‘Evidence-Based Teaching: How Brains Learn’ – Charlotte Sivner

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to attend a course entitled ‘Evidence-Based Teaching: How Brains Learn’. This was provided by the Evidence-Based Teachers Network (EBTN), which is an organisation run by retired teacher Mike Bell. The approach of the EBTN is a very simple one: to encourage teachers to use highly effective evidence-based methods in their teaching. The evidence used by the EBTN comes from a range of sources, the most prominent being John Hattie’s Visible Learning, Geoff Petty’s Evidence Based Teaching, and Robert Marzano’s Classroom Instruction That Works . The course involved an introduction to the ‘top ten’ most effective classroom methods, as devised by the EBTN. These ten were selected by combining Hattie, Petty and Marzano’s research and giving each strategy an overall effect size. According to Hattie, an effect size of less than 0.4 would indicate the strategy is not worth trying with a whole class. As well as encouraging teachers to use evidence-based methods in their classrooms, EBTN strongly encourages us to consider the origins of any research we are using, as well as the finer details such as the sample size used and the length of the study.

As teachers it is not necessary for each of us to understand the intricate workings of the brain, but it is important to appreciate the processes involved in learning. The structure of the brain is such that it consists of small, specialist areas. “Intelligence” is what emerges when most of these areas are working and communicating well. Any new learning must link to existing knowledge. Memories require several of these links as well as repetition. If there are no links or repeats, then memories cannot be secured. The more links and repeats we make, the more memories we can secure.[1] Let’s consider learning as a cycle: when we are taught new material, we understand it more easily if we can make links between it and what we already know, our prior knowledge. Learning by rote is possible for students where there is limited prior knowledge, but the learning is unlikely to be deep. When we encounter tasks, if they are too easy then the connections between the new information and the prior knowledge already exist. The task is challenging if the brain struggles to make new connections; in other words we must think hard! The next stage is feedback and improvement. Inside the Black Box reveals that in the UK, teachers tend to give high-level feedback but it is not always effective as students are rarely given time to respond to the feedback. Feedback is effective when students have the chance to improve their work and exercise the neural connections once again. The fifth stage of the learning cycle is repetition, a crucial stage if we are to keep emphasising the links to our existing knowledge.

The top ten methods are outlined below.


Method 1: analogies and similes

Showing learners either what something looks like, or not like, and comes in several parts

  • Use similes, analogies and models in your teaching
  • Students classify things according to their properties
  • Students identify similarities and differences between commonly mixed up ideas
  • Tables
  • Venn diagrams
  • True or false

Method 2: summarising and note taking

Processes by which students discover the ‘big picture’ and the main learning points

  • Doing a précis of a larger portion of text – you could suggest subtitles or give a word limit
  • Students make notes as you talk, or as they watch a video – again provide subtitles or structured questions if needed
  • Making a mindmap at the end of a topic
  • Identify the main points at the end of a lesson

Method 3: Growth mindset

“Learners who attribute their performance to things they cannot change (natural ability, quality of teaching etc) do significantly worse than those who attribute it to their effort” Mindset, Carole Dweck (2012)

  • Use language with students that emphasises effort, not ability
  • Comment on the time spent
  • Comment on the number of sources used
  • Changing students’ attitudes takes time

Method 4: Repetition and practice 

The brain needs repetitions to secure memories. Consider changing the order of teaching to build in the staged repetitions needed to secure memories. These do not have to be time consuming.

  • Starters – recap questions
  • Plenaries – recap questions
  • Peer assessment
  • Quick quizzes
  • Repetition tasks
  • Spaced practice tasks

Method 5: non-linguistic representations

Using any method other than spoken or written words. Visual methods are especially effective. The effect size is only achieved when students create their own graphics and receive feedback on how to improve them.

Method 6: cooperative learning

Not just ‘getting students working together’.

  • Specify ways in which the students should work together
  • Specific co-operative structures so that every student is held responsible
  • Strong motivation for all group members to achieve
  • An individual check on each students learning, but the group is held responsible

Method 7: Setting goals and providing feedback

Setting goals and objectives helps learners see where they are going.

  • Challenging goals
  • Set goals in advance
  • Formative assessment

Summative assessment – research shows summative tests have an overall slight negative effect on learning and should be used as little as possible (2x per year)

Method 8: Generating and testing hypotheses

A hypothesis is a testable idea; it can be the first step to developing a theory.

  • Devise and test an idea or explanation practically
  • Use historical sources or literature search to test
  • Devise and answer “What if….” questions based on information already known

Method 9: activating prior knowledge

Students need to be able to link their new learning to something they already know. The current knowledge level needs to be assessed and built on. Old learning must be ‘activated’ to bring it to mind.

  • Link learning to something students already know “What can you remember about…?”

Method 10: advance/ knowledge organisers

Advance/knowledge organisers show students what will be covered in the topic and should be referred to throughout, to make links between the detail and the big picture. Work best if presented graphically, with words and pictures.

  • Overview
  • Simple
  • No more than 6 key elements



[1] How Brains Learn Mike Bell (2012) https://www.amazon.co.uk/How-Brains-Learn-Mike-Bell-ebook/dp/B007B15R0E


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