Cover: Teachers' Perceptions of What Makes Instructional Materials Engaging, Appropriately Challenging, and Usable

Teachers' Perceptions of What Makes Instructional Materials Engaging, Appropriately Challenging, and Usable

A Survey and Interview Study

Published Jan 14, 2021

by Elaine Lin Wang, Andrea Prado Tuma, Sy Doan, Daniella Henry, Rebecca Ann Lawrence, Ashley Woo, Julia H. Kaufman

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Research Questions

  1. How do middle and high school ELA and mathematics teachers use instructional materials? Why do they supplement and modify their materials?
  2. To what extent do middle and high school ELA and mathematics teachers perceive that their main materials are engaging and appropriately challenging for students and usable for teachers? What characteristics of instructional materials do teachers associate with these three dimensions? How do they modify materials to improve engagement, appropriateness of the level of challenge, and usability?
  3. How do the school closures and online learning requirements related to the COVID-19 pandemic affect middle and high school ELA and mathematics teachers' perceptions and use of instructional materials?

The authors of this report build on past studies by using survey data from a nationally representative sample to examine how middle and high school English language arts (ELA) and mathematics teachers use and perceive their instructional materials in terms of engagement, challenge, and usability. In addition, the authors use interview data to understand teachers' perceptions about what makes instructional materials engaging, appropriately challenging, and usable. Engagement is the extent to which the instructional materials pique and sustain student interest and attention; appropriately challenging is the extent to which the materials address the academic and learning needs of students; and usable is the extent to which the materials feature components that teachers desire and that are easy to enact or adapt to meet the needs of their students.

Gaining insight into teachers' perceptions of their materials is important because this insight can affect the work of curriculum developers; it can influence state, school district, and other decisionmakers in their materials-adoption processes. Furthermore, teachers' modifications of materials can affect students' opportunities to achieve academic standards. This insight has become even more important during the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic because of instruction moving online and teachers having to adapt their instruction and materials accordingly.

Key Findings

  • In general, teachers in this study did not regard themselves as implementers of curricula but as curators, modifiers, or creators of instructional materials.
  • Teachers' reasons for supplementing and modifying materials suggest that engagement, appropriateness of challenge, and usability are key dimensions that they pay attention to when deciding how to use materials.
  • Teachers using at least one standards-aligned material had less-favorable perceptions of their materials; because of this, teachers, particularly of struggling students, might find that such materials provide an inappropriate level of challenge.
  • Teachers perceived engagement, challenge, and usability as distinct but intertwined dimensions of instructional materials and considered the materials in context-based ways.
  • ELA teachers were more likely than mathematics teachers to find their main materials engaging, but otherwise, ELA and mathematics, middle school, and high school teachers converged in their perceptions of materials.
  • Teachers serving higher proportions of Hispanic students and English learners had some different perceptions of materials compared with teachers serving lower proportions of these subgroups.
  • Teachers adapted how they used materials during the COVID-19–related school closures.


  • Support teachers in effectively supplementing and modifying standards-aligned materials by providing guidance or options.
  • Recognize that materials are not one-size-fits-all; teachers make decisions about materials based on the students they serve.
  • Pay attention to nuances as to what makes effective ELA and mathematics curriculum materials and apply similar criteria when selecting materials for middle and high schools.
  • Reexamine materials and supplement as needed to address diverse students' interests and experiences.
  • Reflect on teachers' challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic to better support selection and availability of materials.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was conducted by RAND Education and Labor and supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. 

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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