Recipe for student success – the key ingredients for achievement

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In designing the effective learning and teaching approaches that will emerge from the ‘experiential classroom’ of the pandemic, it is sensible and logical to look at the evidence from empirical studies of the key elements that affect students’ academic achievement. In a complementary article, the overwhelming evidence for the effectiveness of active learning over passive approaches, such as lecturing, was presented. Active learning improves outcomes for all students and reduces achievement gaps for underrepresented students. In this article, this is widened to consider the characteristics of students, educators and teaching methods which are most associated with better learning outcomes. It is primarily based on the excellent in-depth ‘meta-meta-analysis’ by Schneider and Preckel (2017)1.

In their study, Schneider and Preckel analysed 38 meta-analyses – each itself a statistical analysis of multiple studies of the elements that improve or worsen learning outcomes. The overall study, covering around 2 million students, provides a detailed and sophisticated analysis on what leads to improved outcomes in higher education. By considering such a large number of meta-analyses, covering a wide range of disciplines, educators and institutions, their analysis is able to identify the elements that can be generalised as leading to improved student outcomes independently from individual circumstances.

The elements leading to improved outcomes in K-12 school education

The most thorough review of meta-analyses in school education is John Hattie’s book ‘Visible Learning’2, covering about 800 meta-analyses and around 236 million students. Hattie found that the highest effect sizes come from ‘visible teaching and learning’ that is deliberately shaped by both teachers and students. The most effective educational approaches are those that provide explicit and challenging learning goals, feedback from both teachers to students and from students to teachers and active learning with students actively constructing their own knowledge. The most effective teachers are those that use these approaches, reflect on how to improve it and consider the learning process from the students’ perspective. Hattie’s conclusion are fully consistent with other reviews (e.g. Kulik & Kulik, 1989 and Wang et al, 1993).

How different are school and higher education?

There are, of course, important differences between school and higher education. Although the OECD average is that around 45% of 25-34 year olds have had a tertiary education, most students in higher education have succeeded in the school system. School education is primarily concerned with equipping students with broad skills and knowledge and so its teachers tend to be generalist. In higher education, students learn advanced knowledge and the methods of specific areas so the teachers are also usually experts in the specific fields they teach. Whilst online learning was an important element of school teaching even before lockdowns forced many to home-school, it is in the tertiary sector where online education has been mostly strongly suggested as a replacement for the classroom. Since the start of the pandemic, this debate has, of course, only increased. Traditionally, teacher-centric (i.e. didactic lecturing) instruction has tended to dominate in higher education, in all modes, and class sizes in most disciplines are significantly larger.

Despite these differences, many of the educator-focussed elements identified by Hattie2 also emerge from the analysis by Schneider and Preckel (2017)1. There are over 20 years of very strong and consistent empirical evidence available for the approaches that educators in higher education should use in the preparation and delivery of courses. When reflecting on how effective you are as an educator or seeking evidence-based approaches that might work in your classroom, it is important to consider that most approaches work if implemented well but that there may be even more effective alternatives.

Identified: the elements leading to improved outcomes in higher education

What educators do in preparing, delivering, assessing and supporting students is more strongly linked to the quality and extent of students’ learning than anything else. Even in higher education, the choice of teaching methods, the ways in which they are implemented and the relationship between teachers and students have the most substantial effects on achievement. Luckily, educators can dramatically improve the quality and effectiveness of their courses and teaching by making small changes. The elements identified for an engaging class and effective class are consistent with the evidence for active learning outlined by Freeman et al (2014)3. However, Schneider and Preckel (2017)1 cover course design, content delivery and active learning elements and show that:

The combination of teacher-centered and student-centered instructional elements is more effective than either form of instruction alone

