Category Archives: Classroom Instruction that Works

Data show classroom observations decline in spring

Classroom observations, or walkthroughs, are quick snapshots that, over time, begin to show trends within a school—trends which can be used to identify staff development needs. Based on feedback from our Power Walkthrough clients, we’ve found that schools and districts use their observation data to set goals, provide specific professional development, increase coaching conversations, and enhance mentoring programs.

6a010536aec25c970b017eea66c325970dBut in examining our clients’ data, we often see a decrease in the number of walkthroughs during April and May. Walkthroughs should be an integral part of the school culture and part of the normal routine in which teachers and students are comfortable with administrators in the classroom. If we know and understand the importance of walkthroughs, why is there such a large drop-off in how many are done during the last quarter of the school year?

Are you seeing similar trends in your school? Why do you think this might be? We welcome your insights in the comments below.

Written by senior consultant Lisa Maxfield and administrative specialist Cheryl Mervich.

What is the Purpose of Homework?

If you walk into a typical teachers’ workroom and ask the question, “What’s the purpose of homework?” you’ll likely find that most teachers have a definite opinion. But ask them what research says about homework, and you’ll get less definitive answers. What does research really say about homework as a strategy to improve student achievement?

The effects of homework on student achievement are not entirely clear; a number of factors, such as degree of parental involvement and support, homework quality, students’ learning preferences, and structure and monitoring of assignments can affect the influence of homework on achievement (Hong, Milgram, & Rowell, 2004; Minotti, 2005).

One synthesis of research on the relationship between homework time and achievement showed some gains at the middle and high school levels, but less so at the elementary school level (Cooper, Robinson, & Patall, 2006). Others have found that homework can help students strengthen their self-regulation skills such as managing time, setting goals, self-reflecting on their performance, and delaying gratification (Ramdass & Zimmerman,  2011).

On the flip side, there’s some research highlighting negative aspects of homework, including disruption of family time, stress, conflicts between student and parent, and restricted access to community and leisure time (e.g., Coutts, 2004; Warton, 2001).

So what’s the best approach to take? In Cathy Vatterott’s 2009 book, Rethinking Homework: Best Practices That Support Diverse Needs, she outlines practices she refers to as her “New Paradigm for Homework”:

  • design quality homework tasks;
  • differentiate homework tasks;
  • move from grading to checking;
  • decriminalize the grading of homework;
  • use completion strategies; and
  • establish homework support programs.

If you take Vatterott’s recommended practices along with our research-based recommendations (found in Classroom Instruction That Works, 2nd ed.), you can begin to view homework differently,  as an extension of practice and a chance to deepen understanding of a topic. Consider these tips:

  1. Always ask, “What learning will result from this homework assignment?” The goal of your instruction should be to design homework that results in meaningful learning.
  2. Assign homework to help students deepen their understanding of content, practice skills in order to become faster or more proficient, or learn new content on a surface level.
  3. Check that students are able to perform required skills and tasks independently before asking them to complete homework assignments.
  4. Consider parents and guardians to be your allies when it comes to homework. Understand their constraints, and, when home circumstances present challenges, consider alternative approaches to support students as they complete homework assignments (e.g., before-or after-school programs, additional parent outreach).

Because the research on homework is mixed, teachers should think carefully about what tasks they assign for homework, and what the purpose of that homework truly is. Remember that it’s essential for students to receive feedback on their homework so they know what they did correctly, what they did incorrectly, and what they need to do next to improve.
Howard Pitler, Ed.D., is chief program officer at McREL, co-author of Classroom Instruction That Works (2nd ed.), and lead author of Using Technology with Classroom Instruction That Works.


Cooper, H., Robinson, J. C, Sc Patall, E. A. (2006). Does homework improve academic achievement? A synthesis of research, 19872003. Review of Educational Research, 76, 1-62.

Coutts, P. (2004). Meanings of homework and implications for practice. Theory into Practice 43(3),182–188.

Hong, E., Milgram, R. M., & Rowell, L. L. (2004). Homework motivation and preference: A learner-centered homework approach. Theory into Practice, 43, 197–204.

Minotti, J. L. (2005). Effects of learning-style-based homework prescriptions on the achievement and attitudes of middle school students. NASSP Bulletin, 89, 67–89.

Ramdass, D., & Zimmerman, B. (2011) Developing Self-Regulation Skills: The Important Role of Homework. Journal of Advanced Academics, 22(2), 194-218,354-355.

Vatterott, C. (2009). Rethinking homework: Best practices that support diverse needs. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Warton, P. M. (2001). The forgotten voices in homework: Views of the students. Educational Psychologist, 36(3), 155–165.

