Contemporary Educational Psychology/Chapter 8: Instructional Strategies

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A few years ago one of us (KelvinLeeSeifert) had the privilege of co-teaching with an experienced first-grade teacher, Carolyn Eaton. As part of a research project, Ms. Eaton allowed some of her reading lessons to be observed. Here is what Kelvin saw when she was having a conference with Joey. They are reading a book “together,” except that Ms. Eaton wants Joey to do as much as possible of the reading himself. Joey’s comments capitalized, and Ms. Eaton’s are in lowercase.
OK. [Ms. Eaton begins.] “In the great green room there was a telephone, a red balloon, and a picture of…” Are you going to read, or what?
“In the great green room there was…” Are you ready yet? Ready to read?
“…there was…”
“THERE WAS A…” [pauses, looking at Ms. Eaton rather than at the words]
“…a telephone…”
“and a picture of…”
“AND A PICTURE OF ‘pauses, staring at the wall]…A COW JUMPING?”
“a cow jumping over the moon.”
“OVER MOON.” [smiles from both Joey and Ms. Eaton]
Joey, what does this say? [She points to the word telephone.]
How about here? [She points to next page, which reads “And there were three little bears, sitting on chairs.”]
Can you read the whole book?
OK, then you start this time.
[Joey looks at first page, alternately at the picture and at the words.]
[Actual text: “In the great green room, there was a telephone,”]
[Actual text: “…and a read balloon,”]
[Actual text: “…and a picture of the cow jumping over the moon.”]
[Actual text: “And there were three little bears, sitting on chairs,…”]
Could you read this book with you eyes closed?
Well, not right now; maybe another time. Could you read it without the pictures, just looking at the words? That’s how I do best—when I see the words instead of the pictures.
[Joey pauses to consider this.] MAYBE, BUT NOT QUITE SO WELL.
Let’s try it. [Ms. Eaton proceeds to copy the words on a large sheet for Joey to “read” later.]

As Carolyn Eaton’s experience suggests, there are decisions to make even during the very act of teaching. Ms. Eaton wonders when to challenge Joey, and when to support him—and so will you. She also wonders when to guide Joey to take stock of what he just read, and when to move him on ahead—and you too will wonder when to consolidate a student’s learning, and when to nudge the student forward These are questions about instructional strategies, which are teachers’ decisions or actions meant to facilitate learning, either directly or indirectly. In this chapter we review as many of these as space allows, in order to give a sense of the major instructional options and of their effects. We concentrate especially on two broad categories of instruction, sometimes called direct instruction and student-centered instruction. As we hope that you will agree, each of these approaches to teaching is useful for certain purposes. We begin, though, by looking at what often guides choices among instructional strategies: the ways that teachers would like students to think when engaged in classroom learning. What does it mean for students to think critically (astutely or logically)? Or to think creatively? Or to be skillful problem solvers? Answers to these questions imply choices among instructional strategies, though they do not determine the choices fully.

Forms of Thinking Associated with Classroom Learning

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Although instructional strategies differ in their details, they all function to encourage certain major forms of learning and thinking, each with distinctive educational purposes. The forms sometimes overlap, in the sense that one form of thinking may contribute to a student’s success with another form. To see what we mean, look first at three somewhat complex forms of thinking that are common goals of classroom learning:

  • critical thinking,
  • creative thinking, and
  • problem-solving.

Critical Thinking

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Critical thinking is the mental skill for analyzing the reliability and validity of information, as well as an attitude or disposition to do so. The skill and attitude may be expressed or displayed with regard to a particular subject matter or topic, but in principle it can occur in any realm of knowledge or living (Halpern, 2003; Williams, Oliver, & Stockade, 2004).[1][2] A critical thinker does not necessarily have a negative attitude in the everyday sense of being critical of someone or something. Instead he or she can simply be thought of as astute: the critical thinker asks key questions, evaluates the evidence for ideas accurately, reasons about problems logically and objectively, and expresses ideas and conclusions clearly and precisely. Last (but not least), the critical thinker can apply these habits of mind in more than one realm of life or knowledge, though he or she may not always do so in fact.