Social interaction is strongly associated with student achievement

  • Encourage questions and discussion. Students in classes with educators who openly encourage questions and discussion tend to have significantly better outcomes than when these are absent. In particular, the use of open-ended questions rather than close-ended questions leads to deeper learning rather than memorisation of facts. Tools such as Padlet or polling devices, backchannels and other activities can be used encourage more students to participate and are more inclusive than whole class discussions or Zoom chat.
  • Use small group learning. Complementing educator-student interactions with student-student interactions improves learning more than whole class or individual learning. It is most effective when group members have individual responsibilities and tasks require cooperation. Zoom breakout rooms can be effective for this but the students need very clear instructions.
  • Successful educators are available, helpful and friendly, and show concern and respect for students. It is not only in lockdown or at times of stress that we should show care and compassion for students’ and be open about our own circumstances and educational journeys.

Student engagement increases when they are stimulated through meaningful learning

  • Make the objectives and requirements of a unit clear to yourself and to students.
  • Explicitly relate content to students’ lives, experiences, aims and values. As well as increasing engagement, this helps students to integrate content with prior knowledge in their long-term memory and ensure that students from all backgrounds engage effectively with their studies.
  • Provide intellectual challenges and encourage independent thought. Facilitated project-based learning interspersed with engaging content delivery can ensure students see the relevance of the subject.

Assessment and feedback are as important as what happens in class

  • Use peer assessment and encourage self assessment. These help provide feedback on progress and what students need to do to improve and lead to similar scores to educator assessment, thus improving evaluative judgement.
  • Make learning goals and success criteria explicit. As noted above, clear objectives and requirements are vital. They assist both teachers and students in knowing what is important and make it easier to align content and assessment. With increased use of technology, media and tools in our classes, it is easy to be distracted and so it is even more important that everyone knows what the key outcomes and success criteria are.
  • Show concern for students’ progress, the fairness of each assessment and provide regular feedback. Using weekly assessment leads to higher learning gains. This might involve low-weighted multiple choice questions or discussion board posts that allow students to demonstrate mastery as well as providing feedback and opportunities to monitor engagement.

Content delivery can be improved through small changes

  • Be clear and show enthusiasm. Students will not be interested in a subject if the teacher is not.
  • Combine spoken and written language. Talking with slides is more effective than an oral presentation, particularly if the slides use pictures or only a few words and do not contain distracting content or design elements. When making videos, keep to the same principles and make sure that they are short and have captions. ‘Seductive’ details add to the cost but detract from the educational value by increasing cognitive load.
  • Note taking is not effective as a form of active learning. It is very difficult to listen, read and make notes at the same time. Give students tasks to do or time to paraphrase ideas and make notes.

Technology should complement and not replace classroom interaction

  • Combine online and face-to-face learning by recognising the most effective attributes of each. The use of technology is most effective when it complements classroom interaction. Online learning is about as effective as face-to-face learning but blended learning is more effective than either. Technology cannot compensate for bad or disinterested teaching and can actually amplify it.
  • Social interaction is (again!) key to student achievement and is harder to achieve online. Concentrate on how you are using collaboration tools, clarity of instructions and communication approaches when remote instruction is unavoidable or the norm.
  • Don’t rely on improvements or greater familiarity with technology to improve outcomes. The value of technology does not appear to improve over time. There is no substitute for the central role of the skilled educator.

Identified: students’ approaches to learning and assessment are more strongly related to achievement than their personality or context

Students’ study skills and approaches for learning and assessment are more strongly associated with achievement than personal backgrounds and personalities. Whilst a culturally responsive environment is important for ensuring that the classes are inclusive, educators have considerable influence on students’ learning strategies. including adoption of approaches that encourage, maximise and monitor engagement and deliberately develop effective study and time and study management

Further reading

  1. Schneider, M., & Preckel, F. (2017). Variables associated with achievement in higher education: A systematic review of meta-analyses. Psychological bulletin143(6), 565.
  2. Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. New York, NY: Routledge.
  3. Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences111(23), 8410-8415.
  4. Bridgeman, A.J. (2021). Working it out for themselves: the effect of active learning on student outcomes.
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