Explicit teaching drives student motivation, engagement, and achievement in NSW public schools – a What Works Best research update

This resource presents new research evidence from NSW public high schools using Tell Them From Me (TTFM) data. It explains how explicit teaching practices, including feedback, as identified in the What Works Best: 2020 update, can support students’ academic self-concept and study behaviour.

As outlined in What Works Best, the evidence strongly supports teachers’ use of explicit teaching practices, including:

  • telling students what they will be learning, and being clear about the purpose of tasks

  • demonstrating or explaining new ideas, and checking that students understand

  • giving time for asking and answering questions

  • giving specific feedback based on success criteria

  • systematically delivering skills, concepts and content knowledge in the right sequence to provide the building blocks towards mastery

  • asking students challenging questions, such as ‘why, why-not, how, what-if, how does X compare to Y, and what is the evidence for X?’

  • assessing and confirming whether students understand what they are learning before progressing

  • reviewing learning and explaining how it contributes to related and more complex skills

  • providing opportunities for guided, and then independent, practice as students gain proficiency and understanding of concepts and skills.

Consistent use of explicit teaching practices across the whole school supports teachers’ use of effective practices. A whole-school approach creates a common language around practice which in turn supports teacher collaboration and strengthens classroom observation practice.

The positive relationship between explicit teaching and student outcomes is found in NSW government schools. Research by the Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation (CESE) and the Institute for Social Science Research at the University of Queensland (UQ) examined the TTFM responses and NAPLAN results of 16,000 secondary students. The research identified whether – and how – explicit teaching practices affect achievement, above and beyond student characteristics like prior achievement and socioeconomic status, and regardless of other What Works Best practices teachers may implement at the same time.

Image: Figure 1: Explicit teaching practices in Year 7 and 9 and their effect on student learning

Students who experience explicit teaching make greater learning gains than students who do not experience these practices (Figure 1).

  1. In the short term, explicit teaching has a positive effect on NAPLAN results:

    • In Year 7, students who experience explicit teaching practices are on average 1.8 months ahead in learning.
    • In Year 9, this increases to 2.4 months of learning.
  2. The effect of explicit teaching is long-lasting: when a student experiences explicit teaching practices in Year 7 they are on average 4 months ahead in learning by Year 9 – regardless of whether they continue to experience explicit teaching after Year 7.

The CESE/UQ study found that explicit teaching affects learning outcomes by improving students’ motivation and engagement, in particular academic self-concept:

  • Around 35% of explicit teaching’s effect on NAPLAN Reading results is due to its positive influence on students’ academic self-concept, that is, their belief in their ability to succeed in a specific academic task or domain.
  • On average, a student who reports receiving explicit teaching has 9 percentage points higher levels of academic self-concept than one who does not (Figure 2).
  • Explicit teaching also supports students’ perseverance in pursuing goals even in the face of obstacles: on average, a Year 7 student who reports receiving explicit teaching has 11 percentage points higher levels of perseverance than one who does not. In Year 9, the difference is 8 percentage points.
Image: Figure 2: Explicit teaching practices and their relative effect on academic self-concept

The effect of explicit teaching on academic self-concept and perseverance is stronger among students with lower prior achievement.

  • When a low performing student in Year 5 (bottom 2 NAPLAN bands) reports receiving explicit teaching in Year 7, their academic self-concept is 11 percentage points higher than a student who does not experience explicit teaching. This effect increases to 13 percentage points in Year 9 (Figure 2).
  • For perseverance, this effect is consistently at around 10 percentage points.

