Lavish praise for students is among seven popular teaching practices not supported by evidence, according to a new Sutton Trust report which reviews over 200 pieces of research on how to develop great teachers.

What Makes Great Teaching, by Professor Rob Coe and colleagues at Durham University, warns that many common practices can be harmful to learning and have no grounding in research. Examples include using praise lavishly, allowing learners to discover key ideas by themselves, grouping students by ability and presenting information to students based on their “preferred learning style”.

On the other hand, some other teaching approaches are supported by good evidence of their effectiveness. Many of these are obvious and widely practiced, but others are at odds with common assumptions. Examples include: challenging students to identify the reason why an activity is taking place in the lesson; asking a large number of questions and checking the responses of all students; spacing-out study or practice on a given topic, with gaps in between for forgetting; and making students take tests or generate answers, even before they have been taught the material.

Previous Sutton Trust research shows that the quality of teaching is by far the biggest factor within schools that impacts on the achievement of children from poorer backgrounds. It found that over a school year, poorer pupils gain 1.5 years’ worth of learning with very effective teachers, compared with 0.5 years with poorly performing teachers. In other words, a great teacher can produce a whole year’s extra learning.

Today’s report offers a “starter kit” for thinking about what constitutes effective teaching. This is based on behaviours, approaches and classroom practices that are well-defined, easy to implement and show good evidence of improvements in student outcomes. Six key factors that contribute to good teaching are identified. The two factors with the strongest evidence in improving student outcomes are:

  • Content knowledge. Teachers with strong knowledge and understanding of their subject make a greater impact on students’ learning. It is also important for teachers to understand how students think about content and be able to identify common misconceptions on a topic.
  • Quality of instruction. This includes effective questioning and the use of assessment by teachers. Specific practices, like reviewing previous learning, providing model responses for students, giving adequate time for practice to embed skills securely and progressively introducing new learning (scaffolding) are also found to improve attainment.

The other four elements of effective teaching have fair to moderate evidence showing a positive impact on results. They are: classroom climate which includes the quality of interaction between teachers and students as well as teacher expectations; classroom management which includes efficient use of lesson time and managing behaviour with clear rules that are consistently enforced; teachers’ beliefs, the reasons why they adopt particular practices and their theories about learning; and  professional behaviours which relates to professional development, supporting colleagues, and communicating with parents.

As well as summarising what the research says about effective and ineffective practices, today’s report also looks at the different methods of evaluating teaching. These include: using ‘value-added’ results from student test scores;, observing classroom teaching;, and getting students to rate the quality of their teaching. The report finds that when done well and used cautiously, all these methods can be useful, but it warns they are easy to get wrong should not to be used in isolation to assess teaching.

The seven examples of strategies unsupported by evidence are:

  1. Using praise lavishly For low-attaining students praise that is meant to be encouraging and protective can actually convey a message of low expectations. The evidence shows children whose failure generates sympathy are more likely to attribute it to lack of ability than those who are presented with anger.
  2. Allowing learners to discover key ideas for themselves Enthusiasm for ‘discovery learning’ is not supported by research evidence, which broadly favours direct instruction.
  3. Grouping students by ability Evidence on the effects of grouping by ability, either by allocating students to different classes, or to within-class groups, suggests that it makes very little difference to learning outcomes. It can result in teachers failing to accommodate different needs within an ability group and over-playing differences between groups, going too fast with the high-ability groups and too slow with the low.
  4. Encouraging re-reading and highlighting to memorise key ideas Testing yourself, trying to generate answers, and deliberately creating intervals between study to allow forgetting, are all more effective approaches to memorisation than re-reading or highlighting.
  5. Addressing low confidence and aspirations before teaching content Attempts to enhance motivation prior to teaching content are unlikely to succeed and even if they do the impact on subsequent learning is close to zero. If the poor motivation of low attainers is a logical response to repeated failure starting to get them to succeed through learning content will improve motivation and confidence.
  6. Presenting information to students in their preferred learning style Despite a recent survey showing over 90% of teachers believe individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style, the psychological evidence is clear that there are no benefits to this method.
  7. Being active, rather than listening passively, helps you remember This claim is commonly presented in the form of a ‘learning pyramid’ which shows precise percentages of material that will be retained when different levels of activity are employed. These percentages have no empirical basis and are pure fiction.

Dr Lee Elliot Major, Director of Policy and Development at the Sutton Trust said;

“It’s a scandal that we are so concerned with the learning of pupils, yet neglect the professional development of teachers themselves.  Good quality teachers are the agents of social mobility – able to transform the achievement pupils from poorer backgrounds. This research review debunks many of the teaching myths but also reveals the core lessons for schools to help them develop great teachers.”

Professor Robert Coe from Durham University said:

“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.”

“Given the complexity of teaching, it is surprisingly difficult for anyone watching a teacher to judge how effectively students are learning. We all think we can do it, but the research evidence shows that we can’t. Anyone who wants to judge the quality of teaching needs to be very cautious.”

For further information or to arrange interviews please contact Sharmini Selvarajah on 020 7802 0645 / 07951 447956 or Conor Ryan on 0207 802 1660


  1. The Sutton Trust is a foundation set up in 1997, dedicated to improving social mobility through education. It has published over 150 research studies and funded and evaluated programmes that have helped hundreds of thousands of young people of all ages, from early years through to access to the professions.
  2.  What Makes Great Teaching by Professor Robert Coe (Durham University), Cesare Aloisi (Durham University),Dr Lee Elliot Major (Sutton Trust) and Professor Steve Higgins (Durham University) is available here
  3.  A Sutton Trust review found that over a school year, poorer pupils gain 1.5 years’ worth of learning with very effective teachers, compared with 0.5 years with poorly performing teachers.

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