The holy grail: the truth about how students learn

24th June 2016 at 00:00
Educators must wade through a mass of competing claims, so how can you discover what actually works?

Sound evidence-based practice requires teachers to discriminate, evaluate and apply a variety of sources of information. Do you?

Oliver Caviglioli, a former special school headteacher and pioneer of innovative teaching concepts, recently teamed up with the Learning Scientists, a group of US academics who promote the use of evidence-based teaching strategies. They collaborated on Twitter to determine a continuum of sources of information that teachers can use to find out about how students learn, from the subjective to the objective (

Below, I explore the benefits and limitations of each of these sources.

Intuition and experience

Highly subjective, intuition often derives from a desire to find patterns and connections in randomness. Sometimes people overestimate their intuition and prevent themselves from making sound decisions. Take the roulette player who observes five reds come in one after another, and believes that there is little chance that a red can come in again, so places his bet on black. But, of course, the odds are still the same regardless of how many reds came before.

Liken this to the classroom. We use our intuition and experiences to guide us in the situations that we face day to day. Being short of time means that teachers don’t have the opportunity to contemplate decisions; rather, they act in the moment when it comes to judgements on how students learn best.

American psychologists Veronika Denes-Raj and Seymour Epstein propose that people process information in two modes – one identified by terms such as “rational”, “analytical” and “deliberative”, and the other by terms such as “experiential”, “automatic”, “intuitive” and “natural” (

The latter is a dangerous concoction of highly subjective approaches. Conversely, experience can support us contextually, particularly when fewer objective sources are available to us. Moreover, intuition can be useful in opening yourself to new ideas that rational thinking may not allow.

CPD sessions

Although some CPD sessions are informative, and outside experts can act as agents for change (, there are a lot of snake-oil salespeople out there. These individuals work in their own best interests to promote ideas and resources, failing to provide unbiased information that is backed by research into how students learn.

Furthermore, there remains limited evidence to support the impact of one-off CPD sessions on teaching and learning ( However, a CPD session is likely to have the most value if it is well-informed and part of an ongoing community of practice.

Communicating with peers

Teacher learning communities are held in high regard by Dylan Wiliam, emeritus professor of educational assessment at University College London, who advocates the idea over the traditional “sheep-dip” approach to CPD.

Can teacher learning communities alone really tell us how students learn? Probably not. Yet in terms of trialling strategies that are informed by more objective sources, it is certainly worth working with peers to determine how students learn best in your context.

Articles and blogs

This very article includes some bias towards particular sources. And the nature of this publication provides all in education a voice – some more authoritative than others. Blogs can be produced by anyone and perhaps reinforce bad practice. Having said that, information in the media and blogs is current and highly accessible, so why not use it as a starting point to find out how students learn?

Popular education books

There are thousands of books that provide us with information on how students learn. The issue we face is how to discern which are the most valid and reliable sources. Of course, once you get past this gargantuan task, you then have the bias of the author and editor to deal with. In spite of this, books are desirable because they make research accessible.

Education journals

On the topic of research, there is a wide array of individual, peer-reviewed studies available, covering a broad range of age groups, subjects and countries. These have been synthesised by John Hattie, director of the Melbourne Educational Research Institute, and Robert Marzano, a leading education researcher in the US, who have both drawn on thousands of studies to determine how students learn best, producing an “effect size” for each of the strategies.

Some have critiqued the methods these researchers used to determine the “effect size”, questioning the validity of such an approach. Despite this, it is difficult to completely dismiss the findings of such large-scale studies – just don’t rely solely on these pieces of evidence.

Cognitive science journals

This resource is the only one that focuses on the brain – which is what we’re here for, isn’t it? These studies try to isolate the variables associated with typical classroom experiments and are generally laboratory-based, so are pretty much as objective as we can get (of course, there is also neuroscience, but this is a developing and murky area). Key principles of learning science can easily be applied to the classroom, but trying to interpret them can be problematic.

In determining how students learn best, we should try to use as many of the aforementioned sources as possible, preferably more of the objective ones. We should draw on and amalgamate the information gleaned to determine the most effective strategies to support our learners. So how will you use the evidence to find out how students learn?

Dan Williams is an FE practitioner in the Midlands @FurtherEdagogy

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