The Teaching-Learning Gap

Education is full of ‘gaps’. People often talk about the ‘attainment gap’ or the ‘achievement gap’. However, the most important gap for teachers and school leaders to be thinking about is the ‘teaching-learning gap‘.

What is taught is not necessarily learned. In fact, what is taught usually isn’t learned, at least not straight away or as well as it needs to be. The best teacher presentation, explanation or demonstration in the world does not necessarily lead to the student learning we are aiming for. Such things might lead to some student learning or to the learning of some students, but is that good enough? Do high-quality presentations, explanations or demonstrations equal high-quality teaching? I would argue that no, they don’t, at least not in themselves. High-quality presentations, explanations and demonstrations are features of high-quality teaching, but high-quality teaching is about a lot more than this. High-quality teaching involves frequent checks for student learning. It is teaching which focuses on the teaching-learning gap.

As teachers, we need to be relentless in measuring the gap between what is taught and what is learned, and on closing this, so that what is taught is learned. It isn’t enough for us to think that learning has happened – we need to know that it has. We can know this if we generate evidence of this. The key to doing so is assessment. Assessment bridges the teaching-learning gap:

‘Assessment’ does not necessarily mean tests and marking (although it can mean these things). Assessment is about much more than this. Really, ‘assessment’ should be thought about as ‘check‘ or ‘find out‘. Tests can, and should, be used to check student learning, but they are but one small part of a broader assessment spectrum.

When you ask students questions, you can check their learning. When you get them to write or draw something on a Show-me board, you can check their learning. When you ask them to ‘chat to a partner’ and listen to what they are saying, you can check their learning. When you get them to practise something, you can check their learning. When you give them short quizzes, you can check their learning. All of these activities are assessment activities. If you use them to get information about student learning, they are formative assessment activities. The same is true if you use them to give feedback to students. Minute-by-minute checking of student learning is integral to high-quality teaching:

High-quality teaching isn’t just about ‘covering’ content through high-quality explanations, presentations and demonstrations. High-quality teaching involves minute-by-minute checking (purple arrows) to generate evidence that what is being taught is being learned. We can do this in variety of ways, including by asking students questions, using Show-me boards, getting students to ‘chat to a partner’ and making use of in-class quizzes.

As important as checking student learning while content is being taught is checking student learning once content has been taught. Use of Exit Tickets towards the ends of lessons allows you to do this. So too does starting a lesson with Daily Review, or ending a week with Weekly Review. Setting frequent retrieval practice homework also allows you to do this. Lesson-by-lesson checking of this kind can be used to assess student learning over a broader body of content:

In a drive to ensure that what is taught is learned, minute-by-minute checking (purple arrows) should be complemented by lesson-by-lesson checking (orange arrows), for example, by use of Daily and Weekly Review, and Exit Tickets.

The more you use assessment in this way, the more you can check the size of the teaching-learning gap, and the better placed you are to do something about it. Monthly Review and End-of-topic tests also support this, assessing student learning over an even broader content range:

The most effective way to measure and address the ‘teaching-learning gap’ is to ensure that assessment (checking) is taking place minute-by-minute (purple arrows), lesson-by-lesson (orange arrows) and over longer periods of time (green arrow), for example, by use of Monthly Review and End-of-topic tests.

If you are interested in making your teaching better, focus on the teaching-learning gap. Doing so will improve your teaching and, crucially, improve student learning. A focus on the teaching-learning gap will help to close it.

The Teaching Delusion: Why Teaching In Our Schools Isn’t Good Enough (And How We Can Make It Better), published by John Catt Educational, is out now. Available at: and

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