Graham Nuthall: Educational research at its best

Professor Emeritus Graham Nuthall, an educational researcher from New Zealand, is credited with one of the longest series of studies of teaching and learning in the classroom that has ever been carried out. A pioneer in his field, his research focused on the classroom, and what impact certain factors – for example, teaching – had on the outcomes of learners. Perhaps his most famous work is The Hidden Lives of Learners, which is increasingly being seen as a seminal text for understanding learning.

Jan Tishauser, programme manager for researchED Netherlands, explores his contribution to the education debate, and why his work is extraordinarily relevant today.

The outcomes of the research that Graham Nuthall conducted into the classroom experience of learners are little known, notwithstanding the far-reaching implications for our classroom practice. He demonstrated the need for formative assessment and discovered which factors influence learning most. He also pinpointed metacognition’s role on learning outcomes.

Nuthall started recording classroom conversations as a student. He kept on doing this during his whole career from 1960 until 2000. In some ways his research was an expedition into unknown territory. His first question was: what actually happens during a lesson? His final research question was: what is the role of ability in learning?

Taking off

It all started in 1960, when Nuthall (at that time a young student) obtained permission from a number of experienced teachers to record their lessons with a number of students. At this time, he had not yet developed a sound design for his research. He was simply driven by curiosity, wondering what actually happens in a lesson. He worked under the assumption that one needs to observe experienced teachers to spot good teaching.

On the surface, his initial results show a seemingly spontaneous interaction between teachers and students; but beneath this surface, his analysis showed set patterns of communication and predictable structures and rules for social interaction. Nuthall replicated his research in the US and Japan; these rituals were identical everywhere. But the purpose of these rituals was not clear at that time. He concluded that ‘like language, teaching has its own underlying grammatical rules’.

Learning that experience makes no difference

In the period between 1968 and 1974, Nuthall and his PhD students started to work with an experimental design. Together with a group of teachers, they scripted a series of lessons about the black-backed gull. They wanted to know whether a teacher’s experience or training influenced the learning of students. They analysed differences between three groups of teachers: experienced teachers, inexperienced teacher trainees and teacher trainees who were trained to analyse their lessons using micro-teaching and recording. The results were rather unexpected: experience and training made no difference; instead it was only the type of feedback the teachers gave and their style of questioning students that mattered.

Dead end

Nuthall and his PhD students thought they were on to something and continued to work with scripted lessons. They worked with experienced teachers, made recordings, did pre and post tests, trying to find the factors that had a positive effect on learning outcomes.

Finally they came up with results: the way teachers gave feedback, questioned students and activated students made a difference. This might not seem so amazing to us now, but in 1974, these were promising results. One of the problems that was brought to the surface through their intensive monitoring of the interactions in the classroom was the enormously complex reality of the classroom. To supplement their findings, they would have to do hundreds of intensive follow-up studies, which would most likely produce an endless, useless list of dos and don’ts. It could lead to a ‘robotification’ of the teacher, while their own research had shown them that this is impossible and undesirable:

‘I realized I was following a path that satisfied the cultural rituals of the research community, but would be of little value to teachers, and probably do them harm.’ Nuthall hit a dead end. He describes this period as ‘roaming in the desert’.

A focus on student learning

Then Adrienne Alton-Lee, an experienced teacher, started working on a PhD in 1978. Her research question focused on the students. What causes a student to learn the course material? In her classroom practice she was unable to predict when a given student would have learned the material and when they would not. Alton-Lee dissected the course material in great detail, down to what she called ‘concepts’ and ‘items’, using a rolodex system. For example, a simple series of lessons on climate could contain as many as 500 items.

What stands out most in Nuthall’s research is that only the ‘three times’ rule has predictive value. Ability or intelligence or similar properties do not.

A ‘concept’ could be: Antarctica is the driest continent. Examples of ‘items’:

  • There is little precipitation.
  • There is more precipitation in the Sahara.
  • Because of the low temperatures the snow never melts.

Every 15 seconds, all student communication and every action was registered, such as what they did, or what they said to themselves and to others. All the material a student encountered was registered and everything a student made or wrote was photographed. This led to a dissertation published in a leading magazine.

Replication crisis

Because Alton-Lee had followed a mere three students, Nuthall decided he needed replication studies. He designed three follow-up studies in order to replicate her findings. Technological advancements made it possible to gather even more information. Linking the students’ learning experiences, the course material and the outcomes seemed to work. Together, they collected a mountain of information.

