What makes great teaching?

Do you like to praise students who complete a task that's easy for them? What about letting youngsters discover 'key ideas' for themselves, rather than teaching them directly? According to a new research report, these strategies can be harmful to learning.

What Makes Great Teaching? Review of the underpinning research was produced by Professor Rob Coe and colleagues from the UK's Durham University, for the Sutton Trust.

The academics reviewed more than 200 pieces of research. As well as identifying effective teaching approaches, the report highlights common practices that they warn can be harmful to learning and have no grounding in research.

'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, sometimes quite popular, that are not,' Professor Coe says.

'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.'

The review is described as a 'starter kit' for thinking about effective teaching. 'We define effective teaching as that which leads to improved student achievement using outcomes that matter to their future success,' the authors say.

'Defining effective teaching is not easy. The research keeps coming back to this critical point: student progress is the yardstick by which teacher quality should be assessed.'

The academics recommend a system for monitoring and evaluating teacher quality that has 'at its heart' a set of high-quality assessments of student outcomes.

The report identifies six key factors that contribute to good teaching. It says the two with the strongest evidence in improving student outcomes are: content knowledge (including how students think about content); and quality of instruction (including effective questioning and use of assessment).

The four factors with 'fair to moderate' evidence showing a positive impact on results are: classroom climate (the quality of interactions, and teacher expectations); classroom management (efficient use of lesson time, coordinating resources and spaces, and managing behaviour); teacher beliefs (why practices are adopted and what they aim to achieve); and professional behaviours (reflecting on practice, taking part in PD, supporting colleagues and communicating with parents).

'Some important caveats are required [in relation to] these examples of ‘effective practice’,' the report notes. 'All of them are open to interpretation. All of them could be done well or done badly. All of them could be inappropriate in some contexts and appropriate in others.'

It also lists seven common teaching strategies unsupported by evidence. 'Including some examples of ‘worst practice’ is likely to provoke a stronger reaction, which we hope can be challenging in a constructive way,' the academics say.

The list includes using praise lavishly - the authors point to several studies that suggest the wrong kinds of praise can be harmful to learning, conveying a message of a teacher's low expectations or low perception of a student's ability.

Allowing learners to discover key ideas for themselves makes the list. 'Although learners do need to build new understanding on what they already know, if teachers want them to learn new ideas, knowledge or methods they need to teach them directly,' the report says.

The claim that learners should be active rather than passive if you want them to remember something is also tackled. '[It] 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 ... are pure fiction ... if you want students to remember something, you have to get them to think about it.'

The report includes recommendations that the academics term as 'quick wins', including spreading awareness of research on effective pedagogy.


Robert Coe, Cesare Aloisi, Steve Higgins & Lee Elliot Major (Oct 2014). What makes great teaching? Review of the underpinning research, The Sutton Trust.

Do you know which teaching approaches enhance learning outcomes for your students?