Sep 4, 2018

Evidence-Based Teaching Strategies to Improve Student Achievement

By Lou Whitaker, Ed. D., Brain Junkie

 “…(Teachers)… work in a laboratory called the classroom, and we have a tremendous amount of knowledge and understanding of the teaching/learning process. We have gained this knowledge through experience and from research in educational psychology, cognitive psychology, and teaching methodology. It is up to us to decide how the research from all these sources (including neuroscience) best informs our practice.”    
 Pat Wolfe, President at Mind Matters, Inc.

High-impact, effective teachers are constantly asking themselves questions about student achievement and what factors has the greatest influence on learning. They begin to question themselves and look for ways to improve their teaching strategies. They ask, “How great will my impact be on their personal learning? What are the most effective teaching strategies I should be using in the classroom?”

Here we will take a close look at how the brain learns best through the research and studies conducted through neuroscience and then cross-reference that information with which best practices provide the optimal chance for improving student achievement.

Best Practices Research
Effective educators turn to data-driven research when creating a plan of action. In John Hattie’s book, Visible Learning, A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-analysis Relating to Achievement, he lists indicators that have the greatest impact on student achievement. Based on neuroscience and best practices, I began to think about the Top 10 evidence-based teaching strategies that had the greatest impact on student achievement:

Top Ten Teaching Strategies

10. Positive Teacher/Student Relationships
The relationship teachers have with their students dictates the impact they will have on their students’ achievement. When there is a positive teacher/student relationship, students feel safe and there is a strong bond of trust within the classroom. Students are not afraid to take risks and understand that making errors are all part of the learning process. Students are more likely to feel positive about school and have a greater chance of developing a true love for learning.

Neuroscience is also telling us that there is a direct link between a student’s academic learning and one’s emotions and social environment….and it all starts with the relationships between the teacher and his/her students. Having a basic understanding of social emotional learning is essential when working in our current school systems. Developing a positive, supporting, trustworthy relationship is a basic strategy and critical to the success relating to student achievement.

9. Real-life, Meaningful, Problem Solving Assignments
Personal experiences form many of our strongest neural networks. Many lessons contain references to developing critical-thinking and problem-solving skills but are often hypothetical which usually have predicted outcomes. Teachers need to assign actual problems in their own school or community. These challenges may not be easy to solve, however, struggling with such things as time constraints and insufficient information, students will improve their critical thinking skills as the work to solve these problems.

8. Mnemonics
According to the Oxford Dictionary, mnemonics is “the study and development for improving and assisting memory”.  Although many teachers view them as simply “memory tricks,” they can be effective learning strategies. Research suggests that the use of mnemonics to acquire factual information can often improve the students’ ability to apply that information.

7. Concept Mapping
Concept mapping involves a graphical representation of the major points of the lesson. By summarizing the major concepts into a visual representation, the brain has a better chance of retraining what was presented. The brain is consistently checking to see where it is at and where it is headed.

It’s like when you walk into a mall and you’re looking for a certain store. To begin with, you head for a map and look for the “you are here” sign. Next, you search for your store and then figure out your route to get there. The brain reacts in the same way when it’s learning something new…hooking its prior knowledge to the new information. Using concept maps provides a visual relationship of ideas and topics and shows how items are interconnected and related to one another.

6. Rehearsal Strategies
Active rehearsal strategies are required for long-term retention. In working memory, there are two types of rehearsal strategies, rote and elaborative. Rote rehearsal is used for acquiring certain skills or procedures when automaticity is required, such as learning to type. Elaborate rehearsal is needed for encoding and retrieving enormous amounts of information, such as understanding the concepts regarding the Civil War.

 “It is the frequency of different opportunities rather than merely spending more time on task that makes the difference to learning,” says Gerry Miller in his summary of Hattie’s book.  This is not “drill and kill practice,” but includes deliberative practice involving specific skills and complex variations of the material.  

5. Music, Rhyme, Rhythm
Music does have certain beneficial effects on learning. Researchers Gordon Shaw and Frances Rauscher conducted studies showing the relationship between music training and spatial-temporal reasoning.  Spatial-temporal reasoning is the ability to conceptually solve a problem because of one’s ability to visualize the problem, according to Pat Wolfe. The brain seeks patterns and therefore “…rhyme and rhythm prove great mechanisms for storing information that would otherwise be difficult to retain”. Naming the parts of a neuron will be easily remembered when it’s put into the nursery rhyme, “I’m a little Teapot.”

            I’m a little neuron – axon out!
            Here are my dendrites.
            Watch them sprout!
            When I make connections you can count,
            Over 6,000, without a doubt!

As with mnemonics, using music, rhyme, and rhythm seems to fall under best practices category of teaching strategies.