They identified four simultaneous processes going on:

1. The invisible thinking of the student

2. The self-talk

3. The social interaction between peers (mostly invisible to the teacher)

4. The teacher-led public discussion

The self-talk and interaction between peers is well hidden. This was illustrated by the fact that while each student had an observer, even they missed 40% of the talk that was on tape. Nuthall concluded that the opinions from peers were more important and better believed than the teacher’s opinions, including those related to the course matter.

The study also concluded that:

  • When you start a lesson, half of what you are about to teach is already known.
  • Every student holds a different piece of the puzzle.
  • Almost every student learns something different in your lesson.
  • In practice, they learn more from each other than from the teacher – including misconceptions – which is obviously not always a good thing.

The often-chaotic nature of the classroom explains the function of the rituals that Nuthall found in his first study. The rituals allow the teacher to focus on the class as a whole; the teacher simply doesn’t have the resources to follow individual students. Part of the ritual is the ‘nodding and smiling’ of the students who draw the attention of the teacher. Students also make sure to appear to focus on their work whenever the teacher is in their vicinity. ‘Appear’ is the key word here.


Ultimately, Nuthall decided to precisely map out the learning process of one student in relation to one topic. He analysed the interaction of ‘John’ in regards to the topic ‘The migration to New York’. That’s when some light was finally shed on a recurring pattern.

His analysis of John’s learning experience made it possible to define learning in the following terms: it is a positive change of what we know or can do; it takes place by means of a sequence of events and learning experiences; each experience builds on the previous one and every change in the order of the learning experiences will lead to a different outcome. The learning activities of a student consist of understanding and making sense of the learning experiences. A student understands, learns and remembers a concept if they have encountered all the underlying information three times.

They built on this insight and did one replication study after another with increasing numbers of students, classes and topics. And they could predict with 85% certainty which student would correctly answer which question on a test.

If ability doesn’t matter, what does?

What stands out most in Nuthall’s research is that only the ‘three times’ rule has predictive value. Ability or intelligence or similar properties do not. Yet the ‘better’ students learn more. Nuthall dedicated his last research period to solving this conundrum. These students had more prior knowledge and they profited more from the lessons. The secret seems to be that they make sure to get more out of the lessons. They possess better metacognitive skills; they understand what it takes to get results.

The Hidden Lives of Learners

At the end of his life, Nuthall hastily wrote The Hidden Lives of Learners, drawing these conclusions for the classroom based on his research:

  • Standardised tests appear to offer certainty, but are no more reliable than interviews held with students.
  • Learning activities should be designed to take into account how memory works.
  • The subject matter should be repeated in different ways.
  • Follow the individual learning experience.
  • Less is more: we should confine the curriculum to the big questions. Teachers need the time to design rich learning experiences, conduct pre- tests and get to know the social processes in the class. Learners need the time and the space to really master the content.

Nuthall’s diligent research efforts gave us lasting insights into the fundamentals of learning and teaching. We should take his research into account both in our current teaching practice and in our curriculum design. For me, the two fundamentals are that learning takes time and that it is not necessarily related to ability. The latter is really a finding that should encourage us all to set high goals for ourselves and our students.


Nuthall, G. and Alton-Lee, A. (1993) ‘Predicting learning from student experience of teaching: a theory of student knowledge construction in classrooms’, American Educational Research Journal 30 (4) pp. 799–840.

Nuthall, G. (1999) ‘The way students learn: acquiring knowledge from an integrated science and social studies unit’, Elementary School Journal 99 (4) pp. 303–341.

Nuthall, G. (2004) ‘Relating classroom teaching to student learning: a critical analysis of why research has failed to bridge the theory- practice gap’, Harvard Educational Review 74 (3) pp. 273–306.

Nuthall, G. (2007) The hidden lives of learners. Wellington: NZCER Press.

Nuthall, G. (2012a) ‘Understanding what students learn’ in Kaur, B. (ed.) Understanding teaching and learning. Rotterdam: Sense, pp. 1–40.

Nuthall, G. (2012b) ‘The acquisition of conceptual knowledge in the classroom: a case study’ in Kaur, B. (ed.) Understanding teaching and learning. Rotterdam: Sense, pp. 97–134.

Wright, C. J. and Nuthall, G. (1970) ‘Relationships between teacher behaviours and pupil achievement in three experimental elementary science lessons’, American Educational Research Journal 7 (4) pp. 477–491.