PublicationsSystematic reviewsLearning skills and the development of learningSummary
Learning skills and the development of learning capabilities. Summary


The intention of the review is to inform and support current government policy and its implementation, while at the same time supporting the work of practitioners and managers in schools in making strategic decisions to develop an integrated approach to improving teaching and learning in their schools. One of the key issues is to identify how the application of such knowledge by teachers can support development of learning and teaching in their schools, and ensure progression in pupils’ learning. In particular, strategies to support systematic whole school implementation need to be identified from a research and evidence base. This report details the processes of the review and the methods used to locate, describe and synthesise research studies relevant to the themes.


Although there is extensive research evidence about the effectiveness of a wide range of learning and teaching interventions, it is difficult to interpret and use this knowledge at both policy and practice levels. While systematic reviews can go some way towards clarifying matters, they are only part of the answer (Higgins and Hall, 2004). A degree of consensus has been achieved in a few key areas, such as thinking skills, following the review by Carol McGuinness (1999), and assessment for learning, resulting from the work of the Assessment Reform Group (Black and Wiliam, 2004). It is still challenging for schools to use this information and to manage development effectively and ensure that this development is sustained. This is partly because there is a lack of information about what the indicators are in terms of a progression in pupils’ thinking and learning, and what can be achieved with a whole-school approach. As a result, there is a danger that schools may not be in a position to make informed choices about effective approaches to develop learning and teaching more systematically.
The key thinking and learning skills are identified in the DfES White Paper 14-19 Education and Skills (DfES, 2005b) as follows:

  • Enquiry includes asking relevant questions, planning and testing conclusions.
  • Creative thinking includes suggesting hypotheses and imaginatively challenging ideas.
  • Information processing includes locating and classifying information.
  • Reasoning includes explaining opinions, actions and decisions, and using deduction.
  • Evaluation includes assessing evidence, judging against criteria and values.

One of the intentions behind the review was to bring together evidence from a range of sources and to relate it to current policy initiatives, particularly SNS and PNS initiatives currently being implemented in schools. This is to map what is known from the research and evidence base on to subject specialisms and effective pedagogies. The aim is therefore to develop an understanding not just of what works in terms of specific teaching approaches in specific contexts, but also in terms of an understanding of why different approaches are successful in order to support teachers in making informed choices about what is likely to be effective in their own context.

Review questions

Which teaching approaches that explicitly aim to develop pupils’ learning capabilities are effective?

The search strategy therefore sought to identify empirical classroom-based research in which the aim of the approach or intervention was explicitly to improve aspects of pupils’ learning by focusing on particular teachable skills and capabilities.


 User involvement

There were two main advisory groups: one with a policy focus and one with current practitioner experience in schools. These groups were consulted and met to provide feedback on the focus and process of the review as well as its potential outcomes. Feedback to identify the in-depth question was crucial in determining the final focus of the review. User perspectives on the review process and the provisional report have been incorporated into the final report. Meetings were held locally and nationally with the two key user group to solicit feedback about the focus of the review and the provisional findings. Methods for this participation included the critical reading of drafts of the protocol and review, and specific involvement of users to assist in including outcomes relevant to different users.

Review methods

The focus of the review, the inclusion criteria, the review-specific keywords and the topic for the in-depth review were decided through a series of meetings between the members of the Review Group, the national Policy Steering Group and EPPI Centre staff, with discussions form the Local Advisory Panel providing further advice and guidance. The review methods followed EPPI Centre procedures. Reports of relevant research were identified from electronic databases, citations from reference lists, web searches and personal contacts. For a study to be included in the systematic map, it had to contain empirical evidence about effective approaches to developing thinking and learning skills through pupils’ active involvement in awareness and management of their own learning, where the study was set in schools with mainstream pupils aged 4–19.

