Planning Strategies to Improve Student Learning*
research in cognitive psychology indicates that there are four vital
strategies that teachers can use to organize their instruction to help
improve student learning. These
strategies are listed below, each is followed by examples and some
suggested professional development activities.
One: Space learning over time with review and quizzing.
A key aspect of effective teaching and
learning is helping students retain information over the course of the
school year and beyond. Research has shown that exposing students to key
concepts and facts on at least two occasions, separated by several weeks
to several months, greatly reduces the rate at which information is
forgotten. This is accomplished by re-exposing students to course material
after its introduction and by reviewing material with short quizzes,
review games, targeted homework assignments, and exams.
Two to four weeks
after key material is introduced, consider doing some of the following…
material with a fill in the blank quiz followed by correct-answer
Conduct an oral
review by asking students to respond to your review questions.
Develop a game or
activity for review. Something
like Review Bingo will reinforce learned content.
Re-teach the same
content but from a different point of view.
problems or tasks as part of ongoing homework assignments.
Set up a group
review activity. For
example, have pairs of students develop review flash cards and
subsequently use them to quiz one another.
Meet with a group
of peers and brainstorm for review activities.
Identify three to five different options in each of the following
review categories: Homework; quizzes; teacher-directed review; games.
Two: Alternate worked examples with problem-solving practice.
more when worked examples, or solved problems, are alternated with
problems to be solved. Worked examples can be provided for every other
problem in a homework assignment or teachers can provide worked examples
by thinking aloud with the whole class, assigning a similar problem, then
doing another think aloud, followed by more practice. Students benefit
from this approach, learn effective problem-solving strategies, transfer
these strategies more easily, and, ultimately, solve problems more
demonstrating a solution to a problem and then assigning eight
problems for students to do on their own, a math or science teacher
can achieve better learning by giving students the solutions to four
problems with each followed by a similar type of problem to be
solved by the students. Interweaving examples and problems is the
outlining the entire research process and then having the students
attack it, a history teacher may break the process into demonstrated
steps. For example, the
teacher may explain and demonstrate what a primary source document
is and how it is used in research.
Then immediately send the students to the library to find a
primary source for their research topic.
Teachers who use
the same textbook or learning package can work together to prepare their
own solved or worked problems to use with homework assignments or
Three: Connect abstract and concrete representations of concepts.
abstract ideas with concrete contexts can help students understand
challenging topics and learn to transfer their understanding to new
situations. There are many ways teachers can connect the abstract and the
concrete including using stories, simulations, hands-on activities, visual
representations, and real-world problem solving.
Teaching a new concept in purely abstract terms can make it difficult for
students to fully understand what is being taught. On the other hand,
teaching a new concept in exclusively concrete terms can limit a student's
ability to recognize key concepts or understand how to apply the concepts
when faced with a new problem. Connecting abstract and concrete
representations, and clearly highlighting the similarities and
differences, can help students master the content being taught and develop
better problem-solving strategies.
visualize a concept by showing a picture, chart, diagram or model.
The objective is to represent an abstract idea in a number of
Note: Graphics do not have to be
realistic to be useful. In fact, sometimes an abstract image will
illustrate an idea better than a realistic illustration.
it’s important that teachers draw students’ attention to the
relevant similarities between the visual representation and the
Not every concept needs to be introduced with a concrete
representation or situation. In fact, sometimes teaching in the
abstract from the beginning produces superior results.
2. Help students understand an abstract concept by supporting it with
hands-on activities, experiments, or demonstrations.
3. Help students understand an abstract concept by relating it to
everyday situations. For
example, a civics teacher may connect representational government to
student participation on the student council.
4. Help students deepen their understanding of a concept by having them
create their own relevant diagrams based on the concept under study.
5. Connect the
concept to an activity that the students can do at home and then have
them do it as homework.
6. Have students discuss in groups how the concept under study can apply
to their “real” lives.
Meet with colleagues
who teach some of the same concepts as you do and design visuals,
activities, and other ways to represent the concepts.
develop concrete representations to support textbook concepts that
are not made in the text.
Four: Use higher-order questions to help students build explanations.
subject areas, when teachers ask higher-order questions and provide
opportunities for students to develop deep explanations, learning is
enhanced. Higher-order questions often start with question stems like:
why, what caused, how did it occur, what if, how do they compare, or what
is the evidence? When teachers ask higher-order questions and encourage
explanations, they are helping their students to develop important
critical thinking skills.
There are a number of ways teachers can encourage their students to
develop explanations. During class discussions, homework assignments, or
while reading, teachers can encourage students to explain their thinking
out loud or in writing. Units of study that begin with a provocative
question, or set of questions, will also encourage students to develop
explanations and deepen their understanding of key content.
questions that stimulate reasoning: Why? What may have caused this?
How does this compare to that? Why is this important? Why did this
students debate two sides of a question or issue.
students to speculate about the motivations of individuals or
students to discuss causes and consequences and justifications.
questions that require thought about the relationships between
different events, things, or situations
students to expand their explanations and what they know about a
students to defend a position, examine causes, or present a
students to explain the steps they used to come to their position or
higher-order questions: What happens when…? What causes …? Why
does this make sense? Can
this be justified? What are the similarities/differences? Why is
this important? What
student come up with deeper questions on their own and then share
them with their classmates.
students with puzzling questions, paradoxes, or counter intuitive
statements: “Why are forest
fires sometimes good for the forest?”
students to discuss benefits or negatives about an issue or problem.
current lesson plans and infuse them with deeper-order questions and
material that you teach with colleagues and challenge yourselves to
think deeper about it. Transpose
your discussion into thought questions that you can use with your
a concept or topic that you teach and consider presenting it from a
completely different perspective or point-of-view.
Develop divergent questions from this mental exercise that
will encourage students to think divergently.
with another teacher and design activities to deepen thought about a
given topic or problem.
a current lesson and rework it to be interdisciplinary.
For example, a history teacher can teach an event using art
or music or architecture. Devise
questions or activities that require students to synthesize the