Coaches for the Classroom

When you think of coaches, an image of a sports figure may come to mind—Tom Landry, Bobby Knight, or Bear Bryant. But in education, coach may be a part of your everyday vernacular as well.

As schools are looking for ways help teachers implement the Common Core and reach No Child Left Behind (NCLB) goals, traditional professional development (PD) programs, sometimes referred to as “one-day wonders,” have proven ineffective in sustained growth and improvement for teachers. Researchers Bruce Joyce and Beverly Showers (2002) found that PD that consisted of demonstration, feedback, and practice did not have a noticeable effect size on classroom transfer (effect size + 0.0). Even research-based models of learning and the most thoughtful day of PD have no impact on student learning if the teacher cannot internalize or sustain their learning over time and with fidelity. In order to make deep, lasting changes in teacher practices, more and more school districts and states are using instructional coaches to support teachers in implementing best practices for increased student achievement.

What is an instructional coach? While there are many variations, in general, an instructional coach teaches educators how to use proven teaching methods and uses a variety of PD practices to encourage the implementation of these methods. Often, instructional coaches meet with teachers individually or in small groups, collaboratively plan with teachers, model instructional practices, or observe teachers using instructional strategies (Knight, 2004). Instructional coaches are meant to help teachers transfer their training to the classroom and implement what they’ve learned with fidelity.

And there’s research to back that up. Two programs, Pathways to Success from the University of Kansas (which includes six middle schools and three high schools), and Passport to Success by the Maryland Department of Education (which includes five middles schools), showed that instructional coaching programs generated implementation rates of at least 85 percent (Knight, 2005), which means teachers were using what they learned in PD. Joyce and Showers (2002) also analyzed implementation rates and found that when coaching is added after PD, “a large and dramatic increase in transfer of training—effect size of 1.42—occurs”.

McREL staff has seen firsthand how instructional coaching helps teachers transfer what they’ve learned in training. In October and November 2012, McREL staff trained a diverse group of English, French and Cree-speaking consultants from Northern Quebec in instructional coaching strategies. These consultants learned best practices in coaching and practiced through role-playing and other interactive scenarios. A month later, when Bj Stone, McREL principal consultant and co-author of Classroom Instruction that Works (2012), presented two days of instructional training to the Cree teachers, the coaches were prepared to support and reinforce the new learning with a “toolbox” of strategies, including setting goals with teachers, modeling classroom lessons, and checking for the fidelity of implementation. Many teachers, in Cree and elsewhere, report that not only does instructional coaching increase their confidence, it also increases their willingness to try new evidence-based best practices. Teachers and coaches begin to share a vision—to increase achievement for students.

How is your district using instructional coaches? How is it benefiting the school? The teachers? Have you experienced any challenges?

Patti Davis is a lead consultant at McREL in the Center for Systems Transformation.



Joyce, B. & Showers, B. (2002). Student achievement through staff development (3rd ed.). Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Knight, J. (2004, Spring). Instructional coaches make progress through partnership: Intensive support can improve teaching. Journal of Staff Development 25(2), 32–37. Retrieved from

Knight, J. (2005, Winter). Instructional Coaching. StrateNotes 13(3). Retrieved from

Are we using whole group instruction more than ever?

In McREL’s Power Walkthrough® training, we teach school leaders how to capture key instructional indicators in the classroom, such as what strategies are utilized, how to determine if the students are learning, and how students are grouped. Around this time every year, we examine our Power Walkthrough data from K–12 classrooms all over the world and in a variety of school settings (e.g., urban, rural, public, independent) to see the emerging trends and patterns in the collected data.

This year, we noticed an interesting trend when we looked at the student “grouping” data. In this portion of Power Walkthrough, the observer notes whether students are all focused on one source of instruction (whole
group), if they are working alone (individual), if they are working with one other person (pairs), if they are working in informal groups of three to five (small group), or if they are working in highly organized groups with individual
roles and responsibilities (cooperative group). While individual, small group, pairs, and cooperative groups have fluctuated or have only changed incrementally, it seems that Power Walkthrough users are recording an increase in whole group instruction over the past two years. This is surprising given that so much of “21st century” or “student-centered” learning touts reducing whole group instruction.

Below are two comparison charts that show these data that are based on 99,136 walkthroughs in 2010–2012.

