Part I of a series on student achievement: What is the student’s role?

Part I of a series on student achievement: What is the student’s role?

Dr. Jeffrey L. Mitchell / Currey Ingram Academy

What if you could combine the results of 50,000 studies into one study that specifies the key factors for learning and student achievement?

Dr. Jeffrey L. Mitchell

What if you could combine the results of 50,000 studies into one study that specifies the key factors for learning and student achievement? John Hattie, an education researcher from New Zealand, has done just that.

Visible Learning is the result of 15 years of research and syntheses over 50,000 studies relating to the influences on achievement in school-aged students. It is the largest-ever collection of research into what actually works to improve learning. It is called Visible Learning because Hattie provides visible and objective evidence to build and defend a model of teaching and learning.

Hattie found that there were 138 influences on student achievement (variables) that could be classified into six general categories that influence how well students learn. Those categories are:

  • The student
  • The home environment
  • The school environment
  • The curricula
  • The teacher
  • Teaching strategies

In this article, I will focus on the student category. In subsequent columns, I’ll investigate other categories.

Past Learning Experiences are Critical

Hattie found that the current learning experiences of students are profoundly influenced by their past learning experiences. More important, this prior learning leads to expectations by students and teachers about current learning. These expectations are powerful enhancers of, or inhibitors to, the opportunities provided in schools.

Predicting Achievement

Historically, many studies have asked students to estimate how they will do on a particular assignment, test, course, etc., and what has been consistently found is that students are usually excellent predictors. This may, on the surface, seem like a benign finding. After all, isn’t it a good thing that students are generally able to predict how well they will do in the academic setting?

This finding is, however, a very sharp double-edged sword. Students whose past experiences give them the confidence to predict a relatively successful learning experience will tend to live up to that expectation. However, if past experience leads to a low prediction, these predictions often limit students’ beliefs about what is achievable. In the 50,000 studies that were analyzed by Hattie, the highest recorded influence on student achievement was the students’ own predictions of their success.

Countless students are susceptible to the negative implications of this finding. Bright students in poor educational settings are at-risk because they develop the profoundly powerful (but mistaken) mindset that they cannot learn and achieve. Students with learning differences are at-risk because most schools are simply not fashioned to accommodate them. Students with learning differences often conclude they are dumb, when in fact it is the system that lacks intelligence. If there ever was a reason to turn around our educational system, this is it.

A potent silver lining is that if academically at-risk students are guided towards and genuinely involved in setting tangible goals for their achievement, then their predictions, and resulting achievement, are very likely to produce better outcomes.

Control Over Learning

Self-efficacy, or control, also has a strong relationship to student achievement. The more self-efficacy over their learning that students feel, the better they will learn. Hattie’s thoughts are similar Carol Dweck’s popular theory of self-efficacy. Hattie states: “Achievement is more likely to be increased when students invoke learning rather than performance strategies, accept rather than discount feedback, benchmark to difficult rather than easy goals, compare themselves to subject criteria rather than to other students, possess high rather than low efficacy to learning, and affect self-regulation and personal control rather than learned helplessness in the academic situation.”

Because of the powerful impact of self-efficacy, educators must tackle low self-efficacy in students before trying to raise their achievement. Thus, for academically at-risk students, it is very good idea to spend time working on ways to build their sense of agency. This is perhaps the most important way we can teach students to fish, rather than giving them a fish.


Connected to self-efficacy and predictions of performance is a final student-specific variable, motivation. Motivation is highest when students feel competence, have sufficient autonomy, set worthwhile goals, get feedback, and are affirmed by others. Motivation is undermined by public humiliation (whether intentional or not), consistently poor academic outcomes (especially test results), or conflicts with teachers or peers. I would also add that the education system is unmotivating for many students by its very nature. It is very much a one-size-fits-all model that rewards (thus motivates) those students on the right side of the normal curve.

In Dweck’s terms, many students see their intelligence – and thus future learning and achievement — as fixed (Fixed Mindset), rather than something that can grow and develop (Growth Mindset). If we can systematically infuse and adopt a Growth Mindset, then the self-fulfilling low expectations of students (and teachers) can be raised, sometimes dramatically.

We Must Empower Learners

Although much easier said than done, schools need to empower learners. We can empower learners by giving them more opportunities to be successful and more opportunities to be successful means that we place the learner at the center of the education equation by constantly asking how we can accommodate each child’s learning needs. This will level the playing field for academically at-risk students by moving away from a one-size-fits-all approach. Schools for students with learning differences have used the notion of empowering learners as a foundation of their missions for decades, but we really ought to adopt a truly student-centered approach for all learners in all settings.


  1. John Hattie is Professor of Education at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. This summary refers to his book Visible Learning (2009).
  2. Carol Dweck is Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, California. This article refers to her book Self-Theories: Their Role in Motivation, Development & Personality (2000).

Dr. Jeffrey L. Mitchell is the head of school for Currey Ingram Academy. “Extra Credit” is provided each month by Currey Ingram Academy to help parents at all schools and at all stages of the parenting journey.

Currey Ingram Academy is a private K-12 day school for bright students with learning differences and unique learning styles. For more information, click here.

Earlier Extra Credit columns:

About The Author

Kelly Gilfillan is the owner-publisher of Home Page Media Group which has been publishing hyperlocal news since 2009.

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