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Teaching challenge

Ms Stones wants to ensure pupils experience maximum learning in each lesson. She knows she needs to challenge pupils with new learning content but is unsure how to decide the right amount of content to do this. How could she identify and divide up content, and check if learning is taking place? How can she adapt others’ plans for her own classes to achieve this?

Key idea

Teachers can ensure pupils experience maximum learning by carefully identifying the content that pupils will think hard about at different points in a lesson, breaking this thinking down and checking learning along the way.

Evidence summary

Identifying key thinking in a lesson

Learning involves processes leading to a lasting change in pupils’ capabilities or understanding – if nothing changes, arguably nothing has been learned (Sweller, 2016). As time in lesson is limited, Ms Stones needs to prioritise a manageable amount of content for her pupils to learn about. Learning takes place when pupils think hard about something (Coe, 2013) so Ms Stones should consider and carefully specify what she wants her pupils to think hard about in each lesson.

Breaking down learning

Like all of us, pupils find new academic ideas difficult, and will often avoid thinking hard wherever possible (Willingham, 2009). Pupils may also avoid tasks where they fear they will be unsuccessful (Kluger & deNisi, 1996). Ms Stones can help her pupils by breaking learning down, making thinking more manageable.

When learning is manageable, pupils will achieve a higher success rate. Effective teachers break learning down to make it more manageable by:

  • Introducing new material in small steps.
  • Sharing models (including solved problems) to illustrate each step.
  • Asking lots of questions and guiding pupils to practise each step successfully.

To support a high success rate, instruction should be aligned at different stages of teaching. For example, making sure that pupils practise the same material that has been introduced to them (Rosenshine, 2012). Therefore, when selecting the content pupils must think hard about, Ms Stones needs to consider, ”what thinking do I want pupils to be successful with?” and ”how can I break this thinking down to make success more likely?”

However, selecting appropriate steps is hard. Sometimes a step that will improve a final performance does not look like the final performance (Christodoulou, 2017). For example, a violinist might practise their scales to be fluent before attempting to improve at playing a piece, rather than just repeating the piece. Similarly, pupils might need to practise their vocabulary before attempting an essay. Ms Stones should seek support from her mentor and colleagues when breaking learning down into essential material – concepts, knowledge, skills and principles – that she wishes pupils to think about and remember.

Ms Stones wants to support a high success rate, so she also needs to understand how manageable pupils are finding the steps she has selected. However, predicting how manageable steps are can be uncertain. For example, how manageable a step is can depend on pupil prior knowledge (Willingham, 2009). Therefore, even if Ms Stones has carefully broken learning down, with support from colleagues, she still needs to assess pupils to check how successful they have been with each step.

Checking key learning

Effective teachers regularly review learning, asking lots of questions which check pupil understanding (Rosenshine, 2012). The more precisely Ms Stones has identified what she wants pupils to be thinking hard about at various stages of the lessons, the more effectively she will be able to check for key learning. She needs to check the learning of as many pupils as possible.

Ms Stones wants to establish where all learners are in relation to the key content or steps she wants pupils to succeed at. An effective strategy for checking whole-class understanding of identified content is the use of ‘exit tickets’. This is an end of lesson assessment that pupils need to be able to complete quickly and that teachers should be able to assess quickly. Getting every pupil to complete an exit ticket as a low-stakes assessment at the end of her lessons will help Ms Stones to gauge how successful pupils have been with these steps.

Ms Stones’ assessment may pick up that pupils are not yet secure in their thinking about a particular step, for example if several pupils incorrectly answer a question or there is a common misconception or error in an exit ticket. If the success rate drops, Ms Stones should provide further support, for example breaking the learning steps down further in the next lesson.

Nuances and caveats

One approach to breaking learning down could be to set steps which pupils can already easily do, to ensure success. However, setting easy work might suggest the teacher has low expectations, which is likely to negatively affect pupil confidence and motivation (Coe et al., 2014). Furthermore, if pupils are not set challenging enough tasks, they will not learn as much.

Key takeaways

Ms Stones can deliver more effective instruction by identifying the learning content if she understands that:

  • learning is a process leading to changes in pupils’ capabilities or understanding that happens when pupils think hard
  • breaking learning down should make thinking manageable enough for pupils to experience a high success rate
  • identifying manageable steps is tricky, so teachers should check all pupils’ key learning, and provide further support to ensure a high success rate

Further reading

Rosenshine, B. (2012). Principles of Instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know. American Educator, 36(1), 12–20.


Christodoulou, D. (2017). Making Good Progress: The Future of Assessment for Learning. Oxford, OUP.

Coe, R. (2013). Improving Education: A triumph of hope over experience. Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring.

Coe, R., Aloisi, C., Higgins, S., & Major, L. E. (2014). What makes great teaching. Review of the underpinning research. Durham University: UK.

Kluger, A. N., & DeNisi, A. (1996) The effects of feedback interventions on performance: A historical review, a meta-analysis, and a preliminary feedback intervention theory. Psychological Bulletin, 119(2), 254–284.

Rosenshine, B. (2012). Principles of Instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know. American Educator, 36(1), 12–20.

Sweller, J. (2016). Working Memory, Long-term Memory, and Instructional Design. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 5(4), 360–367.

Willingham, D. T. (2009). Why don’t students like school? San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.