Effective Teaching: Why Things You Think Matter … Don’t


How Much of Learning is Actually Retained?

On average students will retain less than ½ of knowledge after three months.[i]

Here’s Why….

How much people forget depends significantly on their learning method.

According to Dr. Thalheimer of Work-Learning Research Inc.,

“Too many of us believe that forgetting always follows a strict progression down an unwavering forgetting curve regardless of the learners involved, regardless of their cognitive experience, regardless of their motivation, regardless of the context of learning, regardless of the learning methods used, regardless of the type of material to be learned, and regardless of the learner’s eye color.”[ii]

How the material is learned and how it is taught can have a very significant effect on how much is retained over time.


What Can Great Teachers Do?

         Great teachers can help students gain much more than ineffective teachers. We cannot sit by and let people continue to tell us that social economic status, student motivation, and other backgrounds are definitive in how much a student can learn.

The Sutton Trust Research firm found that even poorer students can gain

“1.5 years’ worth of learning with effective teachers, compared with 0.5 years with poorly performing teachers.”[iii]

300% More Lear

That’s 300% More Learning!

In other words, great teaching can produce an entire year of achievement more than ineffective teaching.

Research has shown that if you watch silent clips of teachers, you can tell which ones students will rate high and which ones the students will not.

“Since we all spent years in classrooms, we quickly recognize which ones kids would pay attention to and do their homework for and which ones kids would tune out and blow off.”[iv]

From a student perspective, the analysis of student surveys of different teachers boils down to just two questions:

  1. Does the teacher seem like a nice person?

  2. Do they have a well-organized class?

It comes down to these two characteristics: strength and warmth.

These are the two tools available to motivate people to follow and it is very hard to wield both at once.  This is the leader’s dilemma.[vi]

Whether we like it or not, the emotional bond between the teacher and the students account for whether students learn or not.

The brilliant, well organized, and well-educated teacher whom students see as mean will not be very effective.

Conversely, the funny teacher who tells great stories, but has poorly organized lessons will also be ineffective.

Professor Bob Pianta, Dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, puts it very well when he reached the following conclusion:

“The things we think typically matter to make an effective teacher — how many years experience, how many degrees you have, whether you have a degree in this or a degree in that — don’t seem to matter much at all.” [vii]

Pianta’s discovery after years of research is that students have to answer yes to both of the previous teacher questions.

“What we find matters the most is what teachers actually do with kids in classrooms. How do teachers interact with kids? How do they deliver instruction? How do they engage them? Those by far outweigh anything about a teacher’s background.”

So, if experience and education do not matter, and what teachers actually do in the classroom matters, what are teachers supposed to do in the classroom to be effective?

In 2014, a seminal study was released that broke down these ideas stated above into six factors (in order of evidence):

1.Pedagogical content knowledge

Music can change the world because it

The most effective teachers not only have a vast knowledge of the subjects that they teach, but they also understand the ways students think about the content. According to Daniel Willingham, cognitive scientist and educational expert, one of the most important questions a teacher can ask themselves before teaching is

“What will my students actually think about with this lesson plan?”[i]

This includes understanding:

  • the ways that students think about the content,
  • evaluate the thinking of the students in terms of their own methods, and
  • be able to identify students’ common misconceptions[ii] with respect to the subject matter.
  1. Quality of instruction

Quality of instruction is characterized by using the following elements of instruction in an effective manner

  • Questioning
  • Use of assessment
  • Reviewing previous learning
  • Providing model responses for students
  • Adequate time for practice
  • Embedding skills securely
  • Scaffolding of new skills and content knowledge

For a Free Project Based Lesson Tool Kit Click Here!

  1. Classroom Climate

Classroom climate is the overall quality of interaction between teachers and students. Teacher expectations are also very evident as a factor of an equitable classroom climate.

Classrooms that constantly demand more of their students, but also recognize the self worth of students are evidence of a good climate.

Additionally, when teachers attribute success to effort rather than ability and value resilience. In teacher parlance, this is known as a fostering a Growth Mindset and Grit.

  1. Classroom Management

Successful classroom management involves the teacher’s abilities to make efficient use of:

  •  lesson time,
  • resources, and
  • space.[iii]

Additionally, management of student behavior using clear rules and consistent enforcement are necessary for creating an environment that is conducive to learning.

  1. Teacher Beliefs

Teacher beliefs are the reasons that teachers:

  • adopt particular practices,
  • their goals they aim to achieve,
  • their theories about what learning actually means, how learning happens, and
  • their conceptual models of both the nature and role of teaching in the learning process[iv].
  1. Professional Behaviors

The behaviors that teachers exhibit have impact on the student learning process as well. These behaviors include[v]:

  • Reflection on professional practice
  • Participating in professional development
  • Supporting colleagues
  • Communication with parents
  • Enlisting the help of parents and other stakeholders in the learning process

The Mindset of Effective Teacher

As previously discussed, personality does not determine an effective teacher. However, the mindset of the teacher does matter and the mindset that has been correlated with great teaching is teacher self-efficacy. This subject will be mentioned numerous times in this book because if you believe you can achieve. Doing great things is never easy.

When I was playing college football, my coaches used to say:

“If it was easy, everyone would be doing it.”

That is the same with great teaching. It is never easy. However, combining the ideas from this blog along with a journal will give you the ability to become a fantastic teacher and make your life considerably less stressful.

According to a meta-analysis conducted by Robert Klassen at the University of York, self-efficacy has a much bigger impact than the personality of a teacher.[vii]

“Analysis of 43 studies representing 9, 216 participants reveals … the strongest effect found was for self-efficacy on evaluated teaching performance.”

Teachers who believe that they can get better and that when they do, they will help their students more actually did better. The focus has to be on learning better techniques, tactics, and strategies. Luckily, you found this blog and continue to get more here.

 How Much Learning is Retained References

[i] Lieberman, M. (2013). Social: Why our brains are wired to connect. Oxford University Press. p. 282

[ii] Thalheimer, W. (2010, April). How Much Do People Forget? Retrieved November 11, 2014, from http://www.worklearning.com/catalog.htm

[iii] Sutton Trust. (2014, October 31). Many popular teaching practices are ineffective, warns new Sutton Trust report. Retrieved from http://www.suttontrust.com/newsarchive/many-popular-teaching-practices-are-ineffective-warns-new-sutton-trust-report/

[iv] Compelling People p. 25

[v] Meredith, G. M. (1969). Dimensions of faculty-course evaluation. Journal of Psychology, 73:27–32.

[vi] Compelling People p.11

[vii] Vázquez Toness, B. (2011, May 23). What Makes A Good Teacher? Retrieved March 9, 2015, from http://www.wbur.org/2011/05/23/a-teacher

The Six Factors

[i] Willingham,D. Why don’t students like school.

[ii] Coe, Aloisi, Higgins, & Major. (2014, October 31). What Makes Great Teaching: Review of the Underpinning Research. Retrieved from http://www.suttontrust.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/What-makes-great-teaching-FINAL-4.11.14.pdf

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vii] Teachers’ Self-Efficacy, Personality, and Teaching Effectiveness: A Meta-Analysis Robert M. Klassen Virginia M.C. Tze Educational Research Review (Impact Factor: 2.33). 06/2014; DOI: 10.1016/j.edurev.2014.06.001



  1. As a student teacher, this website had opened my eyes & ears in a big way. Made me like this career path even more.


  2. Students seem to like ineffective teachers because his or her class become disorganized & they get to do their own things


    1. Sylvia, on the surface it definitely appears that way! In many circumstances you may be right, yet at the same time more is going on below the surface. Everyone wants to learn things that are relevant, interesting, and useful. But remember: it has to be all those things to the student not the teacher


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