Contemporary Educational Psychology/Chapter 8: Instructional Strategies/Major Instructional Strategies

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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 without a framework for organizing them. One such framework is shown in Figure 8-2, which visually classifies thirteen major instructional strategies according to two (somewhat approximate) dimensions. The first dimension is how much an instructional strategy is student-centered as compared to teacher directed. The second is how much a strategy depends on interaction and activity of groups as compared to individuals. The terms in the figure are all discussed in the rest of this chapter, but brief definitions of them are also listed in Table 8-1. As you will see later in this chapter, this two-way classification is not very precise, but it does give a useful overview of the major choices available for planning and carrying out instruction. And as you will also see, the more important of the two dimensions in Figure 8-2 is the first one—the extent to which an instructional strategy is directed by the teacher or initiated by students. We take a closer look at this dimension in the rest of this chapter.

Teacher-Directed Instruction

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As the name implies, teacher-directed instruction is any strategy initiated and guided primarily by the teacher. It includes the classic expository method of lecturing (simply telling or explaining important information to students) and of assigning reading from texts. But teacher-directed instruction also includes strategies that call for more active responses from students, such as encouraging students to relate new information to prior knowledge, or to elaborate on new knowledge. Whatever their precise form, however, teacher-directed instructional methods include a lot of organizing of information on behalf of students, even when they also expect students to do some organizing work of their own. Sometimes teacher-directed methods are therefore thought of as transmitting knowledge from teacher to student—though in ways that are as clear and efficient as possible, and that often also require mental work on the part of the student.

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 (Exley & Dennick, 2004).[1] The problem with lectures and readings, however, is the ambiguity of the responses which they require: listening and reading are by nature quiet and stationary, and do not in themselves indicate whether a student is comprehending, or even attending to the material. Educators often describe the problem by saying that “students are too passive” during lectures or when reading. But passivity can just as easily be attributed to the readings themselves or to the teachers who do the lecturing. Books just sit still, after all, unless someone makes an effort to read them, and a person lecturing may sometimes talk too much without noticing students’ responses (or lack thereof).

Advance Organizers
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But in spite of such problems, there are strategies for making lectures and readings effective. Some of them amount to being especially careful about organizing information for students, while others turn some of the organizational task over to students themselves. An example of the first approach is the use of advance organizers—brief overviews or introductions to new material before the material itself is presented (Ausubel, 1978).[2] Textbook authors (including ourselves) often try deliberately to use periodic advance organizers to introduce new sections or chapters in the text. When part of a lecture, advance organizers are usually created by the teacher herself in the form of brief introductory remarks, or possibly as diagrams illustrating relationships among the key ideas about to be explained (Robinson, et al., 2003).[3] Whatever their form, advance organizers partially organize the material on behalf of the students, so that they know where to put it, so to speak, as they learn it in more detail.

Recalling and Relating Prior Knowledge
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Another strategy for improving teacher-directed instruction is to encourage students to relate the new material to prior familiar knowledge. When one of us first learned a foreign language (in his case French), for example, he often noticed similarities between French and English vocabulary. A French word for picture, for example, was image, spelled exactly as it is in English. The French word for splendid was splendide, spelled almost the same as in English, though not quite. Relating the French vocabulary to English vocabulary helped in learning and remembering the French.

As children and youth become more experienced as students, they tend of their own accord to relate new information to previously learned information more frequently and automatically (Goodwin, 1999; Oakhill, et al., 2005).[4][5] But teachers can also facilitate students’ use of this strategy. When presenting new concepts or ideas, the teacher can relate them to previously learned ideas deliberately and frequently—essentially modeling the memory strategy that students must eventually use for themselves. In a science class, for example, she can say “This is another example of…, which we studied before”; in social studies she can say “Remember what we found out last time about the growth of the railroads? We saw that…”

If students are relatively young or are struggling academically, it helps to remind them explicitly to draw on their prior knowledge. Teachers can periodically ask questions like, “What do you already know about this topic?” or “How will your new knowledge about this topic change what you know already?” Whatever the age or maturity of students, connecting new with prior knowledge is not always easy without help from someone more knowledgeable or expert—usually the teacher. When first learning algorithms for multiplication, for example, students may not spontaneously see how multiplication is related to the addition processes that they probably learned previously. But if a teacher takes time to explain the relationship and to give students time to explore it, then the new skill—multiplication—may be learned more easily.

