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Ask a teacher what’s the most important question they need to answer every day and they will tell you it’s, “How will my students learn?” This is the essence of the teaching and learning progression and the core question for the Learning Process. Instruction begins with understanding that different methodologies can be employed to deliver information to students. Because there is such a variety in the content and skills students need to learn, delivery can fall anywhere on the continuum from structured to open-ended. While the decision regarding the delivery method is the teacher’s to make, it cannot be made without a clear understanding of the learner.

So, how do you select the most effective instructional strategy? Keep reading.

The Key to Selecting the Right Strategy

In order to answer the question “How will my students learn it?” you must decide, for each and every lesson, which instructional strategy best addresses the content or skill of the learning outcome and demonstration, the needs of your students, the various learning styles in the classroom, and the sequence in which the learning falls (in the lesson, unit, or course).

First, you must be clear about what it is the students need to learn. We call this the Learning Outcome. Then, you must be clear about how your students will show that they have learned it. We call this the Learning Demonstration.

Now, it’s time to consider that given this learning outcome and demonstration and given your students’ needs, how will they best learn? We call this the Learning Process. In other words, you must determine which instructional strategy will effectively support your students in learning the target skill and enable them to show that they have learned it at the end of the lesson.

To be clear, instructional strategies are all of the approaches a teacher may employ to engage their students in learning. And, there are a lot to choose from. The key is to always take into account both the skill to be learned and the students learning the skill.

In choosing the right strategy, ask yourself these focused planning questions:

  • What skill will my students learn, and how will they demonstrate they have learned it?
  • How will I select an instructional strategy that will build toward mastery of the learning outcome?
  • How will I select an instructional strategy that is appropriate for my students?
  • How does the instructional strategy require a high level of active participation?
  • How will I share this information with my students?

When you do this, you will ensure that each and every one of your students is supported by opportunities for meaningful engagement using effective instructional strategies.

How Other Teachers Determine Strategies

How do teachers use these focused planning questions to support their students with effective instructional strategies? Here’s what they told us…

A sixth-grade language arts teacher told us:

“I love going to professional development on instructional strategies—the more ideas I have, the better. I used to learn something new, and then I’d come back to class and use it until I got tired of it. However, I didn’t spend as much time thinking about the learning outcome of the lesson or the needs of my students. I thought everything had to do with instruction. I now realize that while instruction is key, I can’t make an effective decision about which strategy to use until I have determined the skill to be learned in the lesson and the outcome that shows mastery. Once I have decided these, I can then figure out the best method for my students to learn that skill and produce that outcome.”

A high school mathematics teacher told us:

“We learn a lot of procedures in our classes. I found that many of my students were just following the steps but not thinking about the math or their learning. This led to students who would encounter a challenging problem and immediately give up and say, ‘I don’t know how to do this one.’ I knew I had to do a better job building their metacognition. We began to talk out loud as we solved problems. We would say what we already knew about the problem, what patterns we saw from previous problems, what the problem asked for, and what would be our first approach and why. We questioned one another and made our thinking visible. Talking about our thinking publicly helped my students understand the strategies they were employing and the decisions behind them. Not only has their math improved, but, equally important, their confidence has also improved.”

A first-grade teacher told us:

“I tend to use direct instruction when my students are learning their basic decoding skills. Once they are able to decode but need to practice their comprehension, I tend to use close reading strategies. I use whichever strategy makes the most sense for the skill to be learned.”

A fifth-grade science teacher told us:

“I love teaching science and always have done a lot of experiments with my students. When I learned more about the new science standards, I realized I couldn’t just have my students observe experiments if I wanted them to meet the standards. I needed my students to actively seek solutions, design investigations, and ask new questions. I needed to understand and utilize the method of inquiry. I also needed to be sure my students understood the difference and why it would help them. They were now going to have to think more like scientists and problem solve, use a variety of tools, collect and analyze information, synthesize information, and so on. I had to shift my strategies from what I have always done to what would help my students meet the standards.”

A high school psychology teacher told us

“For me, instruction is all about metacognition. I want my students to understand how they learn, what helps them and why, and what seems to hinder them and why. I also want them to determine ways to utilize these strategies in a variety of educational settings. I have my students reflect on their learning and learning strategies every day.”

What Students Are Saying About Instruction

What are students saying when they know how they will learn?

A third-grader told us:

“When we are learning how to do something new in math, my teacher always shows us what it looks like first. We then do it together as an entire class. She has us work in pairs to practice even more. Finally, she has us try it on our own to see if we have learned it for ourselves. If not, she gives us more time to practice. This way of learning helps me, especially in math when I have to learn steps.”

A middle school student told us:

“My teacher tells us each day our plan for learning. She lets us know why she chose what she chose. I can usually see why it makes sense. When we are learning something new, she does a lot of modeling and explaining. When we are practicing something, we usually do it with a partner so we can talk about what we are doing and how it is going. One day our teacher told us we were going to work in groups to read the next chapters. Some of us asked if we could read them on our own and had to tell her why. She let us because she said we understood how we learned best. I understand better now how I need to do things differently sometimes in order to get to the end goal.”

One Last Reminder

Madeline Hunter said it best that “teaching is now defined as a constant stream of professional decisions made before, during, and after interactions with students; decisions which, when implemented, increase the probability of learning.” And, we know you have to make a lot of decisions. But, remember, the best way to increase your students’ probability of learning is by intentionally planning and selecting the instructional strategy, always considering both the skill to be learned and the students learning the skill.

The Learning Brief

In this article you learned…
  • The key to an effective lesson is selecting an instructional strategy based on the skill to be learned and the students learning the skill.
  • How to use focused planning questions to ensure that each and every one of your students is supported by opportunities for meaningful engagement using effective instructional strategies.
  • How other teachers are selecting and using instructional strategies based on the learning outcome and their students’ needs.
Reading Time: 7 minutes

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