Know thy impact: 4 questions to help you pin down what children are really learning

You might think you know everything that happens in your classroom, but the research says otherwise. Deb Masters has four questions that will help you pin down what children are really learning...

When Professor John Hattie stands up and says “Know thy impact”, he is saying this is possible and, in the best schools and classrooms, that is exactly what teachers are starting to do. How does he know? Because he has the results from studies involving over 250 million students at his fingertips, the analysis of which enables him to reach some quite startling conclusions. However, what everyone needs to remember is that John Hattie’s ‘Visible Learning’ research is only the start of the journey. There are three stages schools must follow if they are to make use of his discoveries:

Simply jumping from the research findings to adapting classroom practice is not at the heart of Visible Learning. It’s the way you think about your role as a leader or a teacher that defines the way you work and the impact you will have.

So what does this mean for our schools? It means we need to refocus our efforts to ensure that any actions we take have maximum impact on learning and achievement. To support this process, here are four questions you can ask when looking to reframe teaching and learning from an evidence-based perspective.

1. Does your school discuss, in detail, precisely what you want the impact of any changes to be?

The assessment industry provides us with many ways to track our impact on student attainment. But the first part of any discussion needs to be about what you actually mean by ‘impact’ and how this can be accurately measured. What student outcomes does your school value and why? In this time of high accountability, we tend to place our focus on raising standards in academic attainment. We have a plethora of tools to measure this and we need to think carefully about which ones we use, why we use them and what we do with the information.

We are great at adding new tools, but we don’t always stop to discuss their purpose; which give us the most useful feedback and which should we drop because they do not supply the information we need to track our impact? Once we know which tools we want to use, we then need to decide on the magnitude of the impact we expect to see – how good is good enough?

Having a shared understanding of impact among staff is all the more powerful if it is also shared by students. This is why so much attention is paid to ‘success criteria’. The Visible Learning work indicates that if learners understand the nature of success from the outset, they are more likely to move efficiently towards this.

2. Do your teachers have common conceptions of progress?

One thing we know from our work in schools is that teachers do not have a shared understanding of progress. We have worked with hundreds of teachers with curricula from around the world and when we ask teachers to identify levels of the curriculum based on evidence of what students can do, the variance in their estimates is frightening. Only by focused discussion and collaboration do teachers begin to understand how curriculum progression works.

  •   Know the research

  •   Focus on the learning

  •   Know thy impact

This lack of consistency by teachers can have a massive impact on students, with learning becoming more random as a result. But robust discussion can help to reduce the variance in the way teachers identify progress and help them develop a more informed understanding of the curriculum continuum.

Schools need to understand how students’ progress through a curriculum and it is likely that different students might progress in different orders and at different times. Having a clear idea of what impact means involves an understanding of progression, where students are in this progression, and not prescribing one progression for all. This knowledge must be shared otherwise if a student meets a new teacher in the school with a different conception of challenge and progression, this may lead to disruptions in learning.

3. Do all educators in the school believe their main role is to evaluate their impact?

When everyone in a school believes that together they can make a difference, the impact on student attainment can be almost quadrupled (Eells, 2011). This notion of collective efficacy across the school is a powerful precursor to student success. Combine this with having a collective and collaborative focus on teachers evaluating their impact and the results on student attainment can be even greater.

This relentless focus on impact, discussed regularly, is the real holy grail of the Visible Learning research.

4. What is the impact of teaching in your school and how do you know?

The next time you go into a classroom in your school, don’t worry about what the teacher is teaching. The only reason you should go into a classroom is to watch what the students are learning – it is the impact of the teaching that is of interest. We work in many classrooms where there is no connection between what the teacher is doing and what the students are doing. In fact, Graham Nuthall’s research (Nuthall, 2007) found that teachers have no awareness of between 60-80 per cent of what happens in their classroom every day. He also discovered students already know between 40-50 per cent of what the teacher is teaching. These are scary statistics.

The research came from years of evidence collected by Nuthall where he visited classrooms daily and put microphones on students to get right inside what was happening. Each night he went home and analysed the activities and discussions. Teachers pride themselves on having a well-organised and orderly classroom – we know what happens in the public world of the classroom (most of the time), we know some of things that happen in the semi-private world of the classroom (between peers). But most of the time we have no idea what happens in the private world of the classroom (the heads of our students). By focusing on learners and having strategies for finding out what they are learning, we can start to know the impact we are having as teachers.

In our work, we simply ask students to tell us what they are learning that day. We get some interesting responses. Many students have no idea at all – even when we probe for information. Many of them can at least tell us what they are doing, but few can tell us what they are learning. There is a big difference between the two.

The next time you go into a classroom, focus on the learners and the learning. Only then will you know the real impact teachers are having. Anything other than that is guesswork.

The message from the Visible Learning research is clear. We should focus on the things that can have the greatest impact and stop being distracted by the things that don’t matter. Let’s rethink some of the great myths in our profession and focus on impact and our role as evaluators of our impact. We have the evidence. Let’s use it.

For those interested in learning more about the Visible Learning approach outlined in this article, visit or contact Osiris Educational, which is the exclusive agent for Visible Learning Plus with John Hattie across the UK.

About the Author:

Debra Masters is the Director of Visible Learning and works closely with John Hattie to bring the Visible Learning research to life in schools around the world. Follow her on Twitter .



  • Eells, R. (2011). Meta-analysis of the relationship between collective efficacy and student achievement. Unpublished Ph.D., Loyola University of Chicago

  • Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement, Routledge. London

  • Nuthall, G. (2007). The Hidden Lives of Learners. New Zealand Council for Educational Research Press. Wellington