When Do Students Succeed?

There’s a lot of appeal to the idea that we can do scientific studies into how people learn, then use the information from those studies to develop better teaching methods. In practice, of course, things are complicated: different studies say different things, and insights from research don’t always make it into the classroom.

So a pair of researchers decided to take stock of where we stand. With all the education research that’s been done, what have we learned and where do we go from here?

To answer this big question, they did a big study – or, more precisely, a systematic review. They went through 38 meta-analyses that had been done, covering about two million students. Then, out of all the variables studied, they looked at which variables most strongly predicted students’ achievement.

They found that the techniques teachers use can have a big impact on how students end up faring. When teachers articulate material clearly, making it personally meaningful for students, and then give students a chance to practice what they’ve learned through challenging exercises and activities, the students thrive.

Moreover, teachers whose students excel put time into deliberately planning out how courses are structured. They give concrete goals for students to work toward, and they have defined mechanisms for giving students feedback. Courses that are more interactive also tend to promote learning.

On the other hand, what technologies teachers use in their classrooms appears not to make much difference overall. It may be that setting clear goals for students, giving feedback, and making content personally meaningful is more important than the practical details of how information is relayed to students.

Predictably, the researchers found that how conscientious students are, how intelligent they are and what learning strategies they use also affect their academic success. However, a good part of how much students get out of a course appears to come down to how teachers run things. The authors of the paper point out that ultimately, that means investing in teacher training is an important step to making schools more effective.

Image: Flickr/cybrarian77