The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Owen Carter

Eight principles of effective teaching

Eight ideas from cognitive psychology that you should think about putting into your teaching.

Lists of effective teaching are ten a penny – some useful, some not so much. There are some great ones: Tom Sherrington has put together a really useful (and practical) set of principles, Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby make a powerful case for six key focuses, and researchers such as Rosenshine have brought together research-based insights on instruction.

Here I’ve reproduced eight ideas coming mainly from cognitive psychology summarised by Ruth Powley for the Optimus Education Knowledge Centre. You can check out the original article here and get some resources for embedding it with the mastery lesson plan and Ruth’s webinar on developing pupils’ memory.

Without further ado…


It’s important that we understand what makes effective teaching. A 2014 survey found that as many as 90% of teachers thought that individuals learn better in their preferred learning style – despite the lack of any evidence to support this. At the same time many effective techniques are underused.

So what should we focus on?

1. Develop mastery learning

Rosenshine’s research on effective teaching advocates ‘mastery learning’ which builds automatic fluency in key concepts. He recommends:

  • beginning lessons with a 5-8 minute review of previous learning
  • presenting new material in small steps with student practice after each step
  • limiting the amount of material students receive at one time – reviewing is as important as new content
  • re-teaching material when necessary.

Find out more about why students’ performance doesn’t always mean that they have mastered learning in a video from Robert Bjork.

2.  Don’t dismiss knowledge as ‘lower order’

What Makes Great Teaching states that ‘the most effective teachers have deep knowledge of the subjects they teach.’ Rosenshine found that ‘one characteristic of effective teachers is their ability to anticipate students’ errors.’

Deep knowledge is vital to achievement: breadth of knowledge is one of the key influencing factors for academic attainment.

Deep knowledge is also vital to memorising and thinking. Cognitive scientists such as Daniel Willingham have found that a memory replete with facts learns better than one without.

Learn more about powerful knowledge

3. Expect excellence from all

Shaun Allison, Deputy Headteacher of Durrington High School, writes that ‘all, most, some’ learning objectives ‘stifle aspirations of what students can achieve.’ 

Think in terms of expected learning gains:

  • what deep understanding or technical proficiency will students gain mastery of?
  • what will excellence look like?
  • set a single, challenging objective for all students with appropriate scaffolding.

4. Guide learning

What Makes Great Teaching recommends ‘reviewing previous learning, providing model responses for students [and] progressively introducing new learning (scaffolding).’

Rosenshine’s research shows that the most successful teachers spent more than half of the class time lecturing, demonstrating, and asking questions. Cognitive scientists such as Kirschner also recommend guided practice: ‘When dealing with novel information, learners should be explicitly shown what to do and how to do it’.

They also recommend worked examples over problem solving tasks. Worked examples aid learning because they reduce working memory load and focus on the essential relations between problems.

Rosenshine recommends:

  • giving clear and detailed instructions and explanations
  • providing worked examples of problems or tasks
  • providing a number of examples.

5. Ensure that students have to think hard

Coe says that ‘learning happens when people have to think hard’. Teachers should ask themselves questions like ‘Where in this lesson will students have to think hard?’.

Desirable difficulties which make short-term performance harder cause better long-term learning. These include:

  • varying the conditions of practice
  • spacing practice sessions with gaps to allow forgetting
  • interleaving rather than blocking topics
  • using retrieval quizzes to test recall.

Find out more about desirable difficulties.

6. Put deliberate practice into lessons

What Makes Great Teaching recommends giving adequate time for practice to embed skills securely. Practice of new learning should be spaced over at least three occasions. This overlearning creates fluent understanding and transfers learning to the long-term memory.

Rosenshine found that the most effective teachers understood that ‘material will be forgotten unless there is sufficient rehearsal.’ His research also suggested that the optimal success rate in practice was 80%: students were learning but still challenged.

Rosenshine recommends:

  • providing a high level of active practice for all students
  • guiding students as they begin to practice
  • preparing students for independent practice
  • monitoring students when they begin independent practice to provide feedback and corrections.

7. Test to improve learning

If long-term memory doesn’t change, it’s very difficult to say what has been learned. Information should be ‘overlearned’ by 20% to optimise recall.

Dunlosky’s research recommends the following methods:

  • practice testing improves memory retrieval and is more effective than re-study or concept mapping when frequent, spaced and with feedback
  • spacing practice forces students to think harder and interleaving practice strengthens memory retrieval
  • elaborative interrogation enhances learning by integrating new information with prior knowledge
  • self-explanation helps students understand processes.

8. Use questioning frequently and rigorously

What Makes Great Teaching recommends effective questioning, which require all students to process and rehearse material. Rosenshine criticised ‘the least effective teachers [who] asked only nine questions in a 40-minute period.’

Rosenshine recommends:

  • Asking a large number of questions to check for understanding

Our Curriculum conference takes place in both London and Manchester in June. With Ofsted's updated inspection process, particuarly the focus on deep dives, having a clear vision and design for your school's curriculum is more important than ever. 

Find out more.

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