With such a broad definition, it is not surprising that educators have nominated a wide variety of specific cognitive skills as contributors to critical thinking. In one study, for example, the researcher found that critical thinking about a published article was stimulated by annotation—writing questions and comments in the margins of the article (Liu, 2006).[3] In this study students who were initially instructed in ways of annotating reading materials. Later, when the students completed additional readings for assignments, it was found that some students in fact used their annotation skills much more than others—some simply underlined passages, for example, with a highlighting pen. When essays written about the readings were later analyzed, the ones written by the annotators were found to be more well-reasoned—more critically astute—than the essays written by the other students.

But the skills comprising critical thinking are not just written ones. In another study, for example, a researcher found that critical thinking can also involve oral discussion with classmates of personal issues or dilemmas (Hawkins, 2006).[4] In this study, students were asked to describe to classmates a recent personal incident that disturbed them. Classmates then discussed the incident together in order to identify the precise reasons why the incident was disturbing to the individual, as well as the assumptions that the student had made in thinking about the incident. The original student—the one who had first told the story—then used the results of the group discussion to frame a topic for a research essay. In one story of a troubling incident, for example, a student told of a time when a store clerk has snubbed or rejected the student during a recent shopping errand. Through discussion, classmates decided that an assumption underlying the student’s disturbance was her suspicion that she had been a victim of racial profiling based on her skin color. The student then used this idea as the basis for a research essay on the topic of “racial profiling in retail stores.” The group discussion thus stimulated critical thinking in the student and the classmates, but it also relied on their prior critical thinking skills at the same time.

Notice that in both of these research studies, as in others like them, what made the thinking “critical” was students’ use of metacognition—strategies for thinking about thinking and for monitoring the success and quality of one’s own thinking. This is a concept that we discussed in Chapter 2 as a feature of constructivist views about learning. There we pointed out that when students acquire experience in building their own knowledge, they also become skilled both at knowing how they learn, and at knowing whether they have learned something well. These two defining qualities of metacognition are part of critical thinking as well. In fostering critical thinking, then, a teacher is really fostering a student’s ability to construct or control his or her own thinking and to avoid being controlled by ideas unreflectively.

How best to teach the skills of critical thinking, however, remains a matter of debate. One issue is whether to infuse critical skills into existing courses or to teach them through separate, free-standing units or courses. The first approach has the potential advantage of demonstrating how critical thinking relates to students’ entire educations. But it does so at the risk of diluting students’ understanding and use of critical thinking simply because critical thinking takes on so in many different forms—its details and appearance varying among courses and teachers. The free-standing approach has the opposite qualities: it stands a better chance of being understood clearly and coherently, but by the same token its connections to other courses, tasks, and activities may not be as clear to students. This is the issue—again—of transfer, discussed earlier in Chapter 2. Unfortunately, research to compare the infusion versus free-standing strategies for teaching critical teaching does not settle the matter; it suggests that either approach can work as long as it is implemented thoroughly and the teachers are committed to the value of critical thinking (Halpern, 2003).[5]

A related issue about teaching critical thinking is about who needs or should learn critical thinking skills the most. Should it in fact be all students? This goal seems the most democratic and therefore appropriate for educators. Surveys of teachers have found, however, that teachers sometimes favor teaching of critical thinking to high-advantage students—the ones who already achieve well, who come from relatively high-income families, or (for high school students) who take courses intended for university entrance (Warburton & Torff, 2005).[6] Presumably the rationale for this bias is that high-advantage students can benefit and/or understand and use critical thinking better than other students. There is little evidence to support this idea, however, even if it were not ethically questionable. The study by Hawkins (2006) described above, for example, achieved good success teaching critical thinking even with students usually considered low-advantage.

