With the exam season in full swing, teenagers taking their GCSEs are hoping their teachers covered everything so they can achieve top marks. The methods teachers use in the classroom could also hold the key to improving pupils’ grades, according to a pioneering report published today.
The study, led by the University of Bristol, sheds new light on the fascinating and elusive question: what makes an effective teacher? For the first time in the UK, the researchers have identified which teaching practices drive up exam results and how different class activities work better depending on the subject.
Lead author Simon Burgess, Professor of Economics, said: “Whether or not you have an effective teacher is by far the most important factor influencing pupils’ GCSES, outside of your family background. This unique research unlocks the black box to effective teaching, helping us understand what specific teaching practices are more likely to produce better test scores.
“This is crucial to know as it could also make a dramatic difference to a child’s life chances and their potential future earnings.”
The team of international researchers analysed around 14,000 GCSE results of pupils from 32 secondary schools across the UK, comparing the scores to classroom observation reports spanning two years just before the COVID-19 pandemic on 251 teachers from the same schools.
The research, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, revealed compelling links between GCSE grades depending on teacher effectiveness ratings and class time usage.
The research showed that how teachers used class time had a significant impact on their pupils’ results. In fact, typical variations in class activities between teachers accounted for around a third of the total influence of teachers on the GCSE marks of their pupils.
Highly-rated teachers were also shown to have a greater impact on lower-achieving pupils than higher achievers, a finding with implications for how schools should deploy their most effective teachers.
There were also notable conclusions highlighting how specific teaching approaches are more beneficial for certain subjects.
For instance, the most important activity for English teachers appears to be facilitating interaction and discussion between classmates; more time spent on this tends to raise English GCSE scores. Conversely, for Maths teachers, the key activity is making time for pupils to practise questions individually in class; again, more time on this increases GCSE marks.
Assessing the long-term impact, the researchers went on to project how such improvements would enhance pupils’ future salaries. The effects are sizeable: the typical change in class time use considered raised GCSEs and later salaries that generated an additional £150k of lifetime income every year for a class of 30 pupils.
The report, in collaboration with the Oxford Partnership for Education Research and Analysis (OPERA) and Harvard University, forms the basis for a cheap and easy tool which teachers and school leaders can use to identify and improve classroom skills.
Professor Burgess said: “The potential of these findings is huge in both educational and economic terms. This greater understanding of the most effective teaching techniques could be used to help teachers learn and improve their own performance.
"Now we know the added importance of effective teaching for lower-achieving pupils, the research could also be used to inform and advance the ‘levelling-up’ agenda, helping underprivileged pupils thrive.”
Given that this is a transformative time for British education, many teachers will be looking to gauge how the new curriculum will affect their work. Tim Handley, Year 5 maths and ICT lead at Norfolk’s Woodland Primary Academy, looks at the specifics of the upcoming curriculum, and discusses how maths teachers can best go about getting the most from it.
The Department for Education (DfE) is concerned that England is lagging behind other countries in maths, calling for us to be more ambitious in this area of our children’s education, following the example set by higher performing countries such as Singapore. It is certainly true that the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) league tables show the UK is behind global rivals. In international tests taken by 15 year olds, we are failing to make the top 20 in maths, reading and science. In a recent report on Mathematics, it was highlighted that British 15 year olds’ mathematics skills are now more than two whole academic years behind 15 year olds in Shanghai. England's Education Secretary Michael Gove said that since the 1990s, test performances had been "at best stagnant, at worst declining”.
For some time now I have been toying with the idea that grading student work might just be one of the biggest barriers to improving student performance. Sound strange? Let me explain.
My theory is that we have all been programmed by society to look for a grade, result or classification on anything important we do in life. This system informs us of our level of success. What we aren't good at processing, however, is appreciating what to do to improve.
Take for example your driving test – when you heard the words 'passed', did you pay any attention to your 'minor faults' or what you weren't that good at? Or did you just want to grab the keys and get going? My point is that students rely too heavily on their grades and view these with far more importance than their comments and suggestions for improvement.
When work is marked, it usually only includes a single grade with a sentence of constructive criticism. However, the benefits of using categorised marking ensures that the student is totally clear on where his/her strengths are, where they need to improve, where they lack understanding and any parts of the exam criteria that they have missed.
Ah, the dreaded red pen. Students, parents and SLT often cringe at the sight of the red ink used by a teacher. Maybe because it's a symbol for blood?
I think it's more likely to be linked to the idea that teachers from a previous age would use just a red pen to mark work and would be likely to mark negatively; pointing out mistakes or circling poor work.
However, when a teacher marks their books now, they are usually (or hopefully) better trained into what marking works and what will benefit their students' learning.