2010 2011 2012
cooperative 3.80% 2.30% 2.30%
individual 27.40% 19.20% 21%
pair 3.70% 4.85% 4%
small 13.70% 21.30% 15.50%
whole 51.50% 52.30% 57.20%



While we can make a few assumptions about these data, there are a few caveats to consider: Some observers may be different due to job changes and additional clients; schools may have differing criteria of cooperative learning; and many schools use their own templates while these data are from our template. Regardless, though, this trend sparks questions about how we are using instruction and student grouping in our classrooms now and
into the future. Consider the following as conversation starters in your school:

  1. Students working individually were observed six percent less in 2012 than in 2010. Is this a positive or negative statistic?
  2. We were very surprised to see that whole group instruction had grown. Is this indicative that we are lecturing more? If so, what would cause us to do so?
  3. Does the nominal growth in small group instruction indicate a shift towards more collaborative and informal learning environments?
  4. Do these trends hold true in your school? What questions do these data spark for you?

Tech CITW captures the “big picture”

On occasion, we come across mentions of our work that let us know how our work impacts educational leaders, teachers, and students. We were especially thrilled when The 21st Century Principal blogged about the 2nd
edition of Using Technology with Classroom Instruction That Works. We thank blogger J. Robinson, former
teacher and administrator, for recommending our work to his readers:

Using Technology with Classroom Instruction That Works is not a “how-to” book when
it comes to employing technology in the engagement of instruction. Rather, it is
a ‘big-picture’ book that surveys the field of technological tools and helps
the teacher connect with the kinds of technology she might wish to use in the

Check out Robinson’s blog or follow him @21stprincipal on Twitter to read more of his ideas and musings as he grapples with an ever-shifting learning environment.

Elizabeth Ross Hubbell is co-author of Using Technology with Classroom Instruction that Works, 2nd edition.


Using the CITW strategies as a framework for conferences

Earlier this summer, I had the pleasure of taking part in the t.i.c.l. (Technology Integration and Instruction for the 21st Century Learner) Conference in Iowa, a lively gathering of educators focused on transforming their classrooms into student-centered learning environments. Co-hosted by the Prairie Lakes and Northwest Area Education Agencies, this conference gathered teachers and leaders in northwest Iowa who are passionate about changing current classroom and school norms to better meet the needs of today’s learners through innovative teaching ideas, 21st century tools, and involving students in their own education.

I especially liked the helpful tools available to aid participants in summarizing key ideas from the sessions.  A reflection journal, in both paper and electronic formats, included sections for teachers to connect what they were learning to the second edition of McREL’s Classroom Instruction That Works. This updated journal (below) provided participants with a common language for integrating 21st century tools as they learned about new resources and techniques to take back to their classrooms and apply immediately to their practice.


Hubbell blog graphic


By offering this tool to teachers so they could adapt CITW strategies to their own teaching, conference planners demonstrated a thorough understanding of component two of the new Framework for Instructional Planning—helping students (or, in this case, teachers) develop understanding.

You can access the Reflection Journal from the bottom of the front page on t.i.c.l.’s website. Consider modifying this tool for upcoming professional development and training sessions.

(Special thanks to Prairie Lakes and Northwest for permission to blog about this resource.)

Written by Elizabeth Hubbell, co-author of Using Technology with Classroom Instruction That Works.

Teacher prep programs: Helping new teachers swim—or sink?

Worried teacher blogWould you participate in a swim meet if you just learned to dog paddle? Probably not. Yet, many of our new teachers are entering the classroom straight from their college or preparatory program without the training, practice, or knowledge they need to succeed. With the increasing demands on teacher performance, and many teachers leaving the profession after their first year, the “sink or swim” mentality isn’t useful for teachers, their schools, or, most important, their students. Instead, we should be asking: What do preservice teachers need, why aren’t they getting it, and what can we do to ensure they get it?

School administrators Gary M. Chesley and Janice Jordan assembled a focus group of 30 new teachers from 17 universities and asked them how prepared they believe they were for their first days of school. Here are a few of the issues, also echoed in other studies, that these new teachers expressed about their preservice training.

Classroom management

New teachers are continually overwhelmed by unruly students and are unsure how to respond to classroom management issues. One study from researchers at the University of Florida, Stephanie D. Van Hover and Elizabeth Anne Yeager, shows that lack of classroom management skills often causes new teachers to be less creative and rely more heavily on lecturing and textbook-style lessons. Teacher preparation programs should teach research-based strategies for classroom management and expose preservice teachers to multiple ways of managing student behavior and building positive relationships in the classroom. 

Planning curriculum

Novice teachers struggle with lesson planning and coming up with enough curricula. The focus group  teachers reported that lesson planning practice in their preparatory classes seemed artificial, contrived, and useless in the real classroom. That may explain why, according to research from Sarah Walstead Fry from Bucknell University, many spend 10–12 hours a day planning and grading. High-quality preservice programs must give novice teachers opportunities to work side by side with master teachers to observe effective, long-term curriculum planning and deeply understand and organize subject matter. 

