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How can teachers improve student learning?

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A new SFI report provides the first quantitative analysis of the impact of teacher characteristics and behavior on academic achievement in a Danish educational context.

Although most people believe that teacher quality matters for academic achievement and that teachers differ in their ability to promote student learning, researchers have not been very successful in determining the factors that characterize good teachers. Moreover, in a Danish context both policymakers and practitioners have been reluctant to apply results from other parts of the world to the Danish educational system.

In a newly published SFI report, financed by the Danish School Council, we analyse how factors such as teacher background characteristics, teaching methods and strategies, the class environment, teacher collaboration and motivation affect the academic achievement of students at the end of their compulsory education. The report provides the first quantitative analysis of the impact of teachers on students’ academic achievement on Danish data.

Research on social stratification and mobility consistently shows a strong link between an individual’s socioeconomic position and background and educational success. Accordingly, advantaged students are more likely to get good grades, complete an upper secondary education and go to university. Because we know from previous research that socioeconomic background is a strong predictor of future educational success, we investigate whether the impact of teachers varies across students’ socioeconomic background. Do, for example, some instructional strategies work differently depending on student background resources and what can teachers do to improve achievement of disadvantaged students?

The report suggests that a range of factors affect student achievement. First, the results show that instructional strategies characterized by strong framing improve academic achievement. Strong framing refers to instruction that is characterized by explicit goals and expectations as well as formalized rules. We find, for instance, that explicit goals and expectations improve academic achievement. In addition to referring to the structure of the instructional process, strong framing also implies a consequent approach to classroom management. Our results suggest that students on average do better when their teacher prioritizes a good working climate by reducing “small talk” and unnecessary movement in the classroom and when the teacher is consistent with regard to insisting that student respect and keep agreements that have been made.

Our results regarding the positive impact of strong framing apply to all students, but in particular to students with low socioeconomic status. This makes sense because disadvantaged students typically have to work harder to pick up the school culture and codes. According, “visible pedagogies” characterized by explicit regulative and instructional rules benefits this group in particular.

Second, in line with international research, we find that most teacher background characteristics, such as experience, subject specialization and education are unrelated to academic achievement. We do, however, find that female teachers on average achieve better results with regard to their students than their male counterparts. Moreover, being taught by a teacher of the same gender improves a student’s academic achievement.

Third, our results suggest a positive relationship between certain forms of teacher-team organization and academic achievement. We analyse four different teacher-team organization forms: class team, year-grade team, subject team and section team. We find that the more teachers participate in class-team meetings that serve the purpose of coordinating activities and supporting student wellbeing, the better the academic achievement of the students.

Fourth, we find that the number of effective teaching hours, e.g. the number of hours the teacher uses for actual teaching activities (i.e. not including dealing with administrative tasks, maintaining discipline and dealing with individual student issues) has a positive impact on academic achievement.

Overall, the report supports the assumption that teachers do make a difference with regard to student learning and offers important insights into the optimal organization of instruction for disadvantaged students.

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