August 22, 2016

By Dr. Rachel Brown, NCSP, Senior Research Consultant

It goes without saying that educators care about their students’ results. They spend hours planning engaging lessons in an effort to captivate their students’ interest, give them the tools they need for success, and inspire them to become lifelong learners.

But when you dig into the research on how students learn, it becomes apparent that some teaching strategies impact students in a much deeper way than other types of instruction.

How can busy educators discover the instructional practices that will best meet the needs of every student in their classroom? I believe it is through the use of evidence-based instruction.

This blog discusses the origins of evidence-based instruction and its benefits. It also provides examples of how to implement evidence-based practices in your classroom and school.

Boy on tablet

Evidence-based instruction defined

It is worth noting that the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act did not use the term “evidence-based.” Instead, the act’s authors chose to use the term “scientifically-based.” Here is the definition of scientifically-based instruction from NCLB:

Scientifically-based research refers to research that involves the application of rigorous, systematic, and objective procedures to obtain reliable and valid knowledge relevant to education activities and programs, and includes research that:

  1. Employs systematic, empirical methods that draw on observation or experiment.
  2. Involves rigorous data analyses that are adequate to test the stated hypotheses and justify the general conclusions drawn.
  3. Relies on measurements or observational methods that provide reliable and valid data across evaluators and observers, across multiple measurements and observations, and across studies by the same or different investigators.
  4. Is evaluated using experimental or quasi-experimental designs in which individuals, entities, programs, or activities are assigned to different conditions and with appropriate controls to evaluate the effects of the condition of interest, with a preference for random-assignment experiments, or other designs to the extent that those designs contain within-condition or across-condition controls.
  5. Ensures that experimental studies are presented in sufficient detail and clarity to allow for replication or, at a minimum, offer the opportunity to build systematically on their findings.
  6. Has been accepted by a peer-reviewed journal or approved by a panel of independent experts through a comparably rigorous, objective, and scientific review.

The above definition is quite detailed, and you may even find it to be somewhat overwhelming. This is part of the reason why researchers and teachers have developed their own operational definitions.

Evidence-based instruction: An analogy

At its most basic level, evidence-based instruction looks something like this:

Suppose you visit your doctor to discuss a recurring rash on your leg. After an examination, the doctor prescribes a cream to treat your rash. This cream has been through rigorous medical research and clinical trials, and it is approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

The specific cream prescribed by your doctor is more than likely to have a positive impact on healing your rash than other creams or treatments. Your doctor is fully aware of this research and the data surrounding the cream, and she uses this knowledge to prescribe the medication that the research has shown will best fit your needs.

The doctor’s awareness of the research and the effects of this particular cream on your condition takes the guesswork out of finding a treatment that will provide you with relief. In a similar way, a teacher having access to evidence-based data simplifies the process of choosing the most effective instructional practices to use in the classroom.

What are the origins of evidence-based education?

Since the passage of the 2001 revision of the US Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), teachers have been expected to use only evidence-based teaching practices or something very similar, such as empirically-based or scientifically-based instruction, as noted above. Although this requirement has become almost universal, the exact meaning of the phrase “evidence-based instruction” is not always clear.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), a major rewrite of the much-maligned NCLB, was the first federal education law to define the term “evidence-based” and to distinguish between activities with “strong,” “moderate,” and “promising” support, based on the strength of existing research. This definition from ESSA will guide the remainder of our discussion.

Teacher and students

What are the benefits of evidence-based instruction?

There are many benefits to evidence-based instructional practices for both students and teachers, including:

  • The use of individual and small-group goal setting.
  • The building of positive relationships between students and teachers.
  • Increased accountability, which comes from data that backs up the selection of educational practices.
  • Less wasted time in the classroom.
  • An increased likelihood of being responsive to learners’ needs.
  • Greater student engagement, because students and parents/guardians can see the data proving that a method works.
  • Fewer wasted resources, because teachers know which practices are effective and don’t have to discover what works through trial and error.
Teacher and boy working on a tablet

The adoption of evidence-based instructional practices

The selection of instructional materials and methods for use with large and small groups of students is likely to have an effect on those students’ learning outcomes.

