Evidence-based teaching

How to define best practice for your context.

Students first, always.

An often-used term in education is ‘best practice’ - the notion of a known set of techniques or approaches that lead to the best learning outcomes for students. The problem is, there’s a lot of research out there, and defining ‘best-practice’ must take into account variables such as the student body, socio-economic circumstances, available resourcing, and even the teacher’s expertise.

So how do teachers know which pedagogies to trust and decide which ones to implement? What approaches work best to target teaching and learning to the needs of each student? And how can educators be confident that what they are doing is having a positive impact? 

This article attempts to provide a simple guide for teachers and school leaders on how they can gather, understand and action a variety of evidence to inform their teaching and drive improved outcomes for their students.

smiling woman standing while holding orange folder

Understanding where students are now

The initial evidence a teacher requires is an understanding of where students are now - what knowledge and skills is each individual starting with? This can allow teachers to provide material at a more appropriate level for each student rather than the same for all, and can be especially important in identifying particular areas of misunderstanding or misconception.

This evidence can come in many forms:

  • Past performance - what base of existing results or observations can be drawn upon? Is this recorded in a way that is easy for the teacher to access and review?
  • Diagnostic assessment - students will often complete a test when they start at a school or at the beginning of the year - has this been fully analysed at the topic and question level, beyond just the raw score?
  • Pre-testing or surveying - beyond the more formal diagnostic testing, it is essential that teachers keep this data fresh, with frequent, informal and lower-touch pulse checks of student understanding - how can we easily enable this practice at the start of a new topic?
  • Ongoing questioning and observation - the ultimate goal is to provide targeted, timely and actionable feedback at the moment - what opportunities are provided to enable this evidence to flow freely in the day-to-day of each lesson, and is this coming from all students rather than just a subset?

The trick with all of this is to make the various methods for gathering evidence both as frequent as possible but also as efficient as possible - its purpose is to inform the teaching and learning after all, not to get in its way. More than the efficiency of collection, the accessibility and actionability of the data are paramount - there is no point in collecting the evidence if it is not utilised. 

person writing on white paper

Moving each student forward

Building on this base of evidence for the current knowledge and skills of each learner, the core goal is to move each student forward in their learning. This begins with setting clear goals for the progress and attainment of students, along with reasonable expectations that they will reach them. The best path forward for each student will be varied, and so teaching needs to balance moving the group forward with targeted support for individual student needs.

At Education Perfect, we have curated our own set of evidence-based practices that we believe have huge benefits for student learning. Our aim is to use our technology to empower teachers to implement what works best more effectively, more often. EP’s chosen areas of focus are:

  • Explicit instruction
  • Differentiation
  • Adaptive practice
  • Gamification
  • Timely and specific feedback
  • Mastery-based progression
  • Formative assessment
  • Spaced repetition

You can read more about the research base for EP here.

assorted-color paper and brown wooden pencil

Measuring progress and evaluating impact

How can a teacher be confident that what they are doing is having the impact they want? And what else can they do to improve their practice and the resulting student learning? The most important factor here is to measure progress for each student, not just attainment. 

Measuring progress requires that for each student there are both clear goals for attainment, and an understanding of where they are starting from. This can then allow an objective comparison between not just age-based attainment expectations but more importantly with the starting point and learning goals specific to the individual student. 

This process of data-informed measurement of progress and evaluation of impact can then be used to measure how much students are learning and to make meaningful adjustments to teaching practices over time. When this process is really humming, teachers are able to make these adjustments and provide targeted support to students in-the-moment, rather than waiting for a period of evaluation after the fact.

Working together to raise the bar

It is a core expectation that teachers meet the specific learning needs of each of their students, who are generally spread across a wide range of ability levels. This is both a very worthy expectation, but also super hard! The only way to collectively raise the bar at scale is to work together. 

Spend some time understanding where there might be room for improvement in your use of evidence to drive learning, and establish some initial goals on what to tackle first. Is it the infrastructure for collecting and organising the learning data? Is it the training, tools and expectations around regular collection of evidence? Is there a particular teaching strategy you want to try?

Teaching can often feel like a solo endeavour, but we can achieve much more together rather than alone. Get the formative assessment flowing, get the collation of student learning data in good shape, and get started on improving learning outcomes!