Fundamentals of student achievement

Stephen Dinham

At the conclusion of my book How to Get Your School Moving and Improving (Dinham, 2008a) I presented a simple, powerful model for what I had observed in classrooms of successful teachers, successful school subject departments, cross-school working groups, successful schools and education systems across Australia and overseas.

Figure 1: The four fundamentals of student achievement

1. A central focus on students, both as learners and people

a) The individual learner - In terms of learning, each student’s progress is assessed formatively, and summatively, and teachers are aware of where each student has been in terms of their learning, where they are at present in terms of what they can and can’t do in respect of the standards and expectations held for them, and what is needed to move their learning forward. Constructive feedback and appropriate teaching strategies are part of the ongoing assessment of each student. Hattie (2012) has calculated an effect size of 0.54 for student-centred teaching and 0.75 for teacher to student feedback, underlining the importance of knowing students as learners and acting on this knowledge.

b) The individual person - The second aspect of this central focus is that every student is also known as a person. Hattie has calculated an effect size of 0.72 for teacher-student relationships. It is important that every student feels that there is someone who knows and cares about them. Some students can go weeks or longer without such personal contact or interest, particularly those students who don’t stand out or draw attention to themselves because of their learning, conduct or other factors. Effective teachers find ways to communicate and connect with all their students. They know and use students’ names and offer commendation or correction when appropriate. They keep records. They notice changes in a student’s engagement, enthusiasm, work or even health, and intervene before small problems become bigger. 

However, sometimes there is a lack of relative balance between knowing students as learners and as people. In some schools the emphasis is more on the learning side. The school prides itself on the academic success of its students and those who don’t measure up are ignored, put in a bottom class, or can go elsewhere. School newsletters, websites and notice boards outside the school advertise academic success as defined by Australian Tertiary Admission Ranks (ATARs) and how many students enter university.

On the other hand, other schools, usually of lower SES, have lesser expectations for their students. The language used here can be instructive. I have heard variations on all of these and more: ‘Don’t expect too much and you won’t be disappointed’; ‘This is a poor area and the best we can do is give our students the basics’; ‘The local community doesn’t value education’; ‘The most important thing we can do is to boost students’ self-esteem and make them feel better about themselves’, and finally ‘We are a welfare school’.

In my research it is clear that those schools that are most successful in terms of overall student achievement maintain that essential balance between ‘academic’ (learning) and ‘welfare/well-being’ (personal) aspects of schooling.

2. Professional learning

A second broad factor responsible for successful teaching, learning, schools and systems is professional learning. It is no coincidence that the most effective teachers, subject faculties and schools are never satisfied with what they know. They never reach the point where they feel they can put their feet up and say they have it all worked out. There are always new challenges and every year, new students. These educators continually question what they do and how and why they do it, use evidence to inform this knowledge, and are always on the lookout for new strategies, resources and approaches to improve teaching and learning. Hattie found professional development to have an effect size of 0.51 in respect of student achievement. Teachers utilising micro-teaching to improve their practice has an effect size of 0.88. Providing teachers with formative evaluation and feedback on their performance has an even larger effect size of 0.90. Robinson, Hohepa and Lloyd found from their meta-analyses that leaders ‘promoting and participating in teacher learning and development’ had a very large effect size of 0.84.

Professional learning – one of the ‘big levers’ at our disposal - is essential to teacher development and school improvement. I can’t see how we can change what teachers know and can do without it. Any change we introduce into a school or system must be accompanied and supported by relevant and effective professional learning, if it is to have any chance of success.

3. Leadership

Leadership is another ‘big lever’ in improving teaching and learning. Our earlier views of leadership have changed and we now recognise that leadership resides in all teachers and not just in those occupying formal leadership positions. Every time a teacher takes a class, an extra-curricular activity, works with a less experienced teacher or sits on a school committee or working party, to give but a few examples, he or she is exercising leadership. 

