Improving learner outcomes

What makes great teaching?

What makes great teaching

Author Anita Devi

Date 27th Mar 2018


How many teachers and leaders are aware of the research report ‘What makes great teaching?’, published by The Sutton Trust?

We’re going to take a look at the report’s key findings and consider their implications for classroom practice.

This is relevant to both teachers and teaching assistants, particularly when considering the Professional Standards for Teaching Assistants, introduced in England in 2016.

Background to the Sutton Trust report:

The aim of the report was to review existing literature and analyse different methods of evaluating teaching. More than two hundred pieces of research were included in the literature review.

The focus of it centred on addressing three fundamental questions:

  1. What makes ’great teaching’?
  2. What kinds of frameworks or tools could help us to capture it?
  3. How could this promote better learning?

For the purposes of the research, effective teaching was defined as ‘that which leads to improved student achievement using outcomes that matter to their future success.’  This is based on the principle that ‘student progress is the yardstick by which teacher quality should be assessed.’

“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. 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.”
Professor Robert Coe, Durham University

The Six Attributes of Great Teaching

The findings resonate with the large-scale study on teacher effectiveness in 2000 by Hay McBer; good quality teaching will involve a combination of the following six attributes manifested at different times. The very best teachers are those that demonstrate all these features:

Great Teaching

Six identified components of great teaching with those shaded in blue having strong evidence of high impact on student outcomes and the rest moderate evidence.

In the above figure, there are two components with the strongest evidence of high impact on student outcomes:

‘Pedagogical content knowledge’ has two elements: deep knowledge of the subject being taught, and knowledge of the way students think about the subject, i.e. evaluating the thinking behind students’ work and addressing common misconceptions.

This naturally requires practitioners to have a good relationship with learners. In a primary school context, teachers have extended opportunities for interaction with students in which to understand their metacognition, but may not have in-depth subject knowledge in all subjects. However, in a secondary context, teachers may have a deeper subject knowledge but, due to timetable constraints, may have less contact with students.

Knowledge of the student enables teachers to use appropriate strategies to deliver ‘Quality of Instruction’, including:

7 Ineffective Teaching Practices

The report also gives examples of practices whose use is not supported by evidence, suggesting that stopping these would allow more time to focus on things that support improved learning outcomes.

1. Using praise lavishly

Whilst the intent may be to encourage and protect, the evidence suggests that lavish praise results in low expectations, especially for low-attaining students.

2. Allowing learners to discover key ideas for themselves ❌ 

Research evidence supports direct instruction over ‘discovery learning’.

3. Grouping students by ability ❌ 

Evidence suggests this makes little difference to learning outcomes, and that it can result in teachers not accommodating needs within an ability group, and overplaying differences between groups – going too fast with high-ability groups and too slow with the low.

4. Encouraging re-reading and highlighting to memorise key ideas ❌ 

Self-tests, generating answers and spaced interval learning periods for recall are more effective than re-reading and highlighting.

5. Addressing low confidence and aspirations before teaching content ❌ 

If poor motivation in low attainers stems from repeated failure, starting to get them to succeed in learning content will improve motivation and confidence.

6. Presenting information in preferred learning styles ❌ 

The psychological evidence is clear that there are no benefits in advocating and using preferred learning styles

7. Ensuring students are always active so that they remember ❌ 

The percentages shown in a ‘learning pyramid’, which links learning activities to information retainment, have no empirical basis. Students must think about something to remember it, which could involve being active or passive.

6 Tips for Giving Teachers Constructive Feedback

When it comes to assessing teaching quality, the review describes the characteristics of feedback most likely to achieve positive results, and the environment in which it’s given and received.

Giving teacher feedback is critical, in terms of enabling professionals to develop, and deliver better teaching. The research identified six principles of teacher feedback and sustained professional development. These are:

1. Focus is on improving student outcomes.

2. Feedback is related to clear, specific and challenging goals for the recipient.

3. Attention is on the learning rather than the person or comparisons with others.

4. Teachers are encouraged to be continual independent learners.

5. Feedback is mediated by a mentor in an environment of trust and support.

6. An environment of professional learning and support is promoted by the school’s leadership.


‘What makes great teaching?’ is a challenging read. It is full of evidence-based insights into ‘what works’ and uncovers some practices that have not proved to be effective.

The guidance on how school leaders can create the most conducive environment for teachers to receive feedback and develop their skills is now being adopted in many schools. This supportive structure helps teachers to maintain their love of learning and invest in their professional development.

To explore how you can improve the quality of your instruction, check out the Effective Teaching & Learning course which covers the interventions suggested in the Sutton Trust toolkit.

Have a read of our Learning Theory short course, available for free.

Comment: How do you measure your teaching against student outcomes? What is your school leadership focusing on in the year ahead?

How is your school developing the quality of teacher instruction?

About the author

Anita Devi is Director of ADL, An Education Consultant & SEND Specialist | Twitter @Butterflycolour


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