Failing Our Teachers
In January of 2016, the National Council on Teacher Quality came out with a report that analyzes the effectiveness (or, rather, lack thereof) of educational textbooks and teacher preparation programs. It proceeds to explain how nearly 60% of textbooks don’t mention the 6 most effective teaching strategies as proven by research. Out of the 40% of textbooks that do mention at least one strategy, the majority dedicate only a few sentences to that one strategy.
We are poorly educating our teachers, and then we have the nerve to ask why they aren’t doing enough. Teachers have to use trial and error, or go seek out research for themselves, to come up with great teaching techniques.
Well, teachers, consider this your primer for teaching strategies that actually work.
We are going to cover the 6 proven strategies that you can start integrating in your classroom tomorrow: spacing, interleaving, elaboration, dual coding, concrete examples, and retrieval practice.
In fact, these strategies are so effective, there is an entire website dedicated to them. The project is spearheaded by cognitive psychological scientists, who call themselves The Learning Scientists.
Teaching Strategy #1: Spacing
Long-term retention happens when studying or repetition of information is spaced out over time. If anyone has every heard of the Pomodoro Technique, this is what they are aiming for. Although, in the case of teaching, the spacing should be in days and weeks. Exposing students to material numerous times over longer intervals has a positive impact on their retention. Then, reviewing consistently over time helps to solidify it in their memory.
The Learning Scientists refer to this as “spaced practice”. This is also a good study habit to inculcate into students. Instead of telling students “not to cram,” explain to them that this study strategy has benefits in the long-term by working with their brain, not against it. Taking a short amount of time to study over a few days is more effective than using all of that time at once.
Similarly, reteaching or reviewing concepts over time is more effective than spending the same amount of time on a topic all in one chunk. Obviously, as teachers, we have to completely teach a concept and make sure it is understood. However, most concepts can be broken down and taught over time, giving students time to digest the information and recall it before moving on.
Teaching Strategy #2: Interleaving
Interleaving is most often thought of as varying the topics that you study within a subject. Varying the order that you study the topics and making connections between topics helps to solidify it in your memory and broaden your understanding of the material.
Interleaving can also be used in teaching, not just studying. For instance, the National Council on Teacher Quality suggests using it to teach one topic:
Students learn more, however, when they are given incremental guidance on problem solving. In a type of “interleaving,” problems with written-out solutions should alternate repeatedly with problems that the students will solve. Solved problems help students focus on the underlying principles that apply to each situation, instead of promoting mechanical solution of problems.
NCTQ explains that you can alternate solved problems with unsolved problems, using an interleaving technique to prompt the brain to respond. Interleaving in teaching is a form of demonstrating and reviewing, forcing the brain to understand the principles that are being conveyed, without just spelling it out for students.
Teaching Strategy #3: Elaboration
Elaboration involves asking questions that stimulate connection building and encourage explanations. This is the one strategy that the NCTQ textbook report found most frequently in education textbooks.
This technique does not necessarily focus on student opinion, but rather requires deeper level thinking from students. Even forcing students to ask their own higher level questions, such as “compare and contrast”, “how”, or “why” questions, stimulates learning and supports higher-order thinking skills.
Elaboration can be used when learning a new concept in class and also when studying. This is probably the most widely used of the 6 teaching strategies, considering that it has had the most exposure in teaching programs. Continue incorporating this important teaching strategy into your lessons. Try having students come up with their own questions to answer, as well.
Teaching Strategy #4: Dual Coding
Having students pair words with graphics utilizes the two primary ways that we take in information, in a visual and auditory format. Teaching students to take notes like this–both with words and visual representations–and to explain how the visual represents the words, helps to boost retention and understanding. Yet, presenting material in a dual way when teaching can be even more effective than using this study strategy.
NCTQ suggests using animations, videos, flowcharts, diagrams, and illustrations to demonstrate concepts, not just pictures and drawings. Similarly, the Learning Scientists advise pairing the word with the graphic on the same slide at the same time, reminding us not to get carried away with fancy PowerPoint designs that can actually take away from learning.
Teaching Strategy #5: Concrete Examples
Most teachers know intuitively that teaching abstract concepts through concrete examples work well. You can start by giving your students concrete examples, but then you can encourage students to build their own.
Take a look at differentiated instruction in action. This neuroscientist explains the Connectome to a number of different people. With his younger students, he invokes concrete examples to get a very difficult neuroscientific concept across. For example, when explaining the concept to a five year-old, he compared the amount of cells in our brain to the amount of stars in the sky. He also explained the “synapse” by using the idea of cells “talking” to each other.
Teaching Strategy #6: Retrieval Practice
The NCTQ report reminds us that any time information is asked to be recalled, it is further solidified in our memories. That is why we are continually assessing our students. When paired with feedback on incorrect answers, it can help to boost long-term retention for our students. It is important to have the students recall the information on their own without outside help, in order to accomplish this task.
Retrieval practice does not have to be a formal assessment. You can use flashcards; ask students to write down as many main ideas and connections they can remember. It is important to have the students recall the information on their own without outside help, in order to accomplish this task. After the retrieval practice, students can then check their notes for the correct answers.
Wrapping It Up
In summary, you can watch this short video, put out by The Learning Scientists and Memorize Academy. While this video is geared towards teaching students how to study, you now know how these strategies can and should be used in the classroom.