The studies found in this way were then described, using both generic EPPI Centre keywords and review-specific keywords which aimed to take account of links with a number of policy areas to create a ‘map’ of the research literature. After looking at the results of the map, the Review Group met the National Policy Steering Group to decide on the focus and question for the in-depth review. With guidance also from the Local Advisory Panel, the decision was made to look at teaching approaches which explicitly aimed to develop pupils’ learning capabilities and which showed evidence of improved learning of pupils. In order to address issues of scaling up, studies had to have been undertaken on a reasonable scale. Studies in the map were excluded from the in-depth review if they were undertaken in fewer than three schools. The studies in the in-depth review were then read and described in more detail using EPPI Centre data-extraction questions, including assessments of the weight of evidence (WoE) that each study lent to the review. Quality-assurance was carried out at the screening, keywording and data-extraction stages, for example by a study being data-extracted independently by two people, and the results then compared and agreed. Finally, the results of the selected studies were brought together in a synthesis. More details of the methods are given in the Technical Report.



Selecting studies for the in-depth review

In order to meet the aims for the review, specific issues were identified by the Policy Steering Group as potentially valuable. These were issues of scale, applicability of the research to other school contexts and the explicit development of learning capabilities by teachers. To meet these criteria the specific question for in-depth review was identified as:
Which teaching approaches that explicitly aim to develop pupils’ learning capabilities and which have been used in at least three schools show evidence of improved learning of pupils?
A further sub-question was added to identify issues in scaling up interventions or teaching approaches across schools:
What issues are identified in these studies about implementation or scaling up of the teaching approach?
Applying these additional criteria to the studies in the systematic map produced a subset of 10 studies which met the additional criteria; see Appendix 4.1 of the Technical Report for further details about these studies.

Further details of studies included in the in-depth review

The in-depth review focuses on ten studies identified from the systematic map in which there is evidence from research undertaken in schools about interventions which explicitly aimed to develop pupils’ learning capabilities. These studies are international in their spread and were undertaken on a scale where at least three schools were involved. The approaches used in the research vary and are based on different theoretical perspectives about learning. However, all share common features where a key feature of the research is that the approach included the development of metacognitive thinking or self-regulation by the learners involved.


There are effective approaches which teachers can use to develop pupils’ learning capabilities (Adey et al., 2002; Desoete et al., 2003; Toth et al., 2000; White and Fredriksen, 1999; Williams et al., 2002) and the characteristics identified in the review include the following:

  • structured tasks that focus on specific metacognitive strategies in the context of the lesson/subject
  • capacity built into activities in lessons for more explicit transactions between the learner and the teacher concerning the purpose of the activity
  • small group interactions promoting the articulation of the use of strategies during teaching
  • mechanisms built into the task to promote the checking of mutual understanding of the goals by peers and with the teacher
  • enhanced opportunities for the learner to receive diagnostic feedback linked directly to the task

For example, in science, explicit processes necessary for designing experiments should be identified, such as planning, justifying and evaluating and tasks developed within the specific context of the lessons to scaffold learner’s performance and to establish effective feedback loops to monitor progress (Olina and Sullivan, 2004; Toth et al., 2000). In another example (Vauras et al., 1999), inquiry skills are developed by envisioning snapshots of what it would mean to be successful at each stage of the task combined with consolidation through the completion of concrete tasks. The key components of the interventions are planning based on a good understanding of the processes of learning, key concepts of the content to be studied and an awareness of the learning context. There is also support for the view that the orientation towards learning should be one in which success results from appropriately guided effort and not on a construct of ability (Dweck, 1999). In short, approaches which explicitly develop learners’ awareness of strategies and learning techniques by which they can succeed are effective, particularly when they are targeted at the metacognitive level (Desoete et al., 2003; Guterman and Boxall, 2002; White and Fredrikesen, 1999) or use self-regulatory approaches (Kolic-Vehovec, 2002).

