Pioneering study reveals teaching techniques that improve exam performance

Newswise – With exam season in full swing, teenagers taking their GCSEs are hoping their teachers have everything covered so they can get top marks. The methods teachers use in the classroom could also hold the key to improving student grades, according to a groundbreaking report released today.

The study, conducted by the University of Bristol, sheds new light on the fascinating and elusive question: what makes an effective teacher? For the first time in the UK, researchers have identified which teaching practices improve exam results and how different classroom activities perform better depending on the subject.

Lead author Simon Burgess, professor of economics, said: “Whether or not you have an effective teacher is by far the most important factor influencing students’ GCSES, outside of your home background. This unique research unlocks the black box of effective teaching, helping us understand which specific teaching practices are most likely to produce better test scores.

“Knowing this is crucial, as it could also make a huge difference to a child’s life chances and potential future earnings.”

The team of international researchers analyzed around 14,000 GCSE results from pupils from 32 secondary schools across the UK, comparing the scores to classroom observation reports spanning two years just before the COVID-19 pandemic out of 251 teachers from the same schools.

The research, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, found compelling links between GCSE grades based on teacher effectiveness ratings and class time use.

Research has shown that how teachers use class time has a significant impact on their students’ results. In fact, typical variations in classroom activities between teachers accounted for around a third of the total influence teachers had on their students’ GCSE grades.

Higher-rated teachers have also been shown to have a greater impact on lower-performing students than on higher-performing students, a finding that has implications for how schools should deploy their most effective teachers.

There were also notable findings highlighting how specific teaching approaches are more beneficial for certain subjects.

For example, the most important activity for English teachers seems to be facilitating interaction and discussion among classmates; more time spent on this tends to increase GCSE scores in English. Conversely, for math teachers, the key activity is giving students time to practice the questions individually in class; again, more time on this increases GCSE grades.

Assessing the long-term impact, the researchers then projected how such improvements would increase students’ future salaries. The effects are far-reaching: the typical change in the use of class time has taken into account the increase in GCSEs and subsequent salaries which have generated an additional £150,000 in lifetime income each year for a class of 30 pupils.

The report, in collaboration with the Oxford Partnership for Education Research and Analysis (OPERA) and Harvard University, forms the basis of a simple and inexpensive tool that teachers and school leaders can use to identify and improve skills in the classroom.

Professor Burgess said: “The potential of these discoveries is huge in educational and economic terms. This increased understanding of the most effective teaching techniques could be used to help teachers learn and improve their own performance. Now that we know the added importance of effective teaching for low-achieving students, research could also be used to inform and advance the ‘upgrading’ agenda, helping disadvantaged students to thrive.