6 Counterintuitive Strategies to Boost Student Learning
When it comes to finding ways to get big wins in the classroom, it’s sometimes the approaches that feel a little unconventional that are the most successful.
Sometimes the best practices aren’t obvious—they challenge cherished notions, upend decades of conventional wisdom, or just feel kind of eccentric.
We often look to teachers and researchers as we source innovative teaching practices and strategies that require out-of-the-box thinking but lead to big impacts in the classroom: greater academic independence, for example, or high-order thinking and reasoning.
In an effort to highlight some of these more surprising insights, we’ve put together a list of six effective and evidence-based practices, backed by educators and by research.
1. Assess More, Grade Less
It’s common to think that assignments and formal grading go hand-in-hand, but if it’s true that practice makes perfect and also true that every assignment requires your input, then you’ve stumbled into an unavoidable contradiction: The more you have to grade, the less you can assign.
The research also suggests that too much formal grading often causes students to focus on the grades themselves, rather than thinking about and addressing their actual learning gaps. Grades, the researchers concluded, “may encourage an emphasis on quantitative aspects of learning, depress creativity, foster fear of failure, and undermine interest.”
There are many ways to relieve the bottleneck and shift to scalable models of assessment that focus on peer feedback and self-evaluation. Michigan high school English teacher Matthew M. Johnson, for example, assigns more writing but saves the bulk of his effort for later iterations of a draft, letting students do the heavier lifting early on. When he does read and respond, Johnson says, a “2+1” approach to feedback allows him to address two higher-order concerns—such as organization and the strength of arguments—and one lower-order concern, such as trouble with punctuation or spelling.
Meanwhile, the evidence suggests that peer-feedback and self-feedback methods actually work quite well, particularly when clear, achievable expectations are discussed before setting the processes in motion. One 2023 study found that when students are given rubrics and exemplars by which to judge their own writing, they generate effective self-feedback and improve their performance on future drafts by as much as half a letter grade. And a 2022 study concluded that when students take active roles in providing feedback to themselves and their peers, it leads to “significantly better academic performance,” in addition to improvements in metacognition.
2. Give Students Texts They Aren’t Prepared to Read
One popular philosophy of reading—often referred to as leveled reading—suggests that the best way to improve reading comprehension is to match students with books they can get through comfortably and slowly build up their capacity.
But according to literacy expert and researcher Timothy Shanahan, regular exposure to texts two to four grades above current reading levels leads to “robust gains in oral reading fluency and comprehension” and increases students’ ability to handle more complex texts in the future. Shanahan says that teachers across disciplines often shy away from this approach, fearing that such a challenge might undermine a student’s motivation to read altogether. But, he argues, students become more motivated to read in English language arts, science, and social studies, for example, when they make progress on challenging texts—and are exposed to complex textual features that strengthen their muscles as readers in the process. “When kids are challenged and their learning is obvious, you won’t need to worry about discouragement or a lack of motivation,” he says.
Moderation is a key here: Students fall out of love with reading in the middle grades, by most accounts, and it’s important to make time and space for books that students love. There’s nothing wrong with a student periodically reading at or even below grade level, in the same way that adults do.
3. Design Failure Right Into Your Lessons
“When students are stuck, they feel all sorts of emotions—shame, guilt, and frustration, for example,” says Manu Kapur, learning scientist and father of the concept of productive struggle. “Our research has shown that if you think positive emotions are always positive for learning and negative emotions are always negative for learning—that’s not true.” In fact, if you’re not sometimes frustrated or struggling, he told Edutopia in a 2022 interview, “that means you’re probably not learning.”
Kapur argues that teachers should periodically design lessons that include concepts and prompts “just beyond students’ reach.” Students will fail in the process of trying to accomplish these tasks and generate incorrect solutions.