The key components identified from the studies included in the in-depth review are as follows:

  • A clear understanding of the features of the relevant learning processes to achieve success in a particular context
  • The design of concrete tasks to scaffold the development of the awareness of the processes and their importance for success
  • Opportunities to feedback during the task thus enabling teacher intervention, but also providing for this to become gradually internalised as self-regulation
  • Explicit emphasis on developing capability through effort and the possibility of improving performance by responding to feedback and adaptation.

We can also identify some necessary conditions:

  • The teacher needs to have an alignment of a good understanding of learning, in terms of the subject and the context (what European educationalists would call ‘didactics’).
  • There is also the need for the teacher to have access to concrete tools and strategies to guide the learner and enhance opportunities for feedback.
  • Both teachers and learners should have an orientation towards learning, characterised by a willingness to engage in dialogue and negotiation regarding the intent and purpose of a particular teaching and learning episode.
  • The focus should be on how to succeed in terms of the selection of appropriate strategies and making the right effort, rather than on ability.

However the messages in the research are neither simple, nor conclusive (De Corte et al., 2001; Olina and Sullivan, 2004; Vauras et al., 1999). The lack of conceptual clarity regarding the provenance and use of terms such as ‘learning capability’ means that the studies included in the review are located within different, if overlapping, frameworks, offering different interpretations of why an intervention might be effective. There is also a tension between approaches to learning skills which emphasise content (in terms of mastery of specific skills) and process (in terms of locating skills within an overall understanding of learning approaches). Therefore, in the short term, the most effective means to improve performance where the assessment focuses on content knowledge is likely to be direct instruction. In the longer term, or where assessment focuses on conceptual understanding, metacognitive or strategic approaches are more likely to be effective.



At policy level, specific consideration of the development of learning skills and capabilities as part of the curriculum needs to include explicit advice that such development should not only be embedded in the curriculum, but also taught in such a way that is explicit to pupils. Opportunities to achieve this should be identified in the early stages of schooling as well as for older pupils. It should also be recognised that it can be difficult to assess the impact of such approaches in both the short term and in terms of the development of a learner’s identity over time. Further research is needed to identify what would be the most appropriate learning outcomes to judge the effectiveness of such interventions (James and Brown, 2005). Any such research needs to identify both short-term and longer-term indicators which can be related both to attainment in the curriculum and to learners’ meaningful participation in learning.


While there are approaches which can be used effectively by teachers in classrooms in schools to develop pupils learning skills and capabilities, research findings need to be ‘translated’ (Toth et al., 2000), rather than simply applied to school settings. There is a reported tension between teachers adhering closely to the format of a programme, and having the deeper understanding and critical distance necessary to adapt the ideas to context (Dusenbury et al., 2003). It is therefore important that teachers understand the principles underpinning approaches which seek to develop pupils’ learning skills and capabilities (see Hattie et al., 1996) This is so that, as different approaches are used and adapted, in various learning contexts, they achieve the aims or intentions underpinning the approach. The planning of professional development to support teachers in using these approaches is therefore both essential and challenging if development in schools is to be sustained beyond an initial innovative phase.


This review has been conducted as part of a series of reviews of education research supported by the EPPI Centre. Other completed reviews have much to say about the development of pupils learning skills and capabilities. Further work is needed to relate the findings of this review to the findings and implications of other related reviews.
The findings of this review illustrate the complex nature of the learning outcomes needed to judge the effectiveness of interventions to improve learning skills and capabilities (see James and Brown, 2005). Further research is needed to identify both short-term and longer-term outcome indicators which can be related both to attainment in the curriculum and to participation in learning.


This report should be cited as: Higgins S, Baumfield V, Hall E (2007) Learning skills and the development of learning capabilities. Report. In: Research Evidence in Education Library. London: EPPI Centre, Social Science Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of London.

Copyright 2019 Social Science Research Unit, UCL Institute of Education :: Privacy Statement :: Terms Of Use :: Site Map :: Login
Home::About::Projects::Training::Research Use::Resources::Databases::Blog::Publications