Instructional strategies worth knowing

Observations of classroom practice have demonstrated the power of new teaching methods based on cognitive science research. Preston D. Feden, LaSalle University, Philadelphia, summarizes this new understanding in four points:

1. All learning, except for simple memorization, requires the learner to actively construct meaning.

2. Students’ prior understandings and ideas about a topic exert tremendous influence on what they learn.

3. The teacher’s primary goal must be to generate a change in the way a student looks at and organizes information.

4. Learning in cooperation with others is an important source of motivation, support, modeling and coaching.

Feden reports that although teaching cannot be simplified into a set formula, the following strategies, based on this new understanding, can help teachers prepare and present better lessons to their students.

Focus on core concepts

Key concepts and principles can help organize facts and information into a manageable structure. They help students connect pieces of information and thereby develop a deeper level of understanding. Activities that use concepts to structure information require students to generalize, use analogies, provide supporting evidence and apply concepts to real-life events. Feden gives the following examples of core concepts: text structures and genre in reading and writing; the nature of representative government in history and government; and the decomposability of numbers if arithmetic. He warns that lessons and units of instruction designed around core concepts take more time to develop. In schools that have been successful in developing such curricula, teachers usually work in teams.

Use advance organizers

Statements made at the beginning of class can help students organize the information for the lesson that follows. These statements, usually more general and abstract than the specific lesson content, should help students activate their prior knowledge of the subject and provide an anchor for the information that follows. For example, the general statement that most wars reflect conflict between peoples over ideology, territory or access to trade, gives students a frame of reference for thinking about the material presented in the lesson. It begins the process of organizing facts and also provides opportunities for discussion, comparisons and the search for more information.

Teach pupils strategies for learning

Several powerful techniques for teaching pupils strategies for learning have been demonstrated in research studies. One is elaboration, which asks students to generate new ideas related to the ideas they are learning. Elaboration has been shown to be a much more powerful learning tool than memorization in promoting retention of information. Another technique is imagery. Current research reaffirms what many teachers have suspected – that things we can picture in our minds are generally easier to learn and remember. Images help us to form “chunks” of information which, according to theory, leaves more room in our working memory for additional thoughts.

Allow time for practice

Schools generally devote sufficient time to developing declarative knowledge – knowledge of facts, ideas and concepts – but Feden reports that not enough time is allowed for developing procedural knowledge – how to do things. For example, knowing that a barometer and thermometer are instruments used to predict weather is declarative knowledge; knowing how to read these instruments and interpret the readings is procedural knowledge. Activities that present problems or scenarios for students to analyze help develop procedural knowledge, and they take a significant amount of time to do well. Students learn procedural knowledge best through practice followed by specific feedback on their performance from the teacher.

Use cooperative learning

Cooperative learning is not just another name for group work. It emphasizes mutual interdependence among learners and individual accountability for mastery of information. One popular technique, called Jigsaw, structures a lesson so that each member of a group becomes an expert on a certain part and is responsible for teaching this information to the rest of the group. All share in organizing the information into a final product for presentation to the class.

Use interactive learning

Maintaining students’ attention is essential for learning, but it cannot be assumed that students who listen quietly are actually paying attention to what the teacher says. Studies show that after 15 or 20 minutes, lectures lose their effectiveness for most learners. Student participation helps combat boredom and inattention. After a reading assignment, for example, students can participate as either supporters or critics of the text, or as leaders of the discussion. Student involvement also can be increased by having students generate ideas for further study.

Keep learning styles in mind

Some students need to be given a reason to learn, some need to try things out to see how they work, others crave facts and figures, while some like to go beyond information presented in class and discover more for themselves. Structuring lessons so information can be acquired in a variety of ways meets the needs of a greater range of students.

“About Instruction: Powerful New Strategies Worth Knowing”, Educational Horizons, Volume 73, Number 1, Fall 1994, pp. 18-24.

Published in ERN May/June 1995, Volume 8, Number 3

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