Learning can be challenging for a variety of reasons. Students constantly face conceptual, social, emotional, and mental obstacles that can’t be overcome with all-purpose solutions.
Just as every student is unique, so is every learning situation. Tutors exist to help students work through the conceptual problems that plague them the most; mentors and counselors support students in the more personal and sensitive parts of their lives; and teachers provide instruction in whatever way they believe will be best understood by their students.
Even though current educational trends favor non-directive instruction, where students arrive at conclusions with minimal guidance from instructors, cognitive psychologists have started prescribing a different approach.
According to a group of German psychologists at the University of Freiburg, direct instruction may actually be equally as efficient as non-directive instruction, with one important catch— it must be customized for the learner.
There’s plenty of evidence supporting non-directive learning— It encourages students to think critically on their own, forces them to make decisions for themselves, fosters a genuine curiosity in the unknown and an appreciation for hard-earned knowledge, and cultivates self-reliance and tenacity.
But from what psychologists call a “cognitive-load” perspective, educators who favor non-directive learning are actually depriving students of a significant opportunity to process new material more easily. Because learning relies so heavily on the executive functions of the brain (primarily working memory and attention), direct instruction can relieve students of cognitive overload, allowing them to absorb more information per session.
To be effective, direct instruction should not only provide information, but also customize it. In 2008, German psychologists Wittwer and Renkl of the University of Freiburg published an article in the Educational Psychologist on how to make direct instruction more effective, namely by targeting each particular student’s prior knowledge.
In 2010 the team tested its own theory and published the results in the Journal of Educational Psychology. The theory presents four distinguishing characteristics of effective instructional explanations.
Effective instructional explanations should:
1. Be Adaptive
Every student comes to a classroom with his or her own reserve of prior knowledge on the subject at hand. Psychologists call this level of knowledge a student’s “proximal zone of development.”
It is important for you, as an instructor, to target this zone, and not bore or overwhelm your students, because providing too little or too much explanation can actually prevent them from learning. If you present them with too little explanation, your students may experience cognitive overload because they aren’t familiar enough with the concept at hand; if you present them with too much information, they may suffer from the “expertise reversal effect,” where they overanalyze a concept they already understand but don’t recognize because they think they’ve missed something.
Wittwer and Rinkl tested this phenomenon in 2010. In their article entitled, “Can Tutors Be Supported in Giving Effective Explanations?” students in an abnormal psychology class were tutored either by someone who was aware of their “proximal zone of development” or by someone who was not. When tutors planned their instruction around the student’s prior knowledge, students gained a deeper understanding of the subject and developed fewer false beliefs about newly presented concepts.
From a cognitive perspective, this kind of instruction works because it neither overwhelms the student with new knowledge nor limits his or her cognitive resources with redundant information (expertise reversal effect). It falls right within her zone of proximal development.
2. Focus On Concepts And Principles
One argument for the non-directive approach to instruction is that students develop lasting problem-solving skills that aid them in future situations rather than learning to solve only the problem in front of them.
Consider this example: if a student brings an essay to you for editing, and you find a line that is confusing or unclear, you should not say, “This is unclear” but instead, “What do you mean by this?” in order to help your student arrive at her own answer. This way, she will not only understand why the sentence in that particular essay is unclear, but why sentences like it in future essays might be unclear and how to avoid writing them.
In the same way, instead of lecturing on the difference between communism and socialism, you can stand back and let students create projects or presentations on the topic, forcing them to learn on their own. Independent learning allows students to apply their own unique learning style (visual, verbal, auditory, etc.) and equips them with lasting research and presentation skills.
But this reflects no shortcoming of direct instruction. Direct instruction can equip students with those same problem-solving, researching, and analyzing skills if educators focus on concepts and principles. While many direct methods involve dishing out fact after fact, which can overwhelm any student’s cognitive functions, the most effective direct methods are the ones that guide students through new principles and concepts which help categorize those facts.
If a student has ten new facts to memorize about the French Revolution, the best mental glue you can provide is some sort of organizing schema that facilitates the coordination of self-generated information. The idea is that students will be able to absorb more material per lesson (and retain that material) if they have a mental crutch, so to speak.
3. Take Into Account The Student’s Ongoing Cognitive Activities
As an educator, take note of patterns in your student’s learning process in order to customize your teaching as much as possible.
Is your student a visual learner? An auditory learner? A verbal learner? Does the student outperform others on tests but remain silent throughout class? Does the student have a knack for remembering names and dates but struggle with concepts? Do your student’s eyes glaze over when you lecture on World War II in the past tense but light up when you lecture on it in the present tense? How often does your student raise her hand when you quiz the class on their multiplication tables versus their division tables?
Consider how and what your student enjoys learning, which concepts she’s mastered and which concepts she hasn’t, and where her strengths and weaknesses lie. And, again, consider what knowledge your student brings to the classroom before you design your lesson.
Equally as important, consider what the student has been learning in her other classes. Can you make it easier for her to grasp the French Revolution by cross-referencing A Tale of Two Cities, which she just read for a literature course? Better yet, can you help your entire class analyze March by Geraldine Brooks by asking the History instructor to cover the Civil War in the same week? These are great ways to provide customized, organizing schemata for your students’ ongoing cognitive activities.
In “Why Instructional Explanations Often Do Not Work: A Framework for Understanding Effectiveness of Instructional Explanations,” Wittwer and Rinkl acknowledge that, “from a cognitive-load perspective, it can be argued that self-explanatory activities might be very taxing on the limited working-memory capacity and, therefore, put fairly high demands on the learner.”
In other words, providing direct, individualized instruction helps make the most of a student’s cognitive resources.
4. Not Replace The Student’s Ongoing Cognitive Activities
March can only shed light on the Civil War if it does not contradict or conflict with what a student has already learned (or will learn). If you mention in a lesson that the character of March is based off of