Visible Learning: A teacher's guide

Paul Main

Visible Learning: A classroom guide for making thinking and learning evident across your school.

What is Visible Learning?

The term 'visible learning' was coined by Education Researcher John Hattie (2009) as an extremely simple concept. According to the visible learning concept, learning must be as seen and as apparent as possible, and not assumed. Visible Learning® methodology indicates that the teachers educate the students about what they are supposed to learn, how to learn, and how they can assess their progress. John Hattie's Visible Learning Approach makes teachers assessors of their effect on student learning.

Visible Learning allocates an enhanced role for teachers as they begin to evaluate their teaching. According to John Hattie, visible learning and intelligent teaching take place when teachers begin to see learning from the eyes of students and guide them to become their teachers.

To measure the effect of visible learning, Hattie performed the statistical analysis on millions of students through 'effect size' and compared the experimental effect of many teaching strategies on student achievement, e.g. learning strategies, feedback, holidays and class size.

visible learning effect sizes

Embracing the visible learning model of teaching

John Hattie used over 68,000 education research projects and 25 million students to research what makes the student learning the most successful. According to Hattie's meta-analyses chapter of Visible Learning, the greater the effect size, the more beneficial the approach. Whatever is at or greater than 0.4 is seen as the "Zone of Desired Effects." Hattie contends that school learning and teachers must focus their energy on enhancing skills with the help of these approaches. According to John Hattie, visible learners are the students who can:

  • Set learning goals;
  • Express what they are learning;
  • Describe the next steps in their learning;
  • Know what to do when they are stuck;
  • See mistakes as opportunities for additional learning;
  • Take feedback.

Monitor the quality of classroom talk
Monitor the quality of classroom talk

What makes a 'visible learning' teacher?

Visible learning is greatly dependent upon the visible teaching strategies i.e. actions and attitude of the teacher. To become a visible teacher, a teacher must be active, transparent, engaging and passionate in their own learning and teaching the students. Enhanced role for teachers involves teaching in the most visible and deliberate ways. John Hattie believes that the visible teachers possess the following eight important mind frames. Visible teachers:

  • continually gain professional learning and evaluate their own performance;
  • consider themselves as 'change agents’; who is responsible for the change and improved learning process in the students;
  • reflect upon how their practices may affect student learning outcomes;
  • Regularly take feedback about themselves and their ways of teaching;
  • Use assessments as tools for the development of students to learn about their teaching practices;
  • challenge their students regularly and do not frequently use the expression ‘do your ;
  • Ensure that their 80% of the class time is spent in classroom talk;
  • Build rapport and trust in students so that the students would not hesitate to ask for help and feel free to take risks with their learning.

Visible learning book by John Hattie
Visible learning book by John Hattie

The big idea behind visible learning

The visible learning research data is organized according to the effect sizes, based on John Hattie's work for his series of books titled Visible Learning. In John Hattie's research paper with Gregory Donoghue 'Learning Strategies: A Synthesis and Conceptual Model' one area they discussed was surface, deep and transfer learning. According to Hattie, 'when' and 'what' possess equal importance in the instruction which affects learning. Teaching strategies that support learners' surface-level learning are not equally effective for deep learning, and vice versa. Using the correct approach with the correct stage of learning is an important lesson to be learned. Below is the model of learning proposed by Hattie.


Surface Learning: Surface Learning is not the same as superficial learning. Surface Learning occurs when students are first exposed to strategies, skill matters and concepts. It is crucial because it offers a foundation for millions of students to think more deeply. Following are three ways to develop and scaffold surface learning:

Deep Learning: Deep learning is the time when learners consolidate their knowledge and apply and broaden some surface learning understanding to boost deeper conceptual knowledge. This can be considered as an optimum point that frequently takes up more time of instruction but can be achieved only when deep learners have the essential understanding and deep thinking to go deeper. Some of the teaching tools for deep learning include:

Visible thinking using graphic organisers
Visible thinking using our guides

Transfer Learning: Transfer learning [is] the level at which learners take their consolidated understanding and abilities and apply their knowledge to a new context and different scenarios. It is also a period when learners can think metacognitively, reflecting on their knowledge and learning. Some examples of transfer learning are as follows:

Promote classroom thinking routines
Promote classroom thinking routines


Importance of Success Criteria to Visible Learning

It is important to identify exactly which part of the traditional or virtual teaching worked well and led to visible student learning. To implement this in a classroom, students need to understand what they are learning, what is the purpose of learning, how to check their learning, and why it was important to have learned. For achieving these goals, teachers need to check various influences on the achievement of students using success criteria and learning intentions on an everyday basis. According to Hattie, student success criteria and learning intentions can improve student learning two to three folds, which greatly contribute to teacher clarity.

An area, which is mostly seen as a barrier to learning, but Hattie does not believe is 'class size.' According to Hattie’s research, class size had no major impact on learning. There were other interventions such as effective feedback, peer tutoring, time on task, and appropriate cues, all have a major impact on student learning. These can help teachers understand which positive factors they should consider including in their classroom environment.

Also, Hattie is a strong believer in student voice and student control on learning especially in terms of their feedback. Students' feedback whether it relates to what they find engaging and what they don’t find engaging, all have a positive impact on students' classroom learning.

These days, many reformers say that schools have been failed in empowering problem-based learning. But, Hattie thinks differently about the power of teachers. Evidence from Psychology suggests that school leaders, teachers and school-aged students should aspire to improve and Hattie provides ways to do that.

John Hatties visible learning concept

How do you make classroom thinking visible?

This continues to be a central obstacle for classroom practitioners. The cognitive work that students engage in remains hidden inside their heads. If we are to advance student learning we need to have access to their thinking. At Structural Learning, our focus has always been on moving student thinking forward. In order to do this, we need to project children's thoughts into a space where we can see them. Our block building pedagogy makes visible thinking a classroom habit. The blocks are used to organise information and make conceptual connections. Because the students are not struggling to remember lots of information, we are freeing up the working memory to engage in deep thinking. We have been developing various thinking routines that enable children to adopt the concept of thinking dispositions. The universal thinking framework has also led to the development of thinking in students. This new taxonomy is enabling educators and students to think through complex tasks. The key idea is to have names and definitions for the types of deep thinking involved in the process of learning. This has led to significant school-wide achievement for many of our members.

visible learning with a the new framework
Make thinking visible

Final Thoughts on Visible Learning

Although it is nice to know that learners liked a lesson or activity or that the teacher thinks that a lesson went satisfactorily, liking is not all that matters. Current Evidence of academic achievement shows that a teacher must know the impact of lessons on student learning—and this impact must be visible. Teachers must begin with lessons that have clear learning intentions and ensure that the students must know what they need to accomplish and how. Teachers must give feedback very soon after completing a lesson or project so that students can apply what they have learnt to improve their process of learning going forward.

An important consideration is that there are other models of teaching that schools can embrace. Researchers such as Rosenshine have contributed a lot in this area. Achievement in school has undergone an almost forensic examination in recent years. The metadata available to the education community is enabling school systems to make well-informed decisions about instructional practice.

If your school wants to make thinking more visible in your classrooms, please watch the film below to find out how you can get involved.