4. Classroom Discussions
Having good classroom discussions is one of the factors that have the greatest impact on student achievement and is one of the most effective intervention factors related to learning.

According to Tom Barrett in The Curious Creative, teachers should provide opportunities for classroom discussions because they:
  • Encourage student interaction and active participation that provide the avenue for social interaction and helps students build confidence as they improve their own personal skills. Students not only develop their speaking abilities but are required to use and perfect their listening skills.  
  • Provide an opportunity for the students to connect to a topic. Students are more inclined to stay focused and gain interest in the topic if they are actively engaged in a conversation.
  • Provide a forum for expressing personal opinions. Being able to express one’s ideas and thoughts in an articulate manor is an essential life skill. Discussions allow for all opinions to be expressed and give the student a chance to see things from another point of view.
  • Build “intellectual agility” as student listen to various viewpoints; they acquire the ability to formulate opinions as they develop their metacognitive skills. They need to “think on their feet” as the discussion moves on.
The brain is a social organ. Its purpose is survival and when we were hunter-gatherers it was imperative that people were able to communicate with others in their tribe. Just as communication is essential in today’s society, classroom discussions are a natural strategy that should be used for the various reasons listed above. 

Neuroplasticity is the brain's ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. The human brain has a growth spirit during the adolescent years. Not only is this teaching strategy effective for teenagers, rich classroom discussions are highly effective no matter what the age of the students.

3. Collaborative Learning
Peers can greatly influence one’s learning by tutoring, giving feedback, helping and providing friendship. In Hattie’s research he found peers play an important role in “emotional support, social facilitation, cognitive restructuring, and rehearsal or deliberative practice.” Educators are realizing they can no longer just focus on the academics and that social and emotional learning is essential to improve student achievement.

From the point of neuroscience, neuroplasticity occurs as the brain changes as it learns something new. “Active learning takes advantage of processes that stimulate multiple neural connections in the brain and promotes memory,” according to recent research from the GSI Teaching & Learning Center at The University of California, Berkeley. Active learning includes working in groups through collaborative learning.

2. Reciprocal Teaching
When a student listens to the teacher explain a concept or idea in a lesson, such as learning the parts of a plant, the student pays special attend to the various names, learns how each part is related to the whole and studies the purpose or function of each part. The teacher then puts the students into pairs and asks one student to “teach” the other what they just learned. The first student repeats what the teacher taught in the lesson, naming each part, explains the part’s relationship to the whole, and so forth. After a few minutes, the other child has a chance to reciprocate the action by putting into their own worlds what they have just learned. Just this simple act of teaching one another helps students retain more making it easier to remember and recall the information when test time comes around.

And why is this strategy so effective? When sitting in a lecture hall, there are mainly two regions of the brain that are highly active; the occipital lobes (visually watching the presentation) and the temporal lobes (listening to the lecture). When someone is teaching, or elaborating on what they have learned, not only are the occipital and temporal lobes activated, the parietal lobes (important in language processing) and the frontal lobes (higher order thinking) are stimulated. Doesn’t it make sense that the more regions activated, the better the chance of transferring the information into long-term memory?

1. Understanding the Human Brain and How We Learn Best
“If we want to empower students, we must show them how they can control their own cognitive and emotional health and their own learning,” says neurologist Judy Willis M.D., M.Ed in the article “How to teach students about the brain” in Educational Leadership. And this all starts with understanding the human brain and how we learn. While teaching strategies determine the teacher’s impact, students can learn strategies that help them more efficiently and support a deeper understanding of how the brain functions. It’s very powerful when students, preschool aged through adult, are made aware that they can literally change their brains through neuroplasticity.

John Hattie explains that Visual Learning is “…when teachers see learning through the eyes of the student, and when students see themselves as their own teachers”. By blending teaching strategies based on neuroscience and those ranked high in best practice research, educators provide the greatest opportunity to improve student achievement. Learning is very personal to the teacher as well as the student and when teachers help students understand how they learn, how they think, teachers provide the tools students need to become successful in life. 

Author Bio
Dr. Lou E. Whitaker has a Bachelor of Science in Education, a Masters in Administration, and a Doctorate in Educational Leadership. Dr. Whitaker has been a teacher, a principal, and served as an Associate Superintendent for Schools. She has experience as a Disney Educator and is currently the President for Florida ASCD. Today she is an Educational Consultant for Open Minds Enterprises, The Global Center for College & Career Readiness, and MeTEOR Education. For comments and/or questions, contact Dr. Whitaker at

Dr. Lou Whitaker will present "What Constitutes an Enriched Environment" at EDspaces 2018 on Wednesday, November 7, 2018 at 8:00 am at the Tampa Convention Center.

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