With the exam season in full swing, teenagers taking their GCSEs are hoping their teachers covered everything so they can achieve top marks. The methods teachers use in the classroom could also hold the key to improving pupils’ grades, according to a pioneering report published today.
The study, led by the University of Bristol, sheds new light on the fascinating and elusive question: what makes an effective teacher? For the first time in the UK, the researchers have identified which teaching practices drive up exam results and how different class activities work better depending on the subject.
Lead author Simon Burgess, Professor of Economics, said: “Whether or not you have an effective teacher is by far the most important factor influencing pupils’ GCSES, outside of your family background. This unique research unlocks the black box to effective teaching, helping us understand what specific teaching practices are more likely to produce better test scores.
“This is crucial to know as it could also make a dramatic difference to a child’s life chances and their potential future earnings.”
The team of international researchers analysed around 14,000 GCSE results of pupils from 32 secondary schools across the UK, comparing the scores to classroom observation reports spanning two years just before the COVID-19 pandemic on 251 teachers from the same schools.
The research, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, revealed compelling links between GCSE grades depending on teacher effectiveness ratings and class time usage.
The research showed that how teachers used class time had a significant impact on their pupils’ results. In fact, typical variations in class activities between teachers accounted for around a third of the total influence of teachers on the GCSE marks of their pupils.
Highly-rated teachers were also shown to have a greater impact on lower-achieving pupils than higher achievers, a finding with implications for how schools should deploy their most effective teachers.
There were also notable conclusions highlighting how specific teaching approaches are more beneficial for certain subjects.
For instance, the most important activity for English teachers appears to be facilitating interaction and discussion between classmates; more time spent on this tends to raise English GCSE scores. Conversely, for Maths teachers, the key activity is making time for pupils to practise questions individually in class; again, more time on this increases GCSE marks.
Assessing the long-term impact, the researchers went on to project how such improvements would enhance pupils’ future salaries. The effects are sizeable: the typical change in class time use considered raised GCSEs and later salaries that generated an additional £150k of lifetime income every year for a class of 30 pupils.
The report, in collaboration with the Oxford Partnership for Education Research and Analysis (OPERA) and Harvard University, forms the basis for a cheap and easy tool which teachers and school leaders can use to identify and improve classroom skills.
Professor Burgess said: “The potential of these findings is huge in both educational and economic terms. This greater understanding of the most effective teaching techniques could be used to help teachers learn and improve their own performance.
"Now we know the added importance of effective teaching for lower-achieving pupils, the research could also be used to inform and advance the ‘levelling-up’ agenda, helping underprivileged pupils thrive.”
Summative assessment is a dead duck. We all know this. Aside from a final examination, all of the assessment we do these days should be formative. It should enable the student to improve. Yet still we use written tests which give students a score, a grade or percentage. Now, of course a student can self-reflect on why they got the grade they did or the teacher can go through the test paper explaining errors but to do this on an individual, rather than whole-class basis is almost impossible. How then does a teacher give rich and detailed feedback to their students without it being a huge increase in workload? The answer is diagnostic testing, a technique which allows formative feedback to be generated from summative feedback.
Kristy Lundström, rektor (head of school): We are always trying to find ways to create the “perfect” learning environment for our students. The challenge is that the “perfect” environment can look different from student to student, from course to course, and from time to time. I want us to stop thinking “class” and think “student”. With this in mind, the question shifts from trying to find the perfect solution to trying to find a flexible framework where teachers are empowered to make the strategic instructional decisions that would work for just their group of students. At our school, we have designated an instructional designer to explore possible methods for how this could work. We call it our BLE (Blended Learning Environment) project. Meet Hanna.
At the risk of sounding unprofessional, homework has always been a thorn in our side. The children dislike it, teachers can have workload issues around it, and both the school and the parents can have unrealistic expectations of it. It is an entity in which no one has a common opinion. It is also an incredibly emotive subject; if you open any teaching publication there are hosts of opinions for and against homework. In research completed in 2006 Cooper, Robinson, and Patall noted:
'With only rare exceptions, the relationship between the amount of homework students do and their achievement outcomes was found to be positive and statistically significant. Therefore, we think it would not be imprudent, based on the evidence in hand, to conclude that doing homework causes improved academic achievement'