Leadership, as with professional learning, is a powerful enabler in schools. It is possible to have good teachers and teaching without having a successful school but in my experience it is impossible to have a successful school without good leadership. Hattie has identified an effect size of 0.39 for principals/school leaders but as I have noted elsewhere, the effects of leaders and leadership are often widely variable, indirect, and therefore more difficult to measure than those for teaching. Additionally, some forms of leadership, such as instructional leadership, have been found to have more effect on student learning than others, such as transformational leadership. Leadership is a group function which over time can lift a school’s performance, but poor leadership can quickly undo this good work.

4. Quality teaching

Not surprisingly, quality teaching has been found to be essential in facilitating successful student learning. There are two sides to the quality teaching coin: the qualities of the teacher and the quality or effectiveness of his or her teaching. There has been great interest in the quality of those entering teaching in recent times (and with the quality of initial teacher education programs), as there has been for teaching performance or effectiveness. Hattie found an overall effect size of 0.48 for the quality of teaching, but research has also revealed the wide variation in teacher quality that can occur in any school. Whilst the teacher is the biggest in-school influence on student achievement, the big challenge is to get a quality teacher in every classroom, something I have described as being the biggest equity issue in education.

We now turn to strategies and techniques that have been found to be powerful agents for student learning.

Self-report grades

The highest influence of all on student achievement, according to Hattie’s meta-analyses, was self-report(ed) grades, with an effect size of 1.44, an effect beyond very large and in the ‘radioactive’ category.

Hattie notes:

‘Overall, students have reasonably accurate understandings of their levels of achievement. … [however]

There are at least two groups that are not as good at predicting their performance and who do not always predict in the right direction: minority students and lower achieving students. … They tend to underestimate their achievement and, over time, they come to believe their lower estimates and lose the confidence to take on more challenging tasks. …

Student reflection on their performance alone makes no difference. Emphasising accurate calibration is more effective than rewarding improved performance. The message is that teachers need to provide opportunities for students to be involved in predicting their performance; clearly, making the learning intentions and success criteria transparent, having high, but appropriate, expectations, and providing feedback at the appropriate levels … is critical to building confidence in successfully taking on challenging tasks. Educating students to have high, challenging, appropriate expectations is among the most powerful influence in enhancing student achievement.’

I have developed and used the following approach to using self-report grades successfully with a range of teachers and school leaders across Australia, who in turn have used it with their students. I don’t advocate that it be used for every lesson or activity, but experience has shown it is a powerful training, analytic and cognitive exercise. It requires both teachers and students to think about what they are doing and what success looks like. 

There are six steps in the process:

  1. Carefully explain to students an assignment or learning activity, including key terms and directions – This is always a good way to start and requires the teacher to be clear on his or her learning intentions. Checking for student understanding of key terms and directions is essential in this step. If students are unclear about what they have to do, poor performance is almost guaranteed. 
  2. Provide students with the assessment rubric, including criteria and the marking/assessment scale/method for each item/criterion – This step is about students having a clear idea of the expectations for the activity, the elements of what is required, and what acceptable performance looks like. Where students are unsure of the standard required, this can lead to confusion. Providing examples of unacceptable, acceptable and superior performance on a task can be powerful aids to successfully completing the task and to improvement. The old technique of ‘compare and contrast’ can be valuable here: ‘Here are three examples of responses to ‘x’ … which is the best and why?’
  • Optional: Jointly discuss and determine criteria to be used with students.
  1. Students complete the activity (individually or in groups), using rubric as a guide – This is the most powerful use of a rubric, to guide completion of a task rather than just assessing how a task or criterion of the task has been performed.
  2. Students assess their work using the rubric – An interesting phenomenon sometimes occurs with this step – students can be quite self-critical (see Hattie’s previous comments about minority and lower performing students) – in that some students will be ‘harder’ on themselves than is their teacher.
  • Optional: Students assess another student’s work, discuss with student concerned.
  1. Teacher assesses each student’s work, providing feedback using rubric – It is important here that the teacher’s assessments are congruent with the earlier instructions, the rubric and standards expected. For example, it is counter-productive and ‘unfair’ (students have low tolerance for unfairness) to introduce additional criteria at this stage, i.e., ‘I’m reducing your mark by 25% because your work is untidy’, ‘I’m taking off 5 marks because you were noisy’, or ‘I’m taking off 10 marks because I find you obnoxious’, if these were not part of the original criteria/rubric.
  2. Student and teacher discuss/compare their assessments – A most important step where discussion and moderation (‘give and take’) can occur. It is powerful if the teacher (and student) is prepared to listen to evidence and to be flexible, e.g., ‘Yes, I think you are right, it is a B rather than a C’.
  • One-to-one conferences are powerful: As noted, the one-to-one ‘face-time’ conference between teacher and student is important in the teacher knowing the student as a learner and person, and vice versa, and for individualised feedback to be given.

