Tuesday / June 25

Supercharge Your Classroom in Five Steps

Education researcher John Hattie’s ground-breaking research about the factors that influence student achievement gives us much to think about in terms of our habits and practices. It helps us to prioritize initiatives, counteract negative influences, and get rid of practices – such as retaining students – that show little evidence of improving learning outcomes. I also appreciate the ongoing nature of it, as new studies are published they are added to the database. And I love that Hattie consistently pushes us to have conversations about the stories behind the numbers.

My one reservation is that the vast majority of the studies focus on student achievement tests. To me, the complexity of the 21st Century requires that students not only retain the information they’ve learned but also transfer what they’ve learned to unlock complicated situations. There are several indicators in Hattie’s research that support decades of additional evidence on the type of curriculum that fosters transfer of learning. Combining Visible Learning with conceptual understanding will give your classroom wings. Watch students take flight with these five steps!

1. Efficacy – Believing in Our Power

The most potent thing we can do is increase our belief in our own power to move students forward. There is an overwhelming amount of research that tells us how impactful beliefs can be on student achievement (Hattie, 2012; Rosenthal & Jacobson, 2003). We also know that transfer of learning is incredibly hard work. We need students to trust us and themselves as we lead them on the journey to conceptual understanding, which is why the first step is increasing our efficacy.

Research also shows that it is incredibly difficult for teachers to control our beliefs (Hamre & Pianta, 2006; Marzano, 2007). The key is to focus on our behaviors. Once we’ve identified a few students who seem to be struggling with learning, it’s time to take action. The seemingly small steps below will make a huge difference.

Source: Adapted from Hamre & Pianta, 2006; Marzano, 2007; Spiegel, 2012

2. Getting Clear on Clarity

Clarity is an essential element for student achieve­ment. Nearly every teacher falls victim to lack of clarity. Every stu­dent should understand the overall goal and how each activity moves him or her closer to that goal.

But not all learning goals are created equal, especially when we want students to retain and transfer their learning to new situations. We need clear, transferable ideas that give organization and schema to retain facts. When there is no corresponding concept, it is rote learning and will not last. What big, enduring, transferable ideas connect to the facts or topic we are studying? Compare the learning goals in the chart below.

John Hattie’s work supports other research that demonstrates the importance of conceptual under­standing in transferring learning to new situations. He explained,

“We come to know ideas, and then we can be asked to relate and extend them. This leads to conceptual understanding, which can in turn become a new idea – and so the cycle continues. These conceptual understandings form the ‘coat hangers’ on which we interpret and assimilate new ideas, and relate and extend them” (Hattie, 2012, p.115).

3. Integrating Learning with Prior Knowledge

Once we have big, transferable ideas, we make students’ current understanding visible, and connect it to the new learning. What do they currently understand or know about the topic? How can we take them from the familiar to the less familiar, gradually and progressively?

For example, young students study­ing communities might explore the relationship between communities and rules. The teacher could pose a question such as, “Why do com­munities create rules?” She could start with a context of the class­room, asking students to explore the rules and the reasons behind them. They would likely conclude something like, “Communities create rules to help everyone get along.”

To deepen their under­standing, they could explore the larger school community and rules beyond the literal classroom walls. Next, she could ask them about their families, where they can explore examples of family rules and how those rules help everyone to get along, continuously connecting existing understanding to new learning.

4. Directly Changing Misunderstanding

When initial conceptual understanding is incorrect, and it almost always is at least partial or

overly simplistic, we need to directly counteract it. If we don’t, students will revert back to old misunderstandings (Donovan and Bransford, 2005).

Students must show their learning by tracing the evolution of their thinking as they make their ideas clearer, more precise, more logi­cal, and more sophisticated. This is another key component for achieving deeper learning. Compare Student A with Student B below to see what we mean – we are aiming for something like Student B.

5. Transferring Learning to New Situations

The ultimate goal of learning is for students to apply what they’ve learned to a new context.

For this we need to present novel situations and ask students to identify the transferable concepts at play.

Students often want learning to be black and white. Contradictions and complica­tions are generally unwelcome, and their brains work to sift them out. But a significant understanding of any conceptual relationship requires students to face, and directly deal with, examples and information that don’t fit the understandings they’ve built. This means that it is important to pay close attention to what makes a new situation unique.

Here are four tips to aid in transfer situations:

  • Recognize the concepts that apply: Which concepts are at work in this situation? Which conceptual relationships seem to be shaping this scenario?
  • Engage prior understanding of the conceptual relationship: What do I already know to be true about the relationship among these concepts? What specific examples support my understanding?
  • Determine the extent to which prior understanding applies: What makes this new situation different from the situations I’ve studied in the past? Which parts of my prior understanding transfer and which don’t?
  • Modify and refine understanding based on the new situation: How can I reshape my understanding in light of this new situation?

Teachers exclaim time and time again how conceptual teaching and learning helps students retain information, reach understanding on a deeper level, and transfer their learning to new situations. Organizing our curriculum around key relationships between and among concepts is a significant step to take in supercharging our classrooms.

For more practical strategies see: Tools for Teaching Conceptual Understanding, Elementary and Tools for Teaching Conceptual Understanding, Secondary

This handy infographic might serve to remind us of the steps:


Additional References:

Donovan, S., & Bransford, J. (2005). How students learn: History, mathematics, and science in the classroom. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Hamre, B. and Pianta, R. (2006). Student-Teacher Relationships. National Association of School Psychologists. Retrieved on 06/18/16 from

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. London: Routledge.

Marzano, R. J. (2007). The art and science of teaching: A comprehensive framework for effective instruction. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Rosenthal, R., & Jacobson, L. (2003). Pygmalion in the classroom: Teacher expectation and pupil’s intellectual development. Carmarthen: Crown House.

Spiegel, A. (2012, September 17). Teachers’ Expectations Can Influence How Students Perform. Retrieved March 6, 2016, from


Written by

​Julie Stern is an author, trainer and instructional coach, supporting schools in transforming teaching and learning around the globe. Her depth and breadth of knowledge combined with her vision and contagious energy make her an in-demand facilitator in many areas including visible learning, concept-based curriculum, differentiated classrooms and formative assessments. Julie is the author of Tools for Teaching Conceptual Understanding, is certified in researcher John Hattie’s Visible Learning as well as H. Lynn Erickson’s Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction. She is a James Madison Constitutional Scholar and taught social studies for many years in DC and Louisiana. Julie previously served as the director of public policy and curriculum innovation at the Cesar Chavez Public Charter Schools in Washington, DC, where she led the revision of curriculum in all subject areas grades 6 – 12. Her email is: and her blog is

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