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What works best to improve learning outcomes?

What works best to improve learning outcomes?


A research brief and decision-making tool

There is increasing research into the policy interventions that work best to improve learning outcomes. Here we review what is known on a global level, and translate it into a decision-making tool for education leaders to use in their own particular contexts.

Thousands of studies have been conducted to determine the most effective policy approaches to improving education quality in developing countries. More than two hundred of these used experimental or quasi-experimental conditions to measure the effects of different interventions on learning outcomes,(3) and a growing number of researchers have begun sorting through these studies to try to draw some generalizable conclusions about which approaches work best.

Nine reviews of the literature published in the last few years each look at a different selection of research studies on efforts to improve learning outcomes to detect overall trends. Not surprisingly, the findings of these meta reviews are complex and often contradictory.(2)

► High teacher absenteeism is consistently seen as being linked to poor learning outcomes, although the best mechanisms to  reduce absenteeism and incentivize better teaching are not clear.(3)(4)(5)

► Several reviews find that interventions in teacher professional development to improve pedagogical methods had the greatest effect on learning achievement,(1)(6)(9) while this finding is contradicted elsewhere.(3)

► One review concludes that basic factors such as functional school infrastructure, greater teacher knowledge, extra tutoring, and a longer school day were linked to improved student learning.(4) Another review draws attention to the effectiveness of less well-known interventions, such as helping parents improve their parenting practices and providing them with more information about the economic returns to schooling and the quality of different schools.(3)

► Several reviews show how certain interventions increase student attendance without necessarily improving learning outcomes,(3)(7) while another reaches the primary conclusion that the most effective interventions combine two or more approaches at once.(8)

What is missing from these literature reviews is the acknowledgement that education planners first need to diagnose the main issues of education quality that they face, before they can draw on the research to design an effective response for their own particular context. The decision tree below answers that need by linking the findings from these nine meta reviews to a series of diagnostic questions. By answering these diagnostic questions, using the example indicators or other relevant data that may be available, education planners can see a set of interventions that are relevant for addressing that particular barrier, and which have proven successful—at least in some contexts.

Selecting Interventions to Improve Student Learning Outcomes: A Decision Tree *

This decision tree assumes that although your education system has already achieved relatively high levels of enrolment, you are now looking for solutions to improve student learning outcomes. Interventions that researchers have highlighted as successful in some contexts (see the list of citations following the decision tree) have been grouped according to the major barriers to learning that different education systems may face. Keep in mind that each potentially successful type of intervention listed here requires many specific design decisions, some of which may be more effective or appropriate than others. The resources in the IIEP Learning Portal Library can help you to learn more about the options for designing and piloting your chosen interventions.

In your context…


  1. Conn, K. (2014). Identifying effective education interventions in Sub-Saharan Africa: A meta- analysis of rigorous impact evaluations. Doctoral Dissertation. Columbia University. New York, NY.
  2. Evans, D. and Popova, A. (2015). What really works to improve learning in developing countries? An analysis of divergent    findings in systematic reviews. World Bank Policy Research Working Paper 7203.
  3. Ganiman, A. and Murnane, R. (2016). Improving Educational Outcomes in Developing Countries: Lessons from Rigorous Impact Evaluations. Review of Educational Research: advance copy published online, February 2, 2016.
  4. Glewwe, P., Hanushek, E. A., Humpage, S. D., & Ravina, R. (2014). School resources and educational outcomes in developing countries: A review of the literature from 1990 to 2010. In P. Glewwe (Ed.), Education Policy in Developing Countries. Chicago, IL and London, UK: University of Chicago Press.
  5. Guerrero, G., Leon, J., Zapata, M., & Cueto, S. (2013). Getting teachers back to the classroom. A systematic review on what works to improve teacher attendance in developing countries. Journal of Development Effectiveness, 5(4), pp. 466-488.
  6. Kremer, M., Brannen, C., & Glennerster, R. (2013). The challenge of education and learning in the developing world. Science340(6130), pp. 297-300.
  7. Krishnaratne, S., White, H., & Carpenter, E. (2013). Quality education for all children? What works in education in developing countries. (Working Paper No. 20). International Initiative for Impact Evaluation (3ie). New Delhi, India.
  8. Masino, S., & Niño-Zarazúa, M. (2015). What works to improve the quality of student learning in developing countries? International Journal of Educational Development: advance copy published online, December 23, 2015.
  9. McEwan, P. (2015). Improving learning in primary schools of developing countries: A meta-analysis of randomized experiments. Review of Educational Research 85(3), pp. 353-394.

Contributed by : Catherine Honeyman