Some research-based approaches to teaching

Written by: John Dabell | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

There is plenty of research focusing on effective teaching and learning techniques in the classroom. John Dabell picks out some choice approaches that have been shown to be effective

Teaching others

Students learn better and recall more when given the impression that they will have to teach newly acquired material to others. In two experiments, participants studied some passages either in preparation for a later test or in preparation for teaching the passage to another student who would then be tested. Those expecting to teach remembered more of the material and did so in a more efficient way (Nestojko et al, 2014).

Getting ready to teach, students want to ensure that they are as proficient as possible in explaining the concept to others, so they use more metacognitive strategies (Muis et al, 2016).

So we should encourage students to study the material they want to learn with the intention of teaching it to someone else. Another suggestion is that, at the start of the lesson, we can say to our class that at least one of them will be required to teach at the end. Sneaky.

But is learning enhanced through the act of actually teaching others? Research by Fiorella and Mayer (2013) found that it is. When students actually teach the content of a lesson, they develop a deeper and more persistent understanding of the material than from just preparing to teach it.

Teaching material to someone else supports recall and the learning-by-teaching “protégé effect” has been demonstrated in many studies (Chase et al, 2009). It is a teaching and learning approach developed by the French language teacher Jean-Pol Martin in German schools in the 1980s.

In their study, Koh et al (2018) found that teaching improves the teacher’s learning because it compels the teacher to retrieve what they have previously studied. Learning by teaching others is extremely effective because it helps students develop their creativity, independence, self-confidence, communication skills and their ability to engage in complex thinking by seeking and finding information.

Getting students to teach each other is a quick and easy way to increase their motivation. By learning something with the intention of teaching it later they learn it more deeply. Actually teaching something makes them more accountable, improves their retrieval and reveals the gaps in their knowledge.


Teachers are becoming more aware of the powers combining words with visuals in their teaching or “dual coding”.

The basic idea of this dual channel principle is very simple and intuitive – recall/recognition is enhanced by presenting information in both visual and verbal form.

This is about improving a verbal explanation by using a well-judged image to support it. There are many forms that the visual element may take, from simple drawings, cartoon strips and diagrams to infographics, graphic organisers and timelines.

Allan Paivio first proposed dual coding theory (DCT) and said that the human mind operates with two distinct classes of mental representation (or “codes”) – verbal representations and mental images. In the event of an input being coded by both subsystems, it is said to be “dual coded” (Clark & Paivio, 1991).

Presenting images alongside text or speech has been shown to be more memorable. Mayer and Anderson (1991) found in their research that studying with words and pictures together led to better learning. Their results showed that presenting verbal and visual explanations without connecting them is much less helpful than coordinating verbal narration simultaneously with animation.

Principles of DCT have been applied to teaching, particularly when using multimedia for learning. While we remember pictures better than concrete words by as much as a two to one ratio (Paivio, 2007), it is by engaging both audio and visual channels that learning is most effective.

Oliver Caviglioli (@olicav on Twitter), a former headteacher turned information designer, is someone making waves in dual coding and in an online video he explains how DCT can support the building of knowledge and understanding (see further information). He has also written a book about dual coding (2019).

Dual coding can help teachers to improve their explanations. Remember, the key to successfully using this strategy is to keep the images simple and relevant and to co-locate words and images (Smith & Weinstein, 2016).

Working harder

Is effort contagious? Research says it is, finding that simply performing a task next to a person who works hard will make you do the same and intensify your own concentration levels.

In an experiment, 38 participants performed a reaction-time computer game called “Simon task” in pairs and the researchers manipulated the difficulty of a task for one member of each pair (A). Although this manipulation was irrelevant for the task performed by the other pair member, the other participant tried harder when the task for A was more difficult. This was the case even when pair members could not see each other’s stimuli, suggesting that exerting effort is infectious (Desender et al, 2016).

If work ethic is contagious then what about a lack of effort? In their research, Devaine and Daunizeau (2017) found that people tend to unconsciously imitate others’ prudent, impatient or lazy attitudes. Where we sit and who we sit with matters...

Productivity and inspiration is catching and so is idleness. For the classroom then there are massive implications about who sits next to who and seating plans need to factor in pairing students with someone who will encourage them to crack on and work hard.


