What helps students learn

Classmates help to each other to find something at the globeA team of educators recently analyzed 50 years of research to determine which factors have the .greatest influence on learning. These educators are Margaret C. Wang, Professor, Temple University, and Director of the National Center on Education in the Inner Cities; Geneva D. Haertel, Research Associate of the National Center on Education in the Inner Cities; and Herbert J. Walberg, Professor, University of Illinois/ Chicago, and Senior Research Associate of the National Center on Education in the Inner Cities. Information from professional papers, research studies and surveys of researchers was compiled to create a base of 11,000 statistical findings that shows reasonable consensus on the most significant influences on learning.

An analysis of these results revealed 28 factors that influence academic achievement. So that their influence could be better understood, these 28 factors were grouped into six broad categories: student aptitude, classroom instruction and climate, context, program design, school organization, and state and district characteristics.

Not surprisingly, so-called “direct” influences had a greater impact than “indirect” influences. Direct influences included those most closely linked with teachers, children and classrooms. Classroom management, children’s metacognitive and cognitive skills, home environment/parental support, and social interactions between students and teachers had the greatest impact on school learning.

Indirect influences that had the least influence on learning included program, school and district characteristics and state-level policies and organization. These researchers point out that most of the research used in this synthesis was based on traditional measures of achievement such as standardized testing and essay examinations. Only a few studies included student portfolios or other innovations in assessment.

Student Aptitude

Student aptitude was the most significant of the six types of influences. A student’s metacognitive skills — the capacity to plan, monitor and replan learning strategies — had the greatest effect on his or her learning. Cognitive skills including general intelligence, prior knowledge, verbal knowledge, and competency in reading and math were also highly influential. Social and behavioral factors including motivation and perseverance were influential.

Classroom instruction and climate

Factors relating to classroom instruction and climate had nearly as much impact on learning as did student aptitude. Effective classroom instruction is understood to mean ensuring that students comprehend both the goals of instruction and the content being presented.

The most influential factor in this category was classroom management which includes group alerting, learner accountability, smooth transitions between activities and the teacher “with-it-ness.”

Effective management increases student engagement, decreases disruptive behavior and makes good use of instructional time. Extensive research on quantity of instruction indicates that students need to be fully engaged in their academic tasks to benefit from instruction.

A positive classroom climate refers to cooperation among teachers and students, common interests, values and goals, a clear academic focus, well-organized lessons, explicit learning objectives, and an appropriate level of difficulty and pace of instruction.

Constructive interactions with teachers have clear effect

Constructive interactions between students and teachers have a clear effect on learning. The frequency and quality of interactions contribute to students’ self-esteem and foster a sense of membership in the class and school.

Academic interactions and classroom assessment were moderately influential factors in this category. Academic interactions refer to the way a teacher questions, praises, corrects and reinforces during instruction.

The effectiveness of assessment in raising performance depended on its nature and implementation. Many studies indicate that frequent assessment with corrective feedback effectively promotes learning.

Classroom instruction is also influenced by the type of support teachers receive — the delivery of services, staff development and adequate training. However, this was the least influential factor in this category.

Wang et al. point out that its weak influence on student performance may reflect the inconsistency of implementation rather than its relative importance for learning. Even though teacher training and support variables did not appear to be strong determinants of student performance in this analysis, they have been shown, in individual studies, to have large effects on learning when they are well implemented and aligned with school and district goals.


The four out-of-school factors influenced learning to nearly the same degree as student aptitude and classroom instruction and climate. Home environment /parental support was among the most influential of all factors.

The benefits of family involvement in improving academic performance have been well documented. In addition, attendance improves and delinquency, pregnancy and dropping out are reduced when families work together with schools.

A student’s peer group also has a strong influence on learning. Out-of-class activities and community influences had considerably less effect on learning than the other contextual factors.

Program design

The three program-design factors had a moderate influence on learning. Well-designed textbooks, appropriate organization of instructional groups and effective alignment of goals and classroom activities yielded moderate benefits.

School organization

School organization, on average, had only a moderate influence on achievement. Of the five factors in this category, school culture was the most influential. School culture refers to a climate conducive to teaching and learning. This can be conveyed, for example, through participation in intramural academic competitions and the use of incentives to reward scholarship. Although much attention has been given to the importance of the principal1s role, this research showed no strong link between a principal1s leadership and students1 performance. The influence of an outstanding principal appears to be diluted by many intervening factors.

State and district characteristics

Of all the categories, state-level policies and district demographics were among the least influential for student learning. Wang et al. suggest this is because they are simply too removed from actual classroom activities.


Wang et al. remind educators that because of varying circumstances, educators can never expect results identical to what others have obtained. Practices that work well in some settings and with some students may not work well in others. Overall, however, these findings support renewed emphasis on psychological, instructional and contextual influences.

Paradoxically, these researchers state, the recent emphasis on district and school policies so prevalent in many reform efforts may not result in improved student performance. Past school restructuring and organizational changes have not been shown to have a great influence on student achievement. Wang et al. predict that unless such restructuring efforts affect the classrooms and homes where learning actually takes place there is little hope of substantial improvement.

“What Helps Students Learn?”, Educational Leadership, Volume 51, Number 4, pp.74-79.

Published in ERN March/April 1994, Volume 7, Number 2.

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)