Learning – and teaching – is difficult (and there are no shortcuts!)

Paul A. Kirschner

I recently came across Robert Coe in a blog by Carl Hendrick about engagement (Engagement: Just because they’re busy, doesn’t mean they’re learning anything). Carl placed this slide which was part of a presentation by Coe at the ASCL (Association of School and College Leaders) conference in 2015:


The topic of Coe’s presentation was From Evidence to Great Teaching and of course, if you’re talking about great teaching, then you’ll also need evidence of learning and for Coe, these were very poor proxies for determining if anything was learned.

The aim of his presentation was, in his words, what research can “tell us about the kinds of classroom practices that are likely to create [sic] the most learning for students, and the best bets for introducing interventions with the greatest cost-effectiveness”.

But before Coe presented the slide about proxies for learning, he showed the following two slides. The first had five questions:


…and the second was a graph from which the answers could be deduced:


General conclusion? False, False, False, False, False. WTF? Let’s look the more complete and specific answers that he gave (Note: I wasn’t there. The answers below are gleaned from the references to evidence that he gave):

Class size:

  • Reducing class sizes can improve learning a little, but other changes, for example to the quality of teaching, make a bigger difference.
  • Even large reductions in class size, say from 30 to 15, have only a relatively small impact on attainment.
  • The quality of teaching has a greater impact than altering class size. Learning and attainment are likely to be better in a large class where there is high quality teaching than in a small class with mediocre teaching.
  • The high cost of employing extra teachers to reduce class sizes, coupled with the relatively small effect on learning, means lowering class size is unlikely to be the most cost effective way of improving attainment.

Individualisation (sometimes called personalisation)

  • Individualisation programs produce a fairly small average effect-size of .14.
  • Too often, individualisation means placing the child alone to work on a particular task, usually relating to his or her particular needs, progress, pace, and behaviour.
  • These attempts usually have little feedback, little attention by a busy teacher catering to the other 30 or so students, and the student typically has little knowledge of success or failure at the specifics of the task.

Praise / Teachers’ Expectations and Student Learning

  • The effects of praise are counter-intuitive. In some circumstances there appear to be negative side effects of praise, at least for older children and adults.
  • Praise for successful performance on an easy task can be interpreted by a student as evidence that the teacher has a low perception of his or her ability. As a consequence, it can actually lower rather than enhance self-confidence.

Digital Technology

  • Research findings from experimental and quasi-experimental designs – which have been combined in meta-analyses – indicate that technology-based interventions tend to produce just slightly lower levels of improvement when compared with other researched interventions and approaches (such as peer tutoring or those which provide effect feedback to learners).
  • Correlational and experimental evidence does not offer a convincing case for the general impact of digital technology on learning outcomes. This is not to say that it is not worth investing in using technology to improve learning. But it should encourage us to be cautious in the face of technological solutions to educational challenges.


  • There is not enough evidence for a causal link between aspirations/expectations and educational outcomes. Crucially, no study has been found that shows altering aspirations actually leads to difference in outcomes.
  • Attitudes, such as feelings about the value of schooling or a wish to participate in specific subject courses, are generally linked to SES background, and to related concepts like self-esteem. However, they are also related to issues like enjoyment of school, which are not themselves linked to SES background.
  • There is also no explicit evidence of a link between children’s attitudes to education and educational outcomes. Attitude here is taken to include school engagement, but is distinguished from aspirations, self-esteem and so on.


The solution?


Hard work!



And how do we achieve this? Rather than paraphrasing what he said, here are a few of his slides that sum it up plus two sources to help those who teach (click the last two figures).




And now the links which you might want to read during the summer:





Have a great summer vacation and success next school year with great teaching!


Sources / readings

Engagement: Just because they’re busy, doesn’t mean they’re learning anything. https://chronotopeblog.com/2015/03/22/engagement-just-because-theyre-busy-doesnt-mean-theyre-learning-anything/

Coe, R. (2015). From Evidence to Great Teaching. Paper presented at ASCL Annual Conference, 20 March 2015, London, UK https://www.ascl.org.uk/download.45878A48-32E1-48FC-8729663C8DC4E8FA.html

Coe, R., Aloisi, C., Higgins, S. and Elliot Major, L. (2014) ‘What makes great teaching? Review of the underpinning research’. Sutton Trust, October 2014 http://www.suttontrust.com/researcharchive/great-teaching/

Coe, R. (2013) Improving Education: A triumph of hope over experience. Inaugural Lecture of Professor Robert Coe, Durham University, 18 June 2013. Essay version available at http://www.cem.org/attachments/publications/ImprovingEducation2013.pdf

Coe, R., Kime, S., Nevill, C. and Coleman, R. (2013) ‘The DIY Evaluation Guide’. London: Education Endowment Foundation. http://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/uploads/pdf/EEF_DIY_Evaluation_Guide_(2013).pdf

Class size: http://educationmediacentre.org/researchnews/whats-the-evidence-on-class-size/

Individualisation: Hattie, J. Influences on Student Learning https://cdn.auckland.ac.nz/assets/education/about/research/documents/influences-on-student-learning.pdf

Praise / Teachers’ Expectations and Student Learning: Stipek, D. How Do Teachers’ Expectations Affect Student Learning http://www.education.com/reference/article/teachers-expectations-affect-learning/

Digital technologies: Higgins et al’s. The Impact of Digital Technology on Learning http://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/uploads/pdf/The_Impact_of_Digital_Technologies_on_Learning_FULL_REPORT_(2012).pdf

Aspirations: Gorard, S. The impact of attitudes and aspirations on educational attainment and participation http://www.jrf.org.uk/sites/files/jrf/education-young-people-parents-full.pdf




10 thoughts on “Learning – and teaching – is difficult (and there are no shortcuts!)

    • education86466 says:

      thanks for sharing that paper. Something I don’t feel is considered with arguments about reducing class size is that it reduces teacher workload – less stressed teachers teach better. I find that on odd occasions when for some reason there are 5 or 6 students absent from a class, there is a palpable lessening of effort required to manage learning and the students seem to be more relaxed with the reduced pressure from numbers. Subjective I know.


      • Paul Kirschner says:

        Thanks for your comment. The major point – though the article blog only touches on class size in relation to someone else’s slide – with smaller class sizes is that if one maintains the same pedagogy while the class size is smaller, then there are not very many benefits (if any at all) except for possibly classroom management issues.


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