How evidence-based teaching strategies create student-centered classrooms

By April 25, 2022 No Comments

Part 2 of a four-part series on how SEL and great academics support each other

Teen working in labOver the past year, in preparation for a major update of our Classroom Instruction That Works™ strategies and knowledge base, Bryan has led a team at McREL that has synthesized the findings of more than 100 scientific studies of classroom interventions into 14 teaching strategies found to significantly improve the performance of all students—including students of color, multilingual learners, students in poverty, and students with learning disabilities or previous low levels of achievement. Together, these studies reveal several teaching strategies that simultaneously support better student learning as well as the attributes of student-centered, healthy classrooms.

Here are five evidence-based teaching strategies—all of which are applicable in any classroom, at any grade level, in any subject, and with all student populations—that support learning well and being well.

Helping students find purpose with cognitive interest cues

Multiple studies point to the power of cognitive interest cues—hooks, questions, advance organizers, and anticipatory sets designed to motivate learning by framing units and lessons in ways that make learning stimulating and relevant. Such cues aren’t simply clever gimmicks or lesson openers designed to momentarily grab students’ attention; rather, they draw students into the learning by helping them to see the purpose of what they’re learning—why it’s meaningful, useful, or relevant to them. In a word, cognitive interest cues are designed to make students curious about their learning.

Some of the best cognitive interest cues incorporate mystery (Why did mastodons disappear?), controversy (Should the majority rule?), riddles or puzzles (How do we calculate the area of a circle when there are no “sides” to measure?), or cognitive conflict (Why do winds blowing down from mountaintops warm the valleys below?). To do any of this well, teachers must consider what their students would find interesting—not what they themselves find interesting.

Helping students develop self-awareness with personal learning goals

One of the most powerful learning strategies (with effect sizes shown to virtually close achievement gaps) is student goal setting—that is, engaging students in setting their own goals for learning and monitoring their own progress toward mastery. In other words, goal setting goes beyond merely articulating or posting learning objectives in the classroom, to encouraging students to internalize them as their own goals for learning. This is a lot easier to do, of course, if they’re interested in learning (see above)—that is, if they see what’s in it for them to learn something. We like to call this a WIIFM (What’s in It for Me).

In addition, it’s important to help students move beyond performance goals (e.g., I want to get an A on my persuasive paper) and instead set mastery goals (e.g., I want to become a better writer by mastering the use of logical arguments in my writing). Perhaps most important, student goal setting helps students to become more aware of their own learning—measuring their own progress and keeping themselves on track.

Showing students you care with high-level questions and student explanations

Questions are perhaps the most widely used teaching strategy in any classroom. Yet research shows that the kind of questions we ask matters—a lot. Low-level recognition and recall questions (what Doug Fisher and Nancy Fisher call guess-what’s-in-teacher’s-head questions) are often the mainstay in many classrooms. Yet they do little to encourage deep learning, which really only occurs when students think about their learning. Not surprisingly, few (if any) studies point the power of peppering students with simple questions. Instead, many point to the power of encouraging students to think about their learning with high-level questions and student explanations—questions that involve cognitive and metacognitive processing of new knowledge and skills.

Such questions include, for example, prompts that encourage comprehension (e.g., What is the trend of this graph?), strategy thinking (e.g., How would you solve this problem?), or encouraging students to explain their thinking (e.g., What makes you say that?). The key point here, of course, is not to turn your classroom into an inquisition, or to favor a handful of students (as typically happens in many classrooms where 20 percent of students do 80 percent of the talking) but rather, to show students that you care about what they think—by giving all of them opportunities to share their ideas, opinions, and perspectives. In so doing, you’ll help them to deepen their own learning.

Supporting safety and connectedness with peer-assisted consolidation of learning

Group learning (a.k.a. cooperative learning) is often one of the more maligned—and misunderstood—teaching techniques. Done poorly, it can lead to the “free rider effect”—with some students doing most of the work and others coasting. Alternatively, if overused, group learning can yield diminishing returns, especially if it comes at the expense of providing students with the direct instruction and modeling of new skills they need to master new learning.

However, studies have shown that when done well, what we’ve labelled peer-assisted consolidation of learning can support significant gains in student learning—typically by bringing students together to discuss and make sense of new ideas or practice new skills. It’s worth noting, however, that effective peer-assisted learning activities do not simply put students in groups to talk amongst themselves; rather, these are structured activities that often bring students together in intentionally designed heterogeneous groups. These groups often incorporate teacher-provided questions to guide their conversations, as well as rules and guidelines that ensure a safe environment for student interactions and foster positive interdependence among students so they see it as their responsibility to help one another learn.

One of the most effective peer-assisted learning techniques is reciprocal teaching, in which each student in a group of four is assigned a critical role in the discussion (summarizer, questioner, clarifier, predictor). The key idea here is to help students feel connected to one another, give them time to process their learning, and perhaps most important, express their opinions and ideas.

Providing students with choice and control over their learning with extend-and-apply activities

Perhaps the most important finding from our review of scientific research was the emergence of three teaching strategies that collectively demonstrate the power of engaging students in intellectually demanding learning activities at the end of units of study to help them extend and apply their learning. These activities include cognitive writing (extended writing assignments that engage students in high-order processing of new learning), guided investigations (engaging students in experiments, inquiry-based learning, and research projects that require high levels of cognitive engagement), and structured problem-solving (teaching step-by-step processes to help students develop mental schema for applying knowledge and skills to solve complex, real-life problems).

We know from brain research that students are more apt to retain new learning when they have opportunities to rehearse the learning in multiple ways—by thinking about it, applying it, and weaving their own ideas into it. Perhaps most important, these activities are not one-size-fits-all. They give students opportunities to make choices about, for example, what they will write about, what they investigate, and what problems to solve—or how to go about solving them. When we pair these activities with student goal setting and monitoring, we help to develop persistence and strategies for overcoming barriers—an essential element of student-centered, healthy classrooms.

Now we need to come back to the conundrum we identified in our last post: How do we empower teachers to do the right things, the things they know need doing, with regard to SEL, without leading them to feel like they’re going soft on academics? We’ll explore this further in the next post.

Bryan Goodwin is the president and CEO of McREL International. He’s the co-author of Learning That Sticks, a columnist for Educational Leadership, and a frequent conference presenter.

Pete Hall, the executive director of Education Hall, taught preK–8 in three states, then served as a principal for 12 years in three Title I schools. He’s the author or co-author of many works on teaching and learning, including McREL’s A Teachers’ Reflective Impact Journal: Pursuing Greatness Every Day, as well as the YA novel Chasing the Show.


McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.