38 7.2 Instructional Strategies

Direct Instruction

In general usage, the term direct instruction refers to (1) instructional approaches that are structured, sequenced, and led by teachers, and/or (2) the presentation of academic content to students by teachers, such as in a lecture or demonstration. In other words, teachers are “directing” the instructional process, or instruction is being “directed” at students.

The basic techniques of direct instruction extend beyond lecturing, presenting, or demonstrating, but many are considered to be foundational to effective teaching. For example:

  • Establishing learning objectives for lessons, activities, and projects, and then making sure that students understand the goals.
  • Purposefully organizing and sequencing a series of lessons, projects, and assignments that move students toward understanding and achieving specific academic goals.
  • Reviewing instructions for an activity or modeling a process—such as a scientific experiment—so that students know what they are expected to do.
  • Providing students with clear explanations, descriptions, and illustrations of the knowledge and skills being taught.
  • Asking questions to make sure of student understanding after a lesson.

As seen in Figure Two, teachers rarely use either direct instruction or some other teaching approach—in practice, diverse strategies are frequently blended. For these reasons, negative perceptions of direct instruction likely result more from a widespread overreliance on the approach and from the tendency to view it as an either/or option rather than from its inherent value to the instructional process (Carnine, Silbert, Kameenui, & Tarver, 1997).

Introduction/ Review Set the stage for learning Development Model the expected outcomes by providing clear explanations and examples Guided Practice Monitor and engage pupils with assigned learning tasks Closure Bring the lesson to a conclusion by highlighting what was covered Independent Practice Provide Learning tasks that are independent of teacher assistance Evaluation Assess pupil progress

Drill and Practice

The drill and practice instructional strategy refers to small tasks, such as memorizing spelling and vocabulary words or practicing the multiplication tables repeatedly.  As students, drill and practice instruction was probably a familiar memory throughout your schooling.  It is used primarily for students to master fundamental materials through repetition. Today’s educational standards, drill and practice are considered outdated and often deemed ineffective as an instructional strategy.  According to Jill Sunday Bartoli, “Having to spend long periods of time on repetitive tasks is a sign that learning is not taking place — that this is not a productive learning situation.” (Bartoli, 1989, p. 292)  


Megan Schreder talks to her fifth-grade classroom.

Lecture is a convenient instructional strategy. Material can be delivered efficiently since there are no interruptions from students. Lecture still allows the teacher to relate the new material to other topics, define and explain key terms, and relate the material to students’ interests.

Lecture is an instructional strategy that places students in a passive role. Essentially the lecturer is the expert, and the students are having knowledge poured into their brains. The material and presentation are solely the intellectual product of the teacher. Students sit silently at desks that face the lecturer.

Often lecture topics are not remembered well because retrieval pathways to memory have not been established by students actively participating in the instruction. Students have not taken the presented material and created their own interpreted meaning. The lecturer usually does not know if students understand the topic because there is no students’ feedback (Lujan, H. & DiCarlo, S, 2006).

Question and Answer

Megan Schreder asks her students questions during a Q&A session with her class.

The question and answer technique allows the application of knowledge by students and offers a more reflective response.  By asking questions, teachers invite brief responses from students, incorporating their prior knowledge and interpretation of that knowledge. This allows indications of whether students were listening and understand the material being presented.  Questions serve to motivate students to listen and assess how much and how well they know the material. Incorporating this instructional approach allows both the teacher to ask students questions and ask the teacher questions, fostering a better understanding of thlesson (Paul & Elder, 2007).  


In this instructional strategy, the teacher’s role shifts to leading an exchange of ideas about a specific topic. The teacher is no longer the sole provider of the content as students gain a voice for their ideas and the research they have conducted. At times, the teacher may assign students individual concepts they have to speak about during the discussion. Some control of what course the discussion takes devolves to students. The teacher might not discuss all of the content planned for the lesson. In fact, after reflecting on the day’s discussion, a teacher might have to begin the next day’s discussion on important content that had been overlooked or squeezed out of the lesson.

Teachers need to develop strategies so that the voices of all students are heard. Also, for effective class discussions, students need to listen to what their classmates say, so the points made during the dialogue allow students to make sense of the new ideas. As the discussion occurs, teachers should take time for the teacher or, better yet, a student to summarize the important points (Brookfield & Preskill, 2012).