Elaborating and Extending Information
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Elaborating and extending new information means asking questions about the new material, guessing at ideas that may follow logically from the information given, and thinking of additional, unstated relationships among the new concepts. Such strategies are closely related to the recalling of prior knowledge discussed above: they enrich the new information and connect it to other knowledge. In this sense elaboration and extension make the new learning more meaningful and seem less arbitrary.

Teachers can help students to use elaboration and extension by modeling these behaviors themselves. A teacher can interrupt her own explanation of an idea, for example, by asking how it relates to other ideas, or by speculating about where the new concept or idea may lead. A teacher can also encourage students explicitly to do the same, and even give students questions to guide their elaborations. When giving examples of a concept, for example, a teacher hold back from thinking of all of the examples herself, and instead ask students to think of additional examples. Or when a reading includes descriptions of examples, teachers can instruct students to find or make up additional examples of their own.

Organizing New Information
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There are many ways to organize new information, and some of them are especially well to teacher-directed instruction. A common way is to ask students to outline information read in a text or heard in a lecture. Outlining works especially well when the information is already organized hierarchically to some extent into main topics, each with supporting subtopics or subpoints. Outlining is basically a form of the more general strategy of taking notes, or writing down key ideas and terms from a reading or lecture. Research studies find that the precise style or content of notes is less important that the quantity of notes taken: more detail is usually better than less (Ward & Tatsukawa, 2003).[6] Written notes help both by making a student think about the material while writing it down, and by providing permanent clues that help remind a student about the material later. These benefits are especially helpful when students are relatively inexperienced at learning in general (as in the earlier grade levels), or relatively inexperienced about a specific topic or content in particular. By the same token, of course, such students may need more guidance than usual about what and how to write notes. In elementary school, for example, it can be helpful for the teacher to provide a note-taking guide, like the one shown in Table 8-2.

In learning expository material, another helpful strategy—one that is more visually oriented—is to make concept maps, or diagrams of the connections among concepts or ideas. Figure 8-3 shows concept maps made by two people that graphically depict how a key idea, child development, relates to learning and education. One of the maps was drawn by a classroom teacher and the other by a university professor of psychology. They suggest possible differences in how the two individuals think about children, learning, and children’s development. Not surprisingly, the teacher gave more prominence to practical concerns (for example, classroom learning and child abuse) and the professor gave more prominence to theoretical ones (for example, Erik Erikson and Piaget). The differences suggest that these two individuals may be thinking about somewhat different ideas when they use the same term, child development. Such a difference has the potential to create misunderstanding between them (Seifert, 1999; Super & Harkness, 2003).[7][8] The concept maps also suggest, however, what each person might need to learn in order to achieve better understanding of the other person’s thinking and ideas.

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...)


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  1. Exley, K. & Dennick, R. (2004). Giving a lecture: From presentation to teaching. New York: Routledge-Falmer.
  2. Ausubel, D. (1978). In defense of advance organizers. Review of Educational Research, 48(2), 251-157.
  3. Robinson, D., Corliss, S., Bush, A., Bera, S., & Tomberlin, T. (2003). Optimal presentation of graphic organizers and text. Educational technology research and development, 51(4), 25-41.
  4. Goodwin, L. (1999). Spontaneous comprehension monitoring strategies of college freshmen and college seniors. In B. Palmer (Ed.), College reading: Perspectives and practices. Carrolton, GA: The College Reading Association.
  5. Oakhill, J., Hartt, J., & Samols, D. (2005). Levels of comprehension monitoring in good and poor readers. Reading and Writing, 18(7-9), 657-686.
  6. Ward, N. & Tatsukawa, H. (2003). A tool for taking class notes. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 59(6), 959-981.
  7. Seifert, K. (1999). Reflective thinking and professional development: A primer. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
  8. Super, C. & Harkness, S. (2003). Metaphors of development. Human Development, 46(1), 3-23.