Best Education Practices

"Best education practices" is one of the most important, misunderstood, and misused concepts in education.  I have been working with others in the field for nearly two decades regarding the identification, validation, and dissemination of these practices.

It seems everyone is talking about "best practices" today. The business world has talked about them for decades. From the world of business, a "best business practice" is what the businesses are doing that are in the top five percent of their industry. Classic books on this subject include "The Search for Excellence" and a "Passion for Excellence."

Before we even can focus on implementation of education practices, agreement is needed for what is a “best education practice”.  In the education world, the phrase "best education practice" is used for a variety of activities.  The term is used so often that it has become nearly meaningless.  A Google search for this phrase identifies 358 million web pages.  Adding the word “define” to the previous search phrase only helps slightly; Google identifies 271 million web pages.

I define "Best Education Practices" as the wide range of individual activities, policies, and programmatic approaches to achieving positive changes in student attitudes or academic behaviors. This umbrella term encompasses the following designations that differ on the level of evidence supporting desired student or institutional outcomes: “promising,” “validated,” and “exemplary.

  1. Promising education practice: Contains detailed information describing the education practice with its theoretical basis and how to implement it. Data collection is in process, but has not yet completed rigorous evaluation.

  2. Validated education practice: A promising education practice that has undergone rigorous evaluation documenting positive student outcomes in one education setting. The evaluation design could be experimental or quasi-experimental quantitative, qualitative, or mixed design.

  3. Exemplary education practice: A validated education practice that has been successfully replicated at multiple education settings with similar positive student outcomes. A similar term used to describe this type of practice by federal Department of Education is “scale-up” since the practice has high potential for wide successful implementation.

Whether at the promising, validated, or exemplary level, the practices should contain detailed information to implement it: (a) detailed description; (b) critical elements for implementation; (c) relevant educational theories; (d) essential resources, both personnel and budgeted; and (e) process used to gather impact data for rigorous evaluation of the practice.   

Difference between a best education activity and a best education program.  Within these three levels of practices above, there are different levels of complexity. Some practices are small, discrete activities or policy decisions.  Other practices are programmatic approaches that include a carefully selected bundle of activities or policy decisions.  The following definitions differentiate these levels.

  • Best education practice activities: These activities are behaviors or policies by faculty, staff, and administrators that result in positive changes in student attitudes or academic behaviors. Examples include mandatory assessment of students for proper advisement and placement of students in their classes, training student tutors before they begin their work, active learning activities within the classroom, and classroom assessment techniques to provide nongraded feedback resulting in changed student learning behaviors.

  • Best education practice programs: These programs are composed of a carefully coordinated collection of individual best practice activities. Examples of exemplary education practice programs from the area of academic support include Supplemental Instruction, Peer-led Team Learning, Emerging Scholars Program, and Structured Learning Assistance. For example, theSupplemental Instruction program is composed of many validated best education practice activities such as active learning, classroom assessment techniques, cooperative learning activities, and Universal Instructional Design, just to name a few.

Best Administrative Practices. Best Administrative Practices as the wide range of individual activities, policies, and procedures to achieve positive results that benefit a student, program, or an organization. The practices should contain detailed information to implement it: (a) detailed description; (b) innovation of the practice; (c) critical elements for implementation; (d) relevant research; (e) essential resources, both personnel and budgeted; and (f) claims of effectiveness.  

What difference does it make? It may seem excessive to define precisely. One benefit is confidence the practice will work.  Another benefit is clear communication with policymakers, legislators, the media, and the public.

My current projects related to best education practices

Along with others, I manage a best education practices center cohosted by the University of Minnesota and the Educational Opportunity Association (EOA). Click on this link for the clearinghouse's web site. Much more of my thoughts about best practices is available through that web site I maintain. We post education practices that have been carefully evaluated by an External Expert Panel following a rigorous set of criteria. This Clearinghouse focuses on practices from TRiO and GEAR UP programs. 

Links for more information about this topic:

I would enjoy talking with you concerning your thoughts about best education practices.  Please contact me to begin the conversation.  David Arendale,