3 questions you must ask before teaching anything

Teachers are quick to adopt new instructional techniques to help students learn. There are hundreds from which to choose.

How many of the strategies, however, are research-based? How can you tell?

You can use a filter when considering which new strategies you’d like to try in your classroom. The book How People Learn (1999) remains the definitive work on learning and how we should teach our students.

Learning is cognitive science.

Like any science, learning has its own domain-specific knowledge. When you incorporate relevant research into instructional practice, students are more likely to learn better, understand deeply, and develop long-term memory.

When picking out instructional strategies, ask yourself these three questions. Each is based on scientific principle.

How does this strategy activate prior knowledge?

The first requirement for learning is background knowledge.

All new learning comes about through connection. A student’s level of background knowledge determines how well he or she will be able to learn new content. Students with limited background knowledge may feel overwhelmed during a lesson. As a result, they may feel anxious about catching up, or they could shut down entirely.

Every teacher has the responsibility for assessing their students’ prior knowledge. There are several ways to activate prior knowledge, such as taking a quick inventory, engaging your students in a KWL activity, or developing a concept map.

If you discover that your students do not have the necessary background knowledge, you can help them fill in any gaps.

What kind of feedback can I provide?

Any instructional strategy you choose must allow for ongoing and specific feedback.

Students develop critical thinking skills for solving complex problems when they receive evaluations focused on the learning task. Continual, clear, and specific feedback gives students the information they need to make corrections.

The idea is to let students know that they are on target for meeting learning goals. To keep students progressing, you’ll need to make sure your feedback is timely, individualized, and sensitive to student need.

Avoid giving feedback based on performance. Instead, place the focus on improving the task.

How will students be able to apply what they’ve learned?

Novel situations require an understanding of a problem’s structure and content. Critical thinking skills like analysis and synthesis can’t take place unless a learner has accrued extensive subject knowledge. Students who are unable to make strong analytical connections might not have the background knowledge they need.

You’re giving your students with the foundation they need for successful learning by building their background knowledge and providing effective feedback. Now students are ready to apply what they’ve learned to new situations.

By using these three questions as a filter before teaching anything, you can be sure that you are basing your instruction on the cognitive science of learning. That helps your students, and when we all work from the same research-based body of knowledge, we elevate the teaching profession.

Whether you are a new or experienced teacher, you can read more about research-based practices for instruction in The Science of Learning, produced by Deans for Impact.

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