In my experience, if you start to use this process with students, expect them to ask ‘Will we get to assess our own work?’ in the future. The lasting benefits include students (and teachers) thinking more deeply about an activity and checking for understanding, being more aware of required standards, using rubrics or criteria to guide the work, engaging in self-assessment prior to submission and assessment by the teacher, and constructive feedback, discussion and adjustment to assessment where necessary.

The importance of spaced practice

Another strategy with a large measured effect size (ES = 0.71) in respect of student learning is that of ‘spaced’ practice. Once again, some people seem to be ideologically opposed to the notion of practice, equating it with drills and rote learning. Spaced practice means structuring the learning experience so that students have the opportunity to receive instruction, perform a task, receive feedback to improve their performance and then complete the task again, rather than simply performing it once, i.e., ‘mass’ practice.

Reeves has noted in respect of practice:

‘Research shows the value of deliberate practice across fields such as music to athletics: … children and adults need deliberate practice in order to achieve their objectives … The components of deliberate practice include performance that is based on a particular element of the task, expert coaching, feedback, careful and accurate self-assessment, and – this is the key – the opportunity to apply feedback immediately for improved performance.’

Thus, if you are a soccer coach, you don’t have your players practise soccer by playing a game of soccer. You isolate the essential, discrete skills and strategies (e.g., heading the ball, kicking the ball with either foot, where to position on corners, etc.), coach your players in these skills, let them perform the skill, give them constructive feedback – note the reference to self-assessment once again (‘careful and accurate self-assessment’) – and let them perform the task once more, i.e., engage in further ‘spaced’ practice. Then it might be time to play a game.

Feedback

Teacher to student feedback does not have the largest effect size of those strategies and approaches at our disposal (ES = 0.75), but in some ways it is a ‘silver bullet’, simply because there are so many opportunities for feedback, and in many cases, feedback is done so poorly.

I have noted:

‘Look at learning or mastery in fields as diverse as sports, the arts, languages, the sciences or recreational activities and it’s easy to see how important feedback is to learning and accomplishment. An expert teacher, mentor or coach can readily explain, demonstrate and detect flaws in performance. He or she can also identify talent and potential, and build on these. 

In contrast, trial and error learning or poor teaching are less effective and take longer. If performance flaws are not detected and corrected, these can become ingrained and will be much harder to eradicate later. Learners who don’t receive instruction, encouragement and correction can become disillusioned and quit due to lack of progress.’ (Dinham, 2008b)

The issue of feedback has rightly received a lot of attention recently and there are various approaches, all worthy of consideration. Based upon my research experience, I believe there are four key questions students require answers to, if their learning is to move forward:

The four questions of Students:

  1. What can I do?
  2. What can’t I do?
  3. How does my work compare with that of others/the expected standard?
  4. How can I do better? 

Keeping in mind the dangers of ‘entity thinking’ where students can come to see their abilities as fixed (Dinham, 2017), students need to know what they can do at the present time (‘ticks’) and what they can’t do (‘crosses’), again, at the present time and not for all time. For many students, this is where feedback begins and ends, and has little impact, at least of a positive nature, on learning. 

