Dispelling myths about improving achievement

Why smaller class sizes, homework and projects don't always benefit learning
By: | Issue: September, 2015
August 17, 2015

As an education researcher, I’ve spent more than 15 years conducting nearly 800 meta-analyses of 50,000 studies focused on student learning. The result, which I call Visible Learning, is about understanding the attributes of schooling that truly drive student learning and have a significant impact on achievement.

Because almost any education intervention can claim some positive effect on learning, I performed a statistical examination of current research and developed a threshold to determine effect. Many of the findings align to current attempts to improve education, but there are several claimsÑon varying sides of the education debateÑthat just don’t measure up.

Myth: Smaller class sizes improve learning. Despite much of the current rhetoric, reducing class size doesn’t come close to meeting the threshold for impact. In fact, smaller class size only marginally affects student achievement because teaching practices rarely change when teachers move from larger to smaller classes. The ROI is also low when reducing class size because personnel spending goes up on more classes and teachers.

Myth: Homework matters. Only for older studentsÑthose in middle or high school who are reinforcing what happened in the classroomÑdoes homework substantially influence student achievement. To be effective, homework should be four things: brief, linked to the in-class lesson, monitored by the teacher, and exclusive of new learning that disadvantages those who most need a teacher present.

Myth: Teachers need to soften criticism with praise. While giving students positive reinforcement is important, coupling critical feedback with praise negates the impact the feedback has on improving student learning. Teachers should work to create a positive, nurturing environment so that students trust their teachers and set high expectations. However, critical feedback should be delivered with a different tone so students understand the importance of improving their work.

Myth: Teachers need deep content knowledge to be effective. Some reform initiatives focus primarily on ensuring teachers have deeper content knowledge, particularly in secondary subjects. Yet most teaching today occurs at the surface level, so in-depth subject knowledge is not as influential as many believe. It is only when there is the right mix of surface and deep learning does content knowledge matter. Expert teachers use their content knowledge to make meaningful connections between concepts by using students’ prior knowledge and adapting lessons to meet students’ needs.

Myth: Project-based learning and inquiry is the route to better student achievement. While project-based learning and inquiry can be effective instructional techniques, they reach their highest potential only after specific content has been mastered. These techniques require students have sufficient understanding of concepts. Using the technique generically across subjects is not as effective as problem-solving with specific content to deepen learning in one subject.

Myth: Teachers learn by watching videos of their work. Reviewing videos can help teachers identify areas of improvement in their instruction. Yet this is true only when student reactions to the instruction are included, which allows teachers to see what is understood and what needs more clarification.

Myth: Eliminating social promotion gives students more time to learn foundational skills. Repeating a grade actually has a negative effect on student achievement (at every age) and is correlated with negative social and emotional adjustment, behavior and self-concept.

Myth: Ability grouping is effective. Some believe grouping students by ability allows teachers to customize learning to students’ learning pace, but the opposite is trueÑit has little impact on achievement. The greatest negative effect is that students from minorities are more likely to be in the lower groups and such equity issues should raise major concerns.

John Hattie is an education researcher at the Melbourne Educational Research Institute at the University of Melbourne in Australia.