Of course, students shouldn’t be failing all the time: “We don’t want students to flounder,” Kapur says. The idea is that productive failure lessons will be used at key junctures during the school year—for example, when students are learning a crucial concept. When designing for productive failure, craft challenging problems that test the limits of your students’ abilities, then let them struggle for 30–45 minutes before providing direct instruction, Kapur recommends. A seminal 2012 study reveals that the method can double their comprehension, compared with direct instruction only.
Similarly, in math classrooms, researcher Peter Liljedahl suggests that teachers can revise the traditional “I do, we do, you do” approach to challenging work by removing the “I do” portion—thereby giving students the opportunity to struggle and think through hard work on their own. His suggestions include starting classes with difficult puzzles that push students to their limits and working in social contexts: His students often stand and work on public-facing, erasable surfaces like whiteboards to engage in iterative problem-solving before they transition to structured group activities that promote discussion and peer review.
4. Quiz Students Before They Learn the Material
Asking students to take a practice test before they’ve even encountered the material on the test might seem cruel. But a 2021 research study shows that the approach, called pretesting, can actually be more effective than other, more typical review strategies. In the study, students who took a practice test before learning material outperformed peers who studied more traditionally by 49 percent on a follow-up test. Making a lot of mistakes on pretests is key to the strategy’s success, the researchers concluded, as it spurs students’ curiosity and pushes them to search for the right answers when they finally do encounter the new material.
Their findings dovetail with a 2018 study that found that making educated guesses and generating errors prior to studying information helped improve retention when the material was eventually covered. Both studies point to the idea that learning is deeper—and more durable—when students get things wrong and do the work of correcting their misconceptions and mistakes.
5. Don’t Answer Student Questions
Reducing the amount of time you commit to answering student questions, while gently guiding them to direct their own inquiry, solutions, and discussion, can reap academic rewards and boost student confidence. One of the conclusions of the 2000 National Reading Panel, for example, is that younger learners, whose oral language tends to outpace their ability to read and write, need time and space to connect the rigorous reading and writing they do to speaking and listening, ideally with their peers.
To effectively reduce “teacher talk” and increase engagement, Tori Filler, an elementary school literacy teacher in Brooklyn, writes, teachers first need to model productive discussions. Tactics like discussion mapping—a teacher or student records the progress of the discussion visually—can help ensure that students’ comments to each other are relevant, build on what was previously said, and provide room for clarifying arguments, disagreements, and elaboration.
When things get particularly tough, Filler says, teachers should resist the urge to jump in and provide answers. Instead, she says, ask students to discuss with peers or evaluate for themselves what is difficult and how they might find their way to an answer. Asking your students questions like “What makes this hard?” or “What have we tried?” can get groups of students, or the whole class, thinking through possible solutions before a teacher steps in to provide the clarity they’re looking for.
6. Encourage A Little Noise
An always-quiet, always-composed classroom can look like success but actually disguise disinterest, or even boredom, veteran teachers tell Edutopia. Typically, letting kids chat in class is discouraged because it’s thought of as distracting.
But there are ways to take ownership of the pent-up energy students often have—to determine when it’s allowed and designate parts of the school day during which it can be released.
One way to do this, according to educator Rebecca Alber, is to deepen relationships with students by sharing about yourself and creating “opportunities for them to share with us—and each other.” For example, you might start your period by asking if anyone has a good story to share with the class. Or, ask students to pair up and set aside a minute or two to chat about things unrelated to classwork, like something they’re really looking forward to. “It doesn’t have to be anything major—it can be something as simple as ‘It’s taco night at my house tonight,’” says Alber.
Teacher and author Michael Linsin writes that beginning or ending class with a few minutes of open, unstructured time is another effective strategy. “Not every student will take advantage of it, and that’s OK. Let them take a few deep breaths if they wish or get up and stretch or just daydream. The idea is to give them a truly free mental break,” he says.
These little concessions honor students’ emotional needs and build the kind of trust that can feed into more focused and determined student work after the break.