying and reputations and attitudes about learning.
  • Teachers: 30%. This is the area that we have the most control over and the most ability to use in order to improve our students’ learning.

Some aspects of a teacher’s role that can greatly influence student learning are:

  • Feedback
  • Instructional Quality
  • Direct instruction
  • Remediation
  • Class environment
  • Challenge of goals
  • Peer tutoring
  • Homework
  • Teacher style
  • Questioning

Expert teachers (as opposed to experienced or novice teachers):

  • Have a well integrated knowledge of the material that allows them to relate a new lesson to the course’s larger themes.
  • Are able to recognize common methods that can affect student learning. These can be strategies for their students to solve problems. For example, in Latin, reading left-to-right, hunting and pecking for the verb, or translating solely based on vocabulary.
  • Able to respond to students and their needs (and not just to tests and bell schedules).
  • Try to help individual students and find out more information to help them. Less expert teachers try to solve the problem for the entire class.
  • Anticipate problems, try to understand problems, improvise to solve them, and then monitor students to make sure the solution has worked. This often manifests itself in mental lesson plans that involve contingencies and that follow the pace of the students rather than the pace of the lesson.
  • Develop beneficial classroom environments where feedback is possible, error is welcomed, student questioning is high, engagement is the norm, and students can develop reputations as learners.
  • Are interested in the classroom and the students’ abilities–they are context-focused.
  • Are able to anticipate and prevent disturbances, filter out irrelevant information, monitor students’ progress, and provide feedback that helps learning, prevents boredom, and increases understanding.
  • Test hypotheses about student learning.
  • Are more automatic about some things so they can focus more on other factors affecting learning.
  • Respect students as learners and people. This allows teachers to see potential barriers to learning, not create them.
  • Are passionate about teaching and learning.
  • Aim for meeting standards and for making students feel effectual and challenged, as well as to regulate themselves.
  • Focus on surface learning (knowing something for a graduation test) and deep learning (relating and extending ideas, an intention to understand and impose meaning).

The greatest difference between “expert” and “experienced” teachers may be in the degree to which they challenge their students, the amount of feedback they provide, and the depth to which their students learn.


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