Mental modeling

When a person perceives how something works in the real world and then formalizes that thought process, a mental model is created. Mental modeling is a student-centered pedagogical strategy that helps students to solve problems or make decisions. For example, a mathematics teacher verbally modeling the thought process she uses while solving a problem in front of the class uses mental modeling. When teachers model the process of thinking or doing, mental modeling strategy becomes clearer to students. Students may then explain their own mental models to learn the strategy and improve their use of it.

Mental modeling often starts with a question, for example: why does lake effect snow occur? “What if” questions are also good starting points, for example: What if gravity ceased entirely? Teachers and students engaged in mental modeling strategies include observation, asking questions, location, and information analysis. The level of cognitive load in mental modeling is high, making it a strategy that teachers should employ often.

Teachers are encouraged to help students select the right mental model and select relevant information to develop their model. Teachers should create or find problems, case studies, lab activities, and projects at the appropriate grade level for their students. Students can have the success needed to possess the appropriate background knowledge and supports to develop an accurate mental model. Often students encounter more success when they focus on the process instead of the outcome (Hestenes, D, 2010).


When students investigate a question about a particular topic, they are using inquiry or inquiry-based learning. When teachers use inquiry-based learning, students or teachers may identify questions; however, questions posed should be open-ended in any case. Inquiry learning may be experienced individually, but it is beneficial when students work with other students. Differing perspectives and varied resources are important to inquiry-based projects.

Responding to questions such as “Why is the sky blue?” demands high-order thinking skills from both the student and the teacher. Allowing students to explore a broad topic and choose questions they are invested in creates the best environment for successful inquiry-based projects. Students benefit from learning and negotiating through group investigation to answer a question.

Teachers who wish to engage in inquiry-based learning set the stage for this process in three ways:

  1. Assess students to determine their knowledge of the topic, and lay the groundwork when that knowledge does not exist.
  2. Match the scope of the inquiry question to the learning level of students.
  3. Provide resources and/or provide internet search strategies for locating credible resources that will inform the inquiry.

The teacher’s role in inquiry-based learning is one of mentor and advisor. Students may struggle through problems; however, if the struggle occurs at a level that students may be successful, this struggle is worthwhile. The teacher’s most difficult role, in this case, is to resist answering questions that would inform the inquiry and therefore negate the process for the student!

Inquiry-based learning requires time and patience; however, this teaching strategy lays the groundwork for real-world learning in which students will engage throughout their lives (Sharples, Collins, Feißt, Gaved, Mulholland, Paxton, & Wright, 2011).

Discovery Learning

“Discovery learning is a type of learning where learners construct their own knowledge by experimenting with a domain and inferring rules from the results of these experiments” (Van Joolingen, 2000, p.385).

In today’s educational realm, discovery learning is also called problem-based learning or experiential learning. Students participate through a hands-on approach, and learning is interactive. Through discovery learning, students are encouraged to explore with little guidance from the instructor. Discovery learning is based on Piaget’s beliefs (Ültanır, 2012), in which students are provided with a topic. From that point, students choose how they will learn, discover new information, synthesize the information and do so without correction from the teacher. The teacher gives the student feedback, as do the other class members, once the project is complete.

Teachers must create specific goals and guide students through discovery learning using pre-determined structures, for example, group work, fieldwork, or interaction with others. Unless this is the case, students may have too much freedom resulting in a lack of rigor within the method. However, Mayer (2004) states, “In many ways, guided discovery appears to offer the best method for promoting constructivist learning. The challenge of teaching by guided discovery is to know how much and what kind of guidance to provide and to know how to specify the desired outcome of learning.” (p.14)

Group work

Students are assigned one or more partners to collaborate on ideas in a strategy like think-pair-share or problem-solving in group work. Before students begin working, the teacher explains the objectives, expectations, and details of the activity or project. This explanation is meant to ensure all group members understand the goal of the group. As the group works together, it is expected that all members teach and learn from each other. At the end of the group activity, the teacher may debrief groups or provide a grade on a group artifact.

Students often need to be oriented on how to work effectively with their peers. Listening to group members’ ideas and not attaching self-worth to proposed ideas go a long way toward reaching the activity’s goals. Compromise is a skill that requires practice to be effective.

When engaging students in group work, teachers should circulate to monitor their progress toward accomplishing the lesson’s objectives. Asking groups what they are discussing and why it is important to the topic helps reinforce the idea that the group activity is educational. As teachers see group behavior that is not on-task, the teacher should not hesitate to address it. This reinforces to all groups that students are individually accountable for their behavior in the group. They are not “lost in a crowd.” (Blatchford, Kutnick, Baines, & Galton, 2003).


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Introduction to Education by Shannon M. Delgado and Sarah Mark is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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