When implemented effectively, explicit teaching is not the same as lecturing or rote learning. To follow the evidence-based principles of explicit teaching, teachers need to have dynamic and responsive interactions with students. Lecturing or rote learning alone do not cover the adaptive guidance or feedback teachers provide, nor students’ active engagement when teachers check for their understanding and during practice. When implemented well it is a highly interactive, engaging teaching practice (as seen in CESE’s Balgowlah Boys case study).1

A growing body of empirical research shows that explicit teaching practices not only maintain but increase student motivation and engagement. Among Australian students, explicit teaching practices are associated with increased academic self-concept, everyday resilience, growth goal setting and persistence as well as with reduced anxiety and disengagement.6, 8, 9

Explicit teaching practices likely affect student motivation and engagement through two key mechanisms. First, they can positively impact motivation and engagement by reducing extraneous cognitive load, that is, the mental effort expended on non-essential elements that do not contribute to learning.7 Studies show that when students experience extraneous cognitive load during a task, their academic self-concept decreases: they are less likely to believe that they can successfully perform such tasks, accomplish goals and overcome challenges – independent of their actual performance in the task.3, 6

Second, explicit teaching practices provide students with structure which supports their academic agency, that is, their ability to be active and self-directed learners who take initiative in their own learning and educational experiences. Explicit teaching allows students to feel a sense of competence, to recognise their growing competence and to get support when they are yet to achieve competence. It does so by relating new content and difficulty to students’ prior knowledge and skills, acknowledging difficulty by scaffolding learning, and providing opportunities for questions, guided practice and feedback. When students understand what is expected of them in both content and the classroom environment, they are less likely to switch off, showing higher levels of attention, effort and persistence and lower levels of misbehaviour.2, 4, 11

Students report on various elements of their motivation and engagement as well as the teaching practices they encounter in the classroom in the student survey offered to NSW public schools – Tell Them From Me. TTFM is a long-running suite of surveys that gauges student, parent and teacher perspectives of school life.

Explicit teaching practices

Students respond to questions about their experience with explicit teaching in both the primary and secondary TTFM questionnaires. Most items measure how often students recall teachers using specific strategies in the classroom. In the secondary survey students are asked to respond in relation to their English, Maths or Science classes (with the aim of getting students to focus on specific lessons):

  • ‘The teacher sets clear goals for our learning.’

  • ‘The teacher tells us what is expected of us when we get a test, quiz or assignment.’

  • ‘The teacher asks questions to check whether we have understood what has been taught.’

  • ‘The teacher asks me or my classmates to explain our thinking and reasoning.’

  • ‘The feedback from assessments and quizzes helps me learn.’

  • ‘The teacher gives students the changes to ask questions about assignments.’

Academic self-concept

Academic self-concept relates to how well a student thinks they can learn and succeed at academic tasks. The TTFM survey asks secondary students to what extent they agree or disagree with several sentences, drawn from research by Roesler, Midgley and Urdan:10

  • ‘I am certain I can learn the skills taught in school this year.’

  • ‘If I have enough time, I can do a good job on all my school work.’

  • ‘Even if the work in school is hard, I can learn it.’


Perseverance refers to the ability to pursue one’s goals to completion, even in the face of obstacles. The TTFM survey asks all students to what extent they agree or disagree with several sentences, taken from work by Kern and colleagues:5

  • ‘I finish whatever I begin.’

  • ‘I keep at my school work until I’m done with it.’

  • ‘Once I make a plan to get something done, I stick to it.’

  • ‘I am a hard worker.’

The responses to the individual sentences are combined to a measure scaled from 0 to 10 and the results are reported as the average score for the respective measure. Scores of 6 and above are referred to as ‘positive values’ of explicit teaching practices, academic self-concept or perseverance.

For information about how to assess students’ motivation, engagement and experience of teaching practices at your school, refer to CESE’s What Works Best Scout report and the resources for Accessing and using TTFM data.

Tell Them From Me is provided by, and is the intellectual property of The Learning Bar.

TTFM data in NSW public schools shows that most students – 78% in primary school and 57% in secondary school – report receiving explicit teaching and feedback regularly (Figure 3). Across individual aspects of explicit teaching and feedback, primary school students report particularly high levels of teachers explaining their expectations for tasks, with relatively fewer students reporting checks for understanding and effective feedback. Trends are similar for secondary school students, with particularly fewer students reporting receiving effective feedback.