Demanding environments

Many of the new teachers surveyed in the focus group felt unprepared for the mental and physical stress they experienced—including the classroom workload and the expectation that they manage multiple demands and responsibilities. They felt that their preservice programs did not give them the “professional habits of mind” to build a teaching career or the skills needed to be “highly collaborative and active contributors in professional learning communities.” Teacher preparatory programs should expose preservice teachers to the intense work of the typical classroom for longer periods of time and focus on specific professional habits, such as accurately assessing the effectiveness of an instructional strategy.

How can K–12 school and universities collaborate to more effectively prepare teachers? What challenges did you face as a new teacher? What could have prepared you more fully for your first day?

For more information, read the May 2012 issue of Educational Leadership, Supporting Beginning Teachers, which includes Bryan Goodwin’s article, “New Teachers Face Three Common Challenges.”

Written by Jennifer Tuzzeo, writer and editor at McREL

Quiet in the classroom

Vicki quiet in classroom blogImagine being 13 years old and having a social studies class in which you and your classmates learn cooperatively 100 percent of the time, and no one ever works alone… ever. Depending on your personality, this could be your favorite class or your worst nightmare.

This was the learning environment one teacher created for his students after attending a professional development seminar on the benefits of cooperative learning. Upon returning to the school, he physically made over his classroom, creating stations for small groups of students to work together every single day.

Perhaps he was so inspired by a dynamic instructor that he couldn’t resist converting to a new teaching approach; perhaps he viewed it as a way not to have to deal with the time-consuming planning that good teaching often requires; or he may have viewed it simply as a fail-proof way for students to learn. Whatever his instructional motivations, it most likely was the way he himself preferred to learn. However, it was not the preference of at least one of his students, who began to dread attending his class and, as a result, learned very little social studies that year.

An insight as to why and how some students choose to opt out of cooperative learning is revealed in Susan Cain’s book Quiet, which posits that our culture, in general, and our schools, in particular, undervalue certain types of individuals, specifically, introverts. She contends that the focus on group learning in schools ignores the needs of students who not only dislike working in group settings but actually don’t learn in them. Instead, they learn best when they work individually, usually through reading, writing, and reflecting.

In McREL’s Classroom Instruction That Works, Second Edition, the authors write that learning to collaborate and cooperate is a good foundation for future success in a world that demands high levels of social interaction. When used consistently (but not daily) and systematically (but not rigidly), cooperative learning structures provide opportunities for students to interact, take on specific roles, and listen actively to others’ ideas. But cooperative learning is not necessarily the basis for thinking or problem solving; that level of understanding often occurs when students are allowed to think and wonder on their own.

Cain writes that introverts represent one-third to one-half of all Americans; naturally, the same percentage exists in classrooms. For students possessing this personality trait, a steady stream of external stimuli is exactly the opposite of their ideal learning environment. And taken to the extreme—where students even take tests with a partner, possibly because teachers think it will reduce student anxiety (and new brain research suggests it sometimes does)—the practice gets in the way of learning.

More than two years ago, McREL Senior Researcher Charles Igel wrote on this blog that, while group learning had become as ubiquitous to modern instruction as rote recitation was during the last century,  many teachers were still confused about how to use it effectively. In a recent article, he explains that the early researchers of cooperative learning realized that just putting people into groups and having them learn together was not enough to improve learning. Cooperative learning is a subset of collaborative learning, and is different because it is highly structured and contains certain identifiable elements to foster the upside of social learning (i.e., engagement and high achievement) while avoiding the downside (i.e., uneven effort and outcomes). The research supports that when teachers use cooperative learning properly, they are more likely to reengage students who have become marginalized while preparing all students to be successful in their future endeavors.

Which brings us back to the over-zealous middle-school teacher, who, had he not taken his efforts to the extreme, might have created an environment where students learn to think on their own. We must acknowledge the possibility that when students seek solitude to “do their own thing,” they aren’t necessarily refusing to play well with others; rather, they may be following their natural tendencies to seek out an environment that frees them to learn their way.

Listen to Susan Cain’s TED Talk, “The Power of Introverts.

Learning uninterrupted

A growing trend in education over the last two decades has been exploring ways to use educational technology to maximize classroom time and extend learning opportunities beyond the classroom. The idea of a “ubiquitous learning environment,” where students can learn at any time and in any place, has long been a dream of many educators and goes back over one hundred years—correspondence courses, phonographs, radio, filmstrips, and television have all been re-purposed for learning.

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