Are you looking for research-based strategies for teaching in a high school classroom? Then look no further. In today’s post, we’ll look at effective teaching strategies for high school.
This post takes ideas from a few different research-based approaches, including the approach advocated by Robert Marzano in The Art and Science of Teaching, the ideas in the Victorian government publication High Impact Teaching Strategies, as well as the Harvard thinking routines.
1. Set a learning goal for each lesson
Setting a learning goal at the start of a lesson helps students understand what they are meant to know by the end of the lesson. Different educational frameworks approach this in different ways.
Typical ways to use this teaching strategy for high school students include:
- Using an essential question that students should be able to answer by the end of the lesson
- Phrasing the learning goal in language such as I will know/understand . . . or I will be able to do . . .
The important part of setting a learning goal is that teachers have a goal for the lesson and have planned activities that will help students reach the goal. A further benefit is that students will understand what success in the lesson looks like.
2. Engage students before you begin
This second research-based strategy for teaching high school students is especially important. Students need to be engaged in learning. That means that it’s your job as a teacher to capture their attention.
Now teachers all bring different skills and personalities to the classroom, so how you do this will depend on your strengths as a teacher. If you are a great storyteller, an anecdote may capture your students’ attention.
Or, if you have had varied life experiences, your real-world experiences or photos could engage your students.
Other ways to use this strategy include:
- Using ‘lesson starters’: one of my mentor teachers always had a short grammer activity that students grabbed as they walked in the door. They sat down straight away and did the activity. It was an awesome way of getting students in and working before starting the ‘main’ part of the lesson. And it helped her to incorporate grammer into all of her lessons.
- Showing photos about the topic at hand: this is particularly effective in subjects such as history and science, where the content can seem dry without real-world examples
- Using a short funny or interesting video related to your topic
- Doing a true/false activity where you review previous content and students stand for true and sit for false
- Relating the lesson you are about to begin with students’ own lives and explaining how this lesson will benefit them in their life beyond school
It doesn’t really matter how you do this and you may choose to do it the same way every lesson (such as ‘lesson starters’) or in a different way each lesson depending on the lesson goal. The point is to get your students paying attention and motivated for the lesson ahead.
3. Structure your lesson in chunks
This may not necessarily be a research-based strategy for teaching, but it is one of the best pieces of advice I was given as a student-teacher. Chunk your lessons.
Huh? What does that mean? Basically, chunking your lesson means breaking up your long lesson into smaller mini-lessons or activities.
My student-teaching happened in a country mining town with a diverse population. Classes were seventy minutes long. To keep students engaged in this setting I had to learn to have short parts of direct instruction interspersed with short activities where students applied that learning.
My lessons ran much more smoothly after I began to structure my lessons in the following way:
- 5 minutes to get students settled in the classroom and gain students’ attention
- 10 minutes of direct instruction/10 minutes of an activity to apply the learning
- Repeat the above three times
- 5 minutes to summarize the lesson and link it to previous learning
By structuring lessons in this way, each section had a specific goal (learn vocabulary, ensure student comprehension of reading etc) and the activity would show what my students knew or could do.
It also kept the lesson moving. Students weren’t writing notes for half an hour and then listening to me drone on about them. Students weren’t chatting for the whole lesson. The activities were discreet and had a time limit:
- 10 minutes to write these notes
- then 10 minutes to discuss what had been written, ask questions, clarify understanding
- 10 minutes to complete this sorting activity etc.
Keeping the lesson moving reduces boredom and inappropriate behavior (although of course, it doesn’t eliminate boredom or inappropriate behavior entirely).
Using different types of activities means students have different ways to learn and show understanding. It also allows you to differentiate learning by providing different types of activities for different students.
Further, it also enables you to get students moving. Having a few different activities such as sit/stand games, thumbs up/down games, 4 corner activities, gallery walks and rotation stations all help students learn by incorporating physical movement with mental effort.
4. Use explicit teaching
Using explicit teaching (also known as the teaching strategies of direct instruction or explicit instruction) shows students what you want them to know by the end of the lesson and what you want them to be able to do.
Teachers can achieve this in different ways, but it ties into the idea of setting learning goals and showing students what success looks like.
So, if your lesson goal is for students to be able to write a paragraph explaining why the Industrial Revolution re-shaped Western societies, students need to know the effects of the Industrial Revolution. But they also need to know how to communicate in a paragraph.
To achieve this your lesson might look something like this:
- introduction (5 minutes): write learning goal, look at photos of how urban and rural landscapes changed as a result of the Industrial Revolution
- reading (10 minutes): textbook excerpt about the causes and effects of the Industrial Revolution
- small group brainstorm (10 minutes): brainstorming/discussing how the Industrial Revolution changes peoples’ lives in rural and urban areas, students to write bullet points on board for use in later activity
- class discussion (10 minutes): revising/discussing how a paragraph is structured
- scaffolded example of paragraph (10-20 minutes): writing a model paragraph using student input (bullet points written on the board) and then individually completing a pre-writing graphic organizer
- individual practice (10-20 minutes): students to write their own paragraph. Fast finishers might have a self-assessment rubric or peer-assessment rubric to assess their own/others’ learning.
- summarize lesson (5 minutes): hand out homework (self-assessment or peer-assessment rubric) for feedback and do an exit ticket
Obviously, the goal of your lesson and your subject area will decide how you choose to do the explicit teaching parts of your lessons. But often speaking, demonstrating, working through examples, and asking clarifying questions will be part of the explicit teaching.
Explicit teaching or direct instruction is a research-based strategy for teaching that explicitly introduces and explores new content. Once students are able to recall knowledge or attempt the skill independently, you need to give them space to practice. But you also need to monitor for success and misunderstandings.
5. Use collaborative learning
Another research-based strategy for teaching in high school is collaborative learning, such as working in pairs, working in small groups, and reciprocal teaching.
Many teachers (myself included!) avoid collaborative learning because it can become noisy, uncontrolled, and a bit of a time-waster.
But teaching strategies using cooperative learning and collaborative learning don’t have to be that way. Simply chatting with the person sitting next to them can increase some students’ confidence and understanding. And it’s a low-pressure way to participate in class.
Collaborative teaching strategies such as jigsaw are also fantastic, but there are also less structured ways to do this including:
- think, pair, share
- circle the sage
- timed pair share
- agree disagree line-ups
- rally coach
- stump your partner
- catch up
- brainstorming or concept mapping in pairs/small groups
- completing graphic organizers in pairs/small groups
Teaching strategies like role-playing are also collaborative. However, they may not be suited to all subject areas and not all teachers are comfortable with role-playing teaching strategies.
Either way, research-based strategies for teaching show that collaborative learning strategies can increase student performance. Some studies suggest the affect size of including collaborative learning in lessons can range from .41 (cooperative vs whole class learning) to .75 (reciprocal teaching). Other collaborative teaching strategies include:
- peer tutoring
- small group learning
- competitive learning
6. Use spaced repetition or multiple exposures
Another effective, research-based strategy for teaching that you can incorporate into your class is spaced repetition or multiple exposures. This is because each time learners recall information, the brain re-learns it.
This recall and re-learn process help the brain embed the memories more deeply. Great ways to use this strategy in high school classrooms in a teacher-led way include:
- starting lessons with a true/false or four corners activity, where students have to sit/stand or move to corners of the room to answer questions you ask
- creating exit ticket or review quizes for the end of lessons
- linking information from previous lessons to what you will learn in current lessons either through direct questioning or using a strategy like think-pair-share
- creating study questions/sheets and reviewing at frequent intervals
Ways to use this strategy in student-led ways include:
- getting students to create flashcards, anki cards or mind maps of important information and then using them to recall information
- asking students to take notes in the Cornell notes style and using them to recall information
- allowing students to represent their learning in different ways at different points during the course – for example, using visual notes, cornell notes, powerpoint presentations, flash cards, posters, infographics, or graphic organizers
- encouraging students do a “brain dump” about what they have learned when reviewing and using that to create their own study guides and study questions
Importantly, research shows that as learners master ideas, information, and concepts, the length of time between “recall” sessions needs to increase.
So space activities like those mentioned above throughout your unit of study. Similarly, ensure that you give students feedback about their practice.
7. Check understanding
Another research-based strategy for teaching in high school is using questions and feedback to check for understanding.
The best teachers use the teaching strategy of questioning to get students to learn. Skilled teachers use open and closed questions, questions that build on what others have said, and higher-order questions. Easy ways to do this are to:
- Use true/false questions at the start of a lesson to establish what students can correctly recall from previous learning
- Ask a series of questions at the start of each lesson to help students recall previous learning and ‘prime’ them for the current lesson
- Use the ‘stoplight’ system for students to show understanding: green means they understand everything and are confident, yellow means they understand some things but need help with some things, red means they don’t understand at all. You could tack this onto an exit ticket or quiz for older students.
- Providing sentence stems to help students summarize the lesson on an exit ticket
- Creating graphic organizers for students to take notes or revise information
Similarly, you should give both formal and informal feedback. And students should have a chance to give you/the teacher (constructive) feedback too. Easy ways to do this are to:
- Create a true/false exit slip to better understand the classroom climate from students’ perspectives (for example, statements such as: I feel safe in class/I feel like my teacher helps me learn/I feel like I can speak up in class etc.)
- Use true/false exit slip to establish if students feel like they are learning (for example, statements such as: I feel like I am learning/I understand what I am learning/I feel like my teacher has fair but high expectations of me etc) can help you establish if your students feel like they are learning
- Use ‘tick and flick’ sheets to show students where they are doing well and where they need to improve, both for in-class learning and assessment
- Send home positive praise postcards about students’ academic performance, but also behavior, effort, and homework etc
8. Teach study and metacognitive skills
Another research-based strategy for teaching that is easy to incorporate in your classroom is metacognitive skills. Various sources describe metacognition as “thinking about one’s thinking“. However, it is a term that incorporates many ideas, such as:
- understanding your own thinking
- knowing of and when to apply different learning strategies
- understanding your strengths and weaknesses as a learner
- knowing how to plan for learning
- regulating your learning
- assessing or reflecting on your learning
- evaluating your learning
However, research shows that teaching students metacognitive skills improves their learning. According to this document, explicitly teaching the following skills improve student learning:
- problem solving skills (affect size of .63)
- study skills (affect size of.60)
- self-questioning skills (affect size of .64)
- classroom discussion (affect size of .82)
- and concept mapping (affect size of .64)
Now, I know what you’re thinking, I don’t have time to teach my subject area curriculum as well as study skills or problem-solving skills.
But, you don’t have to spend loads of time teaching study skills, you can do it quickly and easily. See this post for more information.
This research shows that helping students increase their metacognitive skills pays off. Whether you re-teach note-taking, scaffold the steps in writing an essay, or discuss how to set up a study space, you are teaching metacognitive skills.
And the types of skills, and when you teach them, will heavily depend on your students. Cherry-picking different skills for different times of the year is a great way to do this. For example, you might:
- Discuss note-taking strategies before doing independent reading of a textbook or novel
- Watch a video on how to create a study schedule at the start of a new semester
- Show students how to evaluate sources of evidence before commencing a research task
- Scaffold writing an essay after students have completed some research
Teaching strategies such as scaffolding can be particularly important in subjects that require students to write in a specific way. For example, writing a science lab report is very different from writing an analytical essay discussing the importance of a metaphor in a poem.
By scaffolding this process, or breaking it down into smaller chunks, teachers enable students to complete complex tasks more easily. And they make explicit the metacognitive steps involved in doing the task.
9. Summarize and conclude the lesson
Finally, you need to conclude the lesson by revising what students have learned so far. This research-based strategy for teaching is a two-fold strategy. Summarizing the lesson allows you to observe how much students have learned and where they may be confused.
And it also reinforces the main goal of the lesson in terms of what students should know and be able to do.
Ideas for accomplishing this include:
- Giving students writing prompts to complete as exit tickets
- Asking students to do a quick informal, ungraded quiz (either digitally, verbally, or on paper)
- Asking students what they have learned and where they are confused
- Getting students to create a poster, notes, drawing, or other document to display their learning
Where to find more information?
If you want more information about research-based strategies for teaching in high school, below are some places where you can do more reading.
Teaching study skills
Want a fast and easy way to teach study skills? Use the free Crash Course Study Skills videos on YouTube and our visual note-taking worksheets.
See this post for more details on how to use these worksheets and videos in class.
See this post for more information about why your students’ notes suck and how to improve them.
Or go here for research-based reasons to spend time on teaching study skills in English or ELA classes.
Graphic organizers and note-taking templates
Freeology has lots of free graphic organizers and note-taking templates. Some of them are too ‘young’ for middle and high school students but most are great. And free. Did I mention free?
The Harvard Thinking Routines website is amazing for graphic organizers and teaching metacognitive skills. It’s also great because you can filter by subject area and types of thinking.
My TPT store also has freebies for a comic book blank template and a digital Cornell note-taking template.
Again, Crash Course has an excellent YouTube series called Navigating Digital Information that teaching students skills such as evaluating sources of information, understanding evidence, using Wikipedia wisely, using strategies such as lateral reading, evaluating the trustworthiness of a website/author/social media post.
I also have visual note-taking worksheets to accompany the videos. You can read here to find out more about how to use these in class.
Cult of Pedagogy has a great post about using spaced repetition (or as she calls it retrieval practice). She also gives strategies of how to use it in class, such as think-pair-share, low-stakes quizzes, braindumps, flashcards etc.
Cult of Pedagogy also has a fantastic YouTube channel with videos on a huge variety of topics for teachers including how to read academic research, teaching strategies for teaching vocabulary, how to use google drive, how to talk to parents about problems with their child etc.
Thomas Frank of College Info Geek has a great video that explains what spaced repetition is, how/why it works, and different ways to do it on his website and YouTube.
More information about metacognitive skills
Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching has a good explanation of what metacognition is and ways to use it in the classroom.
The University of Waterloo Centre for Teaching Excellence also has a good explanation of metacognition. It gives strategies for teaching metacognitive skills, as well as helping students develop regulation skills.
Teaching strategies for high school sources of information
- This article by Teach Thought outline the main ideas of Marzano and it also has a great infographic that summarizes the main ideas
- The Harvard Thinking Routines website it here. The website is great because you can filter thinking routines by subject area and types of thinking.
- This pdf by the Victorian Department of Education gives a great overview of the effectiveness of different types of teaching strategies (for example, setting goals has an affect size of 0.56 versus spaced practice, which has an affect size of 0.6). Data in this pdf is the result of a synthesising over 800 meta-analyses related to achivement and is reported in Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning: A synthesis of oer 800 meta-analses related to acivement. Milton Park, UK: Routledge.