Although different terms have been used to describe practices with some form of research base, these terms might not all mean the same thing, as I mentioned earlier. When schools consider which instructional practices to use, the amount of prior data, as well as the specific findings, can be important. Curriculum review teams are encouraged to carefully consider both the scientific findings and the number of relevant studies available when making decisions about instructional practices.

In many US schools, the materials and methods used for general classroom instruction (i.e., Tier 1 core instruction) must be approved by a district-wide committee and formally adopted by the district school committee or board. The rationale for such approval is that core instruction is used with all students; thus, it has large effects. For this reason, very careful scrutiny of the practices adopted for core instruction is essential.

As defined here, evidence-based instruction is likely to have a larger and stronger research base than scientifically-based instruction. The same principles apply to instruction for small groups and individual students, but the effects are much more limited for small groups and individuals.

For this reason, when evidence-based instruction is not available for additional intensive instruction (i.e., intervention), short-term use and progress monitoring with a scientifically-based program might be justified. In such cases, it is important that regular data about the students’ progress are collected and reviewed so that the instruction can be changed if the students do not make effective progress.

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Variations in evidence-based instructional practice

Among the variations on evidence-based instruction are the terms scientifically-based, research-based, and empirically-based. There are others as well, but for this blog, I offer the two following condensed definitions (see also Brown-Chidsey & Bickford, 2016):

  • Scientifically-based instruction includes materials and methods that have been tested and found to be effective in relation to the specific research questions addressed by an individual study that uses experimental methods.
  • Evidence-based instructional practices include materials and methods that have been tested and found to be effective for large groups of diverse students and across two or more experimental research studies.

The difference between scientifically-based and evidence-based instruction is that the former has supporting research from one study with a specific sample, whereas the latter has supporting research from two or more studies with diverse samples. This distinction is important because how well an instructional program will work for students relates to the extent that it has been tested and verified as effective with multiple large groups of students.

For this reason, the process that a school uses to review and adopt instructional materials is very important.

Strategies for using evidence-based instruction in the classroom

What does evidence-based instruction look like on a practical level? Examples of ways to incorporate evidence-based instruction in the classroom may look like:

  • Giving clear lesson goals, so students know the expected outcome ahead of time.
  • Utilizing questioning techniques, such as “What do you expect to learn from this lesson?” or “How will you use these skills in the future?”
  • Incorporating background knowledge, applying retrieval strategies, and activating prior learning to accurately assess where to begin instruction, and when to reteach and review.
  • Giving quizzes and pre-tests.
  • Asking pointed closing and review questions, such as “What do you think was the most important thing we learned today?”
  • Using graphic organizers to help students make connections and establish meaningful relationships with what they are learning.
  • Scaffolding to build on skills and information from previous lessons to help students learn and remember content.
  • Bringing up probing questions or controversial topics to get all students alert and engaged.
Teacher reading to students


Although the terms evidence-based, research-based, and scientifically-based instruction might seem synonymous, the educational research community has recently provided more detailed definitions.

As explained here, the terms empirically-based, research-based, and scientifically-based are all usually interpreted to mean that the practice has been shown to be effective with one group of specific students in one setting.

In contrast, the term evidence-based is understood to mean that a particular practice has been shown to be effective in two or more studies with different groups and settings of students. For this reason, evidence-based instructional practices are more likely to work with students across more varied schools and settings.

School leaders, including teachers, principals, superintendents, and board members, are encouraged to think carefully about the programs and practices they endorse for use with large and small groups of students. Their decisions are likely to have lasting effects on student learning outcomes.

How Renaissance supports evidence-based instruction

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  • Reliable and valid screeners for reading, math, and social-emotional behavior
  • Progress monitoring tools
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