Nine Instructional Strategies That Work

In MSAD #11, it is our goal to help students achieve the skills and inspiration to become life-long learners. We are in pursuit of high quality instruction in our classrooms in order to help all our students achieve their optimum potential. Teaching is not about pouring information into students, but about helping students gain the skills necessary to acquire, understand, and use information, to think critically, and to communicate effectively.
We have recently completed an "Academic Audit" of our educational programming. The audit showed some strong areas, but also some noticeably weak areas where we are not reaching the 21st century student and inspiring them to be life-long learners. We are presently working methodically to develop improvement plans in order to address some of the weak areas that were noticeable in our audit. We are being self-reflective as a school district and working together with the community to provide the strongest educational system that resources will allow.

As we move forward with our school improvement plans, it is important to consider some of the instructional strategies that have been proven to work with the 21st century student. McREL, the Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning, identified nine instructional strategies through research that are most likely to improve student achievement in all areas of learning and at all grade levels. These practices are described in the book, Classroom Instruction That Works. The nine instructional strategies "that work" are identifying similarities and differences, summarizing and note taking, reinforcing effort and providing recognition, homework and practice, nonlinguistic representations, cooperative learning, setting objectives and providing feedback, generating and testing hypotheses, and cues, questions, and advance organizers.
Identifying similarities and differences helps students to make sense out complicated situations. Students should develop the ability to break a concept into its similar and dissimilar characteristics. Doing this allows students to understand complex problems by analyzing them in a more simple way. Teachers either directly present similarities and differences, accompanied by deep discussion and inquiry, or simply ask students to identify similarities and differences on their own. Graphic organizers are a good way to represent similarities and differences. Students may engage in certain applications of this instructional strategy such as using Venn diagrams to compare and classify items or comparing, classifying, and creating metaphors and analogies.
Summarizing and note taking promotes greater comprehension by asking students to analyze a subject to expose what's essential and then put it in their own words. This requires students to substitute, delete, and keep certain things while having an awareness of the basic structure of the information presented. In the classroom, a student may be asked to provide a set of rules for creating a summary, clarify anything that is unclear, or predict what will happen next in the text. More notes are better than fewer notes, though verbatim note taking is ineffective, because it does not allow time to process the information. Students should be given time for review and revision of notes. Notes can be the best study guides for tests.
Reinforcing effort speaks to the attitudes and beliefs of students. Teachers must show the connection between effort and achievement. Not all students realize the importance of effort, but they can learn to change their beliefs to emphasize effort. Applications of this strategy include sharing stories about people who succeeded by not giving up and having students keep a log of their weekly efforts and achievements so they have concrete evidence of their successes. Providing recognition is most effective if it is contingent on the achievement of a certain standard. Symbolic recognition works better than tangible rewards. Find ways to personalize recognition by giving awards for individual accomplishments. "Pause, Prompt, Praise." If a student is struggling, pause to discuss the problem, then prompt with specific suggestions to help her improve. If the student's performance improves as a result, offer praise.
Homework and practice provides students with the opportunity to extend their learning outside the classroom. The amount of homework assigned should vary by grade level and parent involvement should be minimal. Teachers should explain the purpose of homework to both the student and the parent or guardian, and teachers should try to give feedback on all homework assigned. Teachers should establish a homework policy with advice to students such as keeping a consistent schedule and a consistent setting. Tell students why the homework is being assigned such as preparing for a test or reinforcing a certain concept.
Knowledge is stored in two forms: linguistic and visual. Students should use both forms in their learning. Nonlinguistic representations have proven to stimulate and increase brain activity. It is important to incorporate words and images using symbols to represent relationships. Using physical or visual models and physical movement to represent information is also highly effective in helping students to understand and retain information.
Organizing students into cooperative learning groups yields a positive effect on overall learning. Keep groups small and don't overuse this strategy. The approach to cooperative learning should be systematic and consistent. When designing group work, be sure to provide structures and expectations for students including appropriate use of social skills, face-to-face interaction, individual and group accountability, and group processing time.
Setting objectives can provide students with a direction for their learning. Goals should not be too specific and they should be easily adaptable to a student's own objective. For example, set a core goal for a unit, and then encourage students to personalize that goal by identifying areas of interest to them. Prompts like "I want to know" and "I want to know more about . . ." get students thinking about their interests and actively involved in the goal-setting process. Use contracts to outline the specific goals that students must attain and the grade they will receive if they meet those goals. Feedback produces positive results. Teachers can never give too much, but the form feedback takes should be carefully managed. Make sure feedback is corrective in nature by telling students how they did in relation to specific levels of knowledge. Rubrics are a great way to do this. Feedback should be timely and specific and students should have an opportunity to self-reflect and lead feedback sessions with the teacher.
Generating and testing hypotheses, which means using a general rule to make a prediction, is an effective instructional strategy with students. Students should clearly explain their hypotheses and conclusions. For example, ask students to predict what would happen if an aspect of a familiar system, such as transportation, were changed, or ask students to build something using limited resources. These tasks generate questions and hypotheses about what may or may not work.
Cues, questions, and advance organizers help students use what they already know about a topic to enhance further learning. Research shows that these tools should be highly analytical, should focus on what is important, and are most effective when presented BEFORE a learning experience. Vary the style of the advance organizer used: Tell a story, skim a text, or create a graphic image. There are many ways to expose students to information before they "learn" it.