Image: Figure 3: Percentage of students who report explicit teaching and feedback, TTFM 2023

There is a clear equity gap as to which students experience explicit teaching, especially in secondary school (Figure 4). ​The greatest gap is between students from high and low SES backgrounds – with 11 percentage points more high-SES than low-SES students reporting receiving explicit teaching in primary school. In secondary school, this gap grows to 20 percentage points.​

In primary school, Aboriginal and rural students report similar levels of explicit teaching to non-Aboriginal and metropolitan students, respectively. In secondary school, Aboriginal students report lower exposure to explicit teaching than non-Aboriginal students (12-point gap). Regional students report lower exposure to explicit teaching than metropolitan students (7-point gap).

Image: Figure 4a: Percentage of students who report explicit teaching and feedback by socioeconomic status background, TTFM 2023
Image: Figure 4b: Percentage of students who report explicit teaching and feedback by Aboriginal background, TTFM 2023
Image: Figure 4c: Percentage of students who report explicit teaching and feedback by geographical location, TTFM 2023

In 2020, more students in all primary and secondary cohorts reported explicit teaching, potentially due to learning from home. Among secondary low-SES students, the bump is less pronounced and was followed by a sharper decline in 2021 than among high-SES students (Figure 5).

Image: Figure 5: Percentage of students who report explicit teaching and feedback by socioeconomic status (SES) background, TTFM 2018-2023

1 CESE (2022) Effective teaching practices at Balgowlah Boys Campus, NSW Department of Education, accessed 1 February 2024.

2 Evans P & Martin A (2023) ‘Explicit instruction’, in A O’Donnell et al (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Educational Psychology, Oxford: Oxford University Press, https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199841332.013.53.

3 Feldon D, Franco J, Chao J, Peugh J & Maahs-Fladung C (2018) ‘Self-efficacy change associated with a cognitive load-based intervention in an undergraduate biology course’, Learning and Instruction 56, p. 64-72. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.learninstruc.2018.04.007.

4 Jang H, Reeve J & Deci E (2010) ‘Engaging students in learning activities: It is not autonomy support or structure but autonomy support and structure’, Journal of Educational Psychology 102(3), p. 588-600. https://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1037/a0019682.

5 Kern M, Benson L, Steinberg E & Steinberg L (2016) ‘The EPOCH Measure of Adolescent Well-Being’, Psychological Assessment 28(5), p. 586–597, https://doi.org/10.1037/pas0000201.

6 Likourezos V & Kalyuga S (2017) ‘Instruction-first and problem-solving-first approaches: Alternative pathways to learning complex tasks’, Instructional Science 45(2), p. 195-219, https://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1007/s11251-016-9399-4.

7 Martin A (2016) Using load reduction instruction (LRI) to boost motivation and engagement. Leicester, UK: British Psychological Society.

8 Martin A & Evans P (2018) ‘Load Reduction Instruction: Exploring a framework that assesses explicit instruction through to independent learning’, Teaching and Teacher Education 73, p. 203-214. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tate.2018.03.018.

9 Martin A, Burns E, Collie R, Bostwick K, Flesken A & McCarthy I (2022) ‘Growth goal setting in high school: A large-scale study of perceived instructional support, personal background attributes, and engagement outcomes’, Journal of Educational Psychology 114(4), p. 752-771. https://doi.org/10.1037/edu0000682.

10 Roeser W, Midgley C & Urdan T (1996) ‘Perceptions of the school psychological environment and early adolescents' psychological and behavioral functioning in school: the mediating role of goals and belonging’, Journal of Educational Psychology 88(3), p. 408-422.

11 Vansteenkiste M, Sierens E et al (2012) ‘Identifying configurations of perceived teacher autonomy support and structure: Associations with self-regulated learning, motivation and problem behaviour’, Learning and Instruction 22(6), p. 431-439. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.learninstruc.2012.04.002.


  • Student engagement and wellbeing
  • Teaching and learning practices
  • Tell Them From Me
  • What works best

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  • Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation
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