Teachers might want to consider whether it is really worth the effort sharing learning objectives with their students – do we need to signpost and publish our intentions before the lesson gets going?

Instead, we can withhold the learning objectives from view and have students try to work out the learning objectives during the course of a lesson. This “invisible sun” strategy suggested by Marcella McCarthy (2014; see also Dabell, 2017) gets students to work much harder and removes the mind-numbing and time-wasting experience students copying their learning objectives out at the start of a lesson.

Something else we could do is to provide students with questions before they learn something in order to build their interest and motivation, activate their prior knowledge, make predictions and boost their memories. Pre-questions can help students to focus their attention on the targeted information when they encounter it later.

Carpenter and Toftness (2017) divided students into two groups and showed them a video. Some were given pre-questions about what they were about to see and others just watched the clip and then both were tested to understand how much they had learned.

The pre-question group did far better, with students who had been asked pre-questions recalling almost 50 per cent more than their peers who had not. The researchers found that not only did students remember the correct answers to the pre-questions later on, but they also better remembered other key information from the lesson.

Pre-questions can be used to encourage students to better attend to classroom material, particularly when that material is in live or video format and not controlled by the student.

Smiley feedback

Can we make a research-based case that we should use smiling in our feedback? Marder et al (2019) at the University of Edinburgh found that use of emojis, such as the smiley, helps develop better relationships with students and recommends that we should think about using them in our marking, assessments or online feedback. They also found that using smiley faces made it more likely that students would act favourably when asked to carry out a task. Emoticon usage, particularly smileys, are less formal and more personal and made educators appear warmer.

Although the research was conducted with university students the researchers said the findings were equally relevant to school teachers.

This is potentially great news for building rapport but the research also warns that using emojis is a double-edged sword – students can also question the competence of the sender as they are too informal and can make them look less professional.

So perhaps use some smileys but use them intelligently and pay attention in what contexts they are and are not appropriate. Overusing them is not recommended and avoid the winking emoji (Lykkegaard, 2019).

  • John Dabell is a teacher, teacher trainer and writer. He has been teaching for 25 years and is the author of 10 books. He also trained as an Ofsted inspector. Visit and read his previous best practice articles for SecEd via

Further information & research

  • Carpenter & Toftness: The effect of prequestions on learning from video presentations, Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, March 2017:
  • Caviglioli: Dual Coding With Teachers, John Catt Educational, May 2019.
  • Caviglioli: An introduction to Dual Coding Theory, video from Oliver Caviglioli, Future Learn:
  • Chase et al: Teachable agents and the protégé effect, Journal of Science Education and Technology, August 2009:
  • Clark & Paivio: Dual coding theory and education, Educational Psychology Review, 1991:
  • Dabell: Invisible Sun, article for @TeacherToolkit, February 2017:
  • Desender et al: Is mental effort exertion contagious? Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, April 2016:
  • Devaine & Daunizeau: Learning about and from others’ prudence, impatience or laziness: The computational bases of attitude alignment, Computational Biology, March, 2017:
  • Florella & Mayer: The relative benefits of learning by teaching and teaching expectancy, Contemporary Educational Psychology, October 2013:
  • Koh et al: The learning benefits of teaching: A retrieval practice hypothesis, Applied Cognitive Psychology, April 2018:
  • Lykkegaard: Why teachers should use emojis more often, Wire, May 2019:
  • Marder et al: Smile(y) – and your students will smile with you? The effects of emoticons on impressions, evaluations, and behaviour in staff-to-student communication, Studies in Higher Education, April 2019:
  • Mayer & Anderson: Animations need narrations: An experimental test of a dual-coding hypothesis, Journal of Educational Psychology, 1991:
  • McCarthy: The Spider Strategy: Six steps to outstanding, Bloomsbury, November 2014.
  • Muis et al: Learning by preparing to teach: Fostering self-regulatory processes and achievement during complex mathematics problem solving, Journal of Educational Psychology, May 2016:
  • Nestojko et al: Expecting to teach enhances learning and organization of knowledge in free recall of text passages, Memory & Cognition, October 2014:
  • Paivio: Mind and its evolution: A dual coding theoretical approach, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers, 2007:
  • Smith & Weinstein: Learn how to study using… dual coding, The Learning Scientists, September 2016:


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