‘How does my work compare with that of others?’ is really about the standards expected for the student at his or her stage of schooling. It is more than just position in the class or year, and has the potential to be useful, especially if a technique like self-report grades is employed.

However, the most important question and answer, and one that in my experience students rarely receive, is ‘How can I do better?’ This is where constructive feedback that assists the student to improve his or her performance needs to be provided. I have had teachers say to me ‘I can tell them when they are right, and I can tell them when they are wrong, but I find it hard to tell them how they can improve’. If that’s the case, then you are more a referee (assessor) than a coach (teacher).

Here is a powerful, instructive quote from a 14 year old student (Glasson, 2009):

‘I really hate it when you wait for weeks to get back some piece of work and then it says ‘Well done. B’, and there are a few scribbles here and there. You don’t know what you’re supposed to do to get any better.’ [Emphasis added]

A structured approach to considering feedback

In working with teachers, schools and university faculties, I have successfully used the following process to begin a productive, professional conversation about feedback (Dinham, 2008b):

  1. What are our present approaches – formal and informal – to student feedback? Conduct an audit.
  2. Are our assessment methods and criteria clear, valid and reliable? Identify the links between assessment and feedback. 
  3. Do our students understand what is meant by feedback?
  4. Is the feedback our students receive infrequent, unfocused, unhelpful, inconsistent or negative? – OR -
  5. Is the feedback we provide focused, comprehensive, consistent and improvement-oriented, addressing the four key questions raised above? (especially How can I do better?).
  6. How does the feedback our students receive relate to parental feedback through reports, interviews and parent-teacher nights? Is feedback to students and parents consistent?
  7. How can we provide our students with improved feedback? 
  8. How will we know if it works? What evidence will we need? 

The answers to the above questions will provide an important foundation for improving the quality of teaching and student achievement in our schools. However, we need to consider a cautionary note. Feedback is only one part of the equation. It is not a substitute or remedy for poor teaching.

Concluding remarks

We have considered the key question of what works best in teaching. A strong thread running through the discussion has been the need for teachers to be critical consumers of research and to be evidence-based in their practice, both in respect of evidence informing what they do, and in respect of generating evidence of their students’, and therefore, their success. 

We need to concentrate on the strategies and approaches that have been found to have most impact on student achievement, and to question and disregard practices that not only have been found to be ineffective, but in some cases are known to be harmful (Dinham, 2017).

References

Dinham, S. (2017). ‘The Lack of an Evidence Base for Teaching and Learning: Fads, myths, legends, ideology and wishful thinking’, Professional Voice, 11(3), pp. 17-25. (pp. 22-23)

Dinham, S. (2016). Leading Learning and Teaching. Melbourne: ACER Press.

Dinham, S. (2008a). How to get your School Moving and Improving: An evidence-based approach. Melbourne: ACER Press.

Dinham, S. (2008b). ‘Feedback on Feedback’, Teacher, May, pp. 20-23. 

Glasson, T. (2009). Improving Student Achievement. Carlton South, Victoria: Curriculum Corporation. (p. 53)

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible Learning for Teachers. London: Routledge.

Reeves, D. (2010). Transforming Professional Development Into Student Results. Alexandria, VA: ASCD. (p. 66) 

Robinson, V., Hohepa, M. & Lloyd, C. (2009). School Leadership and Student Outcomes: Identifying What Works and Why. Wellington, New Zealand: New Zealand Ministry of Education.

Stephen Dinham is Professor of Instructional Leadership and Associate Dean (Strategic Partnerships) in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, the University of Melbourne. He has over 40 years of experience as a teacher, university academic, researcher, writer and consultant. He has conducted a wide range of research projects in multiple areas of education including leadership and change, effective pedagogy, student achievement, teaching standards and teachers’ professional development.

This article appears in Professional Voice 12.1 Professional learning.