Creative thinking

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Creativity is the ability to make something new that is also useful or valued by others (Gardner, 1993). The “something” can be an object (like an essay or painting), a skill (like playing an instrument), or an action (like using a familiar tool in a new way)....(read more...)


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Somewhere between open-ended, creative thinking and the focused learning of content lies problem solving, the analysis and solution of tasks and situations that are somewhat complex or ambiguous and that pose difficulties, inconsistencies, or obstacles of some kind...(read more...)

Major instructional strategies and their relationships

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Because the forms of thinking just described—critical thinking, creativity, and problem solving—are broad and educationally important, it is not surprising that educators have identified a lot of strategies to encourage their development. There are so many possibilities, in fact, that just keeping them all in mind—let alone choosing among them—can be difficult...(read more...)

Lectures and Readings

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Lectures and readings are traditional staples of educators, particularly when teaching older students (including university students!). At their best, they are the good examples of pre-organized information, so that the student only has to remember what was said in the lecture or written in the text in order to begin understanding it...(read more...)

Mastery learning

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This term refers to an instructional approach in which all students learn material to an identical, high level, even if some students require more time than others to do so (Gentile, 2004). In mastery learning the teacher directs learning, though sometimes only in the indirect sense of finding, writing, and orchestrating...(read more...)

Direct instruction

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Sometimes this term serves as a synonym for teacher-directed instruction, but more often direct instruction refers to a relatively scripted version of mastery learning, meaning that it not only organizes the curriculum into small modules or units, but it also dictates how teachers should teach, including...(read more...)

Madeline Hunter’s Effective Teaching Model

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Many teacher-directed strategies have been combined by Madeline Hunter into a single, relatively comprehensive approach that she calls mastery teaching (not to be confused with the related term mastery learning) or the effective teaching model......(read more...)

Student-centered models of learning

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Student-centered models of learning shift some of the responsibility for directing and organizing learning from the teacher to the student. Being student-centered does not mean, however, that a teacher gives up organizational and leadership responsibilities completely. It only means.........(read more...)

Instructional strategies: An abundance of choices

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Looking broadly at this chapter, you can see that choices among instructional strategies are numerous indeed, and that deciding among them depends on the forms of thinking that you want to encourage, the extent to which ideas or skills need to be organized by you to be understood by students, and the extent to which students need to take responsibility for directing their own learning. Although you may have personal preferences among possible instructional strategies, the choice will also be guided by the uniqueness of each situation of teaching—with its particular students, grade-level, content, and purposes. If you need to develop students’ problem solving skills, for example, there are strategies that are especially well suited for this purpose; we described some earlier in this chapter. If you need to organize complex information so that students do not become confused by it, there are effective ways of doing so in the section of this chapter called "Major Instructional Strategies". If you want the students to take as much initiative as possible in organizing their own learning, this too can be done. Yet having this knowledge is still not enough to teach well. What is still needed are ideas or principles for deciding what to teach. In this chapter we have still not addressed an obvious question: How do I find or devise goals for my teaching and for my students’ learning? And assuming that I can determine the goals, where can I find resources that help students to meet them? We turn to these questions in Chapter 9, which about planning instruction.


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  1. Halpern, D. (2003). Thought and knowledge: An introduction to critical thinking. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
  2. Williams, R., Oliver, R., & Stockade, S. (2004). Psychological versus generic critical thinking as predictors and outcome measures in a large undergraduate human development course. Journal of General Education, 53(1), 37-58.
  3. Liu, K. (2006). Annotation as an index to critical writing. Urban Education, 41(2), 192-207.
  4. Hawkins, J. (2006). Accessing multicultural issues through critical thinking, critical inquiry, and the student research process. Urban Education, 41(2), 169-191.
  5. Halpern, D. (2003). Thought and knowledge: An introduction to critical thinking. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
  6. Warburton, E. & Torff, E. (2005). The effect of perceived learner advantages on teachers’ beliefs about critical-thinking activities. Journal of Teacher Education, 56(1), 24-33.