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Virginia Journal of Education


Four things effective teachers do especially well.


By James H. Stronge and Xianxuan Xu


Time and again, studies show that teachers are the most influential school-related force in student success. But why? What do teachers do that so magically affects student learning? And can they all learn to do it? We can do a better job of answering those questions now, as research on teacher effectiveness has made momentous advances since it started in the 1960s—we know more about teaching and learning than we ever have.

Here, we’ll take some of that research and look at four of the six key qualities highlighted in Dr. Stronge’s book, Qualities of Effective Teachers (ASCD, 2018, 3rd edition): professional knowledge, instructional planning, instructional delivery, and assessment. In each of those areas, we’ll offer a glimpse at some of the recent research, with a focus on moving from theory to practical implications.

Professional Knowledge: Knowing What You Need to Know
Despite what some may think, you can’t just walk off the street and into the classroom and become a teacher – certainly not an effective one. Classroom teaching is a complex activity that demands a deep and rich knowledge base. A teacher’s understanding of the facts, concepts, principles, methodology, and important generalizations in the subject area dictate his or her pedagogical thinking and decision-making. But effective teachers’ professional knowledge extends well beyond subject matter expertise: it includes pedagogical methods, curricular skill, and an understanding of learners and their culture and community.

As you might expect, experience has a demonstrated effect on increases in teacher effectiveness. While such increases are most significant in the early years of a teacher’s career, growth through experience continues to be meaningful in the second, and often third, decades of a classroom career. Generally speaking, the longer a teacher practices the craft of teaching, the better she gets at it – assuming she continues to learn and renew her teaching practices.

Recent research also shows that experience-based improvement varies dramatically for individuals and for groups of teachers in different schools. Some of the positive factors in teacher expertise over time show in recent studies include a supportive professional learning environment for educators and a growing amount of experience in the same grade level or subject area. For instance, teachers who work in more supportive professional learning environments improve their effectiveness more quickly than teachers working in less supportive contexts. In one study, teachers who worked for 10 years in schools in the top 25 percent of professional environment ratings improved an average of 38 percent more than teachers in schools in the lowest 25 percent. The type of experience a teacher has also matters. Students of teachers with more grade-specific experience make greater progress than students who have a teacher with comparable experience but less grade-specific classroom time. Researchers have also found that the effect of grade-specific experience is about twice as large as the general experience effect, and that years of teaching at a particular grade level is actually a better predictor of student achievement than total years of teaching experience.

On the other side of those findings, but with a negative twist, teachers who switch grade levels tend do a less effective job of improving their students’ achievement. In fact, schools that have a high within-school “churning” of subject or grade reassignments disrupt student achievement. So, not only is it important to retain teachers, it’s also advantageous to keep them in the grade or subject they teach. Stable grade-level assignments can be a low-cost way to allow teachers to develop grade- or subject-specific skills by teaching the same grade level or subject for multiple years and by specializing in subjects with which they are most effective.

Instructional Planning: You Must Be Ready
Good teachers never walk into class with a blank slate; they know good planning is essential to good teaching. And they understand that planning for instruction involves both careful short-term preparation for specific lessons, and long-term – that is, strategic – planning to ensure quality teaching of the curriculum. Research has shown that student achievement is tied to the amount of content a teacher covers.

Beyond coverage, recent studies also show that planning is about alignment among intended learning outcomes, instruction, and assessment: Effective teachers gather assessment information informally every day and formally on a regular basis, and use it to drive their work, to determine student readiness for new content, and to set ongoing, intermediate, and annual goals.

The ability to plan collaboratively is also important, as demonstrated by international comparative studies on teacher practices. Planning is often a solitary practice in the United States, yet we know that discussing lesson plans with fellow teachers provides valuable opportunities to examine instruction from new perspectives. Team planning helps develop a collective approach to instruction, joint expectations, and common goals. As a result, many schools have begun to design common planning time so teachers have an opportunity to share experiences and expertise. This helps teachers develop horizontally and vertically coherent instruction, while eliminating gaps and redundancies across grades and subject areas. For instance, horizontal coherence ensures that what students are learning in a fifth-grade math class mirrors what students are learning in other fifth-grade classrooms in the building. Vertical coherence ensures the content is logically structured so that what is learned in the current lesson, unit, or grade level can prepare students for the next lesson, unit, or grade level.

Collaborative planning also provides a venue where teachers can reflect, share problems or issues related to teaching, and learn from each other. Such collaboration has been shown to boost both student achievement and teacher perceptions about their work environment.

Instructional Delivery: Mix and Match
Here’s a startling finding: About 45 percent of our students are mentally checked out or actively disengaged every day in our schools, according to a 2013 Gallup survey. And you don’t have to be a master teacher to know that bored students aren’t learning like they’re capable of learning. The good news is that effective teaching, where learning tasks are important, useful, and enjoyable, leads to higher engagement and quality learning. No single instructional strategy guarantees that you’ll become an immediately effective teacher, no matter your subject matter or grade level, but two words often used to describe the most effective teachers are flexible and opportunistic. They use various techniques (such as questioning or observation) to monitor student learning and vary their practice to arrive at the intersection of subjects and students. To illustrate, a relatively straightforward technique that effective teachers use is to increase personal relevance of learning and activities by clarifying the relationship between the task and students’ personal interests and goals.

Effective instruction is a dynamic interaction among content, pedagogical methods, needs of individual learners and classes, students’ prior learning (i.e., pre-assessment), and the context in which the new learning is to occur. Research generally finds that teachers who successfully employ a range of strategies reach more students because they tap into more learning needs and student interests. John Hattie, an Australian professor and internationally-known researcher on education effectiveness, analyzed a large sample of studies and found these strategies to be most influential in improving student achievement:

• Classroom discussion, with a gain of 29 percentile points on learning outcomes

• Scaffolding (also 29 percentile points)

• Feedback (26 percentile points)

• Problem-solving instruction (25 percentile points)

• Concept mapping (24 percentile points)

• Direct instruction (23 percentile points)

• Challenging learning goals (22 percentile points)

• Higher cognitive questioning (18 percentile points)

• Cooperative learning (16 percentile points)

But here is an essential point: That list had nine great instructional strategies; there may be 109! (We may be exaggerating a bit, but only slightly!) The key is knowing how and when to blend the best instructional methods/strategies to reach the best learning results.

Stretch your students: It’s extremely important to infuse their classroom activities with the right amount of cognitive challenge. Effective teachers engage students in content at various levels of complexity. Challenge your students and they’ll respond with greater interest, concentration, and enjoyment. Scaffold your lessons to guide students in their emerging skill and knowledge acquisition through step-by-step instructions, modeling, and providing the opportunity to apply new information and skills to novel situations.

Differentiation in instruction is also crucial. Well-known University of Virginia researcher Carol Anne Tomlinson says effective teachers differentiate content (i.e., facts, concepts, principles, skills, and attitudes), process (i.e., learning activities), and product (i.e., assessments) to ensure all students in a mixed-ability classroom can have different approaches yet equal access to high-quality learning opportunities. And, in reality, all classrooms are mixed ability. Here is another essential point: Differentiation must—absolutely must—build upon knowing where students are in their individual pursuit of learning, and that requires assessment. No assessment, no differentiation.

Assessment: Not Just a Test, But a Tool
Effective teachers must be good creators of, consumers of, and communicators about assessment.

To improve the validity and functionality of assessment, recent research brings to the fore the importance of alignment between written, taught, and tested curriculum. Written curriculum, or intended curriculum, defines the intentions, aims, and goals of teaching and learning. Taught or enacted curriculum is all about implementation and involves the actual interactions between teachers and students during a lesson or a unit to meet expectations outlined in written curriculum. Tested curriculum includes assessments designed and used to track student progress, measure a teacher’s instructional quality, or measure a student’s achievement on the goals and objectives. The ideal is for the components of curriculum, instruction, and assessment to work together, creating a unified message about what’s being taught and assessed. Just like the misalignment of car tires causes undue stress to the vehicle, increased difficulty in steering, and reduced safety and durability for the tires, misalignment in assessment will also hamper student learning.

To help your assessment methods be useful and valid, continue to challenge your students as you did during actual lessons. You may want to consider an assessment blueprint, also called a table of specifications, which spells out instructional objectives, the cognitive level of instruction, and the weight of the assessment items that assess each objective.

 Effective teachers also realize that collecting student learning data is only the first step: they know they must make productive use of that data. Good teachers act on what they learned in student assessments to provide remediation, acceleration, or enrichment. They also use more complex assessment assignments, such as open-ended performance tasks, authentic investigations, and portfolios. There is an increasing recognition that assessment need not always be judgmental and that it doesn’t have to happen only when learning is finished. Instead, it should be embedded in ongoing instruction. We’re seeing the concept of assessment as learning slowly replacing or conglomerating the concepts of assessment of learning and assessment for learning.

More Effective Every Day
Teachers have a powerful, long-lasting influence on their students in many ways. They affect not just achievement, but young people’s attitudes toward school, general interest in learning, and even on their outlooks on life and their futures. What’s encouraging about all the teacher effectiveness research we’ve investigated is that no study has ever found that a teacher’s competence is a fixed entity. Expertise in the classroom is a malleable, improvable process. Effective teachers are optimists, and hope sustains them when they face setbacks. So, we wish you a hopeful school year, one that you approach with a spirit of openness to the future, and one in which you continue to support and guide students in their endeavors to reach their full potential.

Stronge, PhD, is the Heritage Professor in Educational Policy, Planning, and Leadership Area at the College of William and Mary. Xu, PhD, is a senior research associate at Stronge & Associates Educational Consulting.


More From James Stronge

If you’d like to hear more on effective teaching from Dr. Stronge, the third edition of his book, Qualities of Effective Teachers, was published by ASCD earlier this year. Learn more at



How Your Association Helps Hone Your Skills

VEA stands ready to help you be an even better teacher, offering a broad range of workshops on professional and instructional issues. Workshops are available for local associations, schools, and school divisions, and we’ll bring them to you: A sample of current topics:
• Classroom management
• Integrating technology into instruction
• Effective communication skills
• Bullying prevention
• Time management
• Autism spectrum disorder
• Conflict resolution
• Cultural competence
• Giving better PowerPoint presentations
• Understanding teacher evaluation
To learn more or to schedule a workshop, visit


How Are You Doing at Delivering Instruction?

This checklist, included in Qualities of Effective Teachers, is designed to help you identify key indicators of how well you’re doing in implementing instruction. Use it to gauge your effectiveness, looking for both areas of strength and areas that could use improvement.

Instructional Strategies
• Employs different techniques and instructional strategies, such as hands-on learning.
• Stresses meaningful conceptualization, emphasizing the student’s own knowledge of the world.

Content & Expectations
• Sets overall high expectations toward improvement and growth in the classroom.
• Gives clear examples and offers guided practice.
• Stresses student responsibility and accountability in meeting expectations.
• Teaches metacognitive strategies to support reflection on learning progress.

• Is concerned with having students learn and demonstrate understanding of meaning rather than memorization.
• Holds reading as a priority.
• Stresses meaningful conceptualization, emphasizes the student’s knowledge of the world.
• Emphasizes high-order thinking skills in math.

• Questioning reflects type of content, goals of lesson.
• Varies question type to maintain interest and momentum.
• Prepares questions in advance.
• Uses wait time during questioning.

Student Engagement
• Attentive to lesson momentum, appropriate questioning, clarity of explanation.
• Varies instructional strategies, types of assignments, and activities.
• Leads, directs, and paces student activities.



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