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Universal practices of effective teaching: Formative assessments, examples and feedback

Universal practices of effective teaching: Formative assessments, examples and feedback

5 min read
  • Delivering feedback
  • The science of learning

If there were a simple, straightforward-to-follow blueprint for “effective” teaching, then it would form the basis of all teacher development, yes? After all, it is far easier for everyone to be on the same page if there is only one page to refer to.

However, what determines “effective” teaching is in itself determined by the context in which the teaching is taking place, and that context changes constantly; the most effective teachers are also the most responsive – they draw on their repertoire of skills and their reservoir of experience to make the best choices at the right times.

I often state that there are two ‘”eff” words we can use in our classrooms: effectiveness and efficiency. The latter enforces the former; one cannot be an effective practitioner if one is inefficient, but what that efficiency looks like again varies from setting to setting, teacher to teacher. There is, perhaps, a creeping homogeneity in the published – and indeed statutory – frameworks for teacher education and development, but if we can find effective practices that are universal in their scope, and understand why they work, we avoid the dreaded “c” word – compliance. A compliant teacher, after all, is one with an unsound defence of their own practices, built entirely on adherence to checklists, not intuition or responsiveness.

So, to a new paper (November 2023) from Stephen Chew – “Formative Assessment, Examples, and Feedback: Universal Practices of Effective Teaching”. Firstly, all praise to Chew for the use of the Oxford comma in the paper’s title – clear separation of the three elements to be discussed. Now, exploring what makes effective teachers is nothing new – many have tried to “parse” the practice, to quote Mary Kennedy – but what Chew does herein is to, in his words, focus on “practices that all teaching methods value”, and that are – when used correctly – “universal components of effective teaching”. The issue Chew cites is that, despite these being universally accepted as good teaching practices, many teachers lack the knowledge of how to, in his words, “design and implement them for optimal learning”; we are back perhaps to the “compliance” issue outlined above. Chew indeed highlights the difference between intuition and effectiveness; teachers need not only to know what they are doing but why they are doing it, and what the evidence base is to justify the approach.

For Chew, the universality of the three titular strategies is what he refers to as their flexibility; they can be adapted to address multiple goals. He cites the cognitive challenges of effective teaching:

  1. Student mindset – I.e., preconceptions that affect participation, motivation and strategy selection.
  2. Metacognition
  3. Student fear – The fear of failure, the mistrust of the purpose of learning.
  4. Prior knowledge – Or, more readily, insufficient prior knowledge and the disparity of existing knowledge across student groups.
  5. Misconceptions
  6. Transfer of learning – The inability or failure to transfer knowledge across domains and new situations.
  7. Selective attention – Attention is a currency, it is valuable; as Mike Hobbiss states, it is the “gateway to cognition”.
  8. Constraints of mental effort and working memory
  9. Ineffective learning strategies – Students don’t know how to use their “student toolbox”, as Dunlosky would put it.
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The challenge therefore is very real; no one practice can address all of these simultaneously, but Chew posits that the majority of them can be overcome through the use of either Formative Assessment, Examples, or Feedback – hopefully a judiciously selected combination of all three; nothing in teaching works exclusively of anything else of course – we cannot silo pedagogies.

Indeed, the only one of the nine that Chew indicates is not met explicitly and dealt with is that of Selective Attention; we could argue therefore that overcoming this is an indirect but tangible benefit of overcoming the other eight.

Now, as teachers who have undergone pre-service training and education programmes and engaged in continued professional development, we know what Formative Assessment means; we know what Examples are; we know how to define “Feedback” in its many forms; what I get from Chew is that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing – we are in danger perhaps of the old syllogistic approach:

All dogs have four legs

My cat has four legs

Therefore, my cat is a dog

Or, in more pertinent terms for teaching:

Something must be done

This is something

Therefore, we must do it

Chew argues that across the strategies, simply applying them without consideration – indeed, applying them as a form of compliance to perceived educational “best practice” – is the issue; when discussing the use of examples, for example (apologies!), he states that “there are dimensions, such as cognitive load and familiarity, that teachers may not think about when selecting examples but that impede student understanding”. Indeed, I have often fallen foul of this myself – what seems like a good exemplification to me is in fact a hindrance to many of my students because we do not share a cultural foundation.

I am drawn back to the words of Herbert Simon – “learning results from what the student does and thinks, and only from what the student does and thinks. The teacher can advance learning only by influencing what the student does to learn.”. In short, effective teachers use effective practices in the most efficient ways to ensure that the students engage in effective and efficient learning; this requires, as Chew states, more than “simply going through the motions and hoping for the best” – hope is not an effective pedagogy!

The key, then, is teacher understanding; know how these universal practices work, and then design them with the solving of specific learning goals in mind.

Finally, note and remember the difference between effective and expert, and indeed expert and experienced; in the second of these, the latter word does not – and should never – be a synonym for the first; we can teach for years, gain a deep reservoir of experience, and still not optimise our effectiveness; a deep reservoir is only useful if we know how to fish from it.

This blog was written by Henry Sauntson, the Director of Teach East SCITT. Follow him on Twitter to enjoy his thoughts on education and research, as well as his brilliant array of colourful socks.


About the author

Henry Sauntson

Henry Sauntson

Henry Sauntson is the Director of Teach East SCITT, with years of experience both teaching and in a range of middle and senior leadership roles. In addition to his interest in developing evidence-informed, autonomous practitioners, Henry contributes to many education publications, facilitates NPQ and ECF sessions, and designs and delivers CPD for local schools. He is the author of Essential Guides for Early Career Teachers: Understanding your Role in Curriculum Design and Implementation, and is a Fellow of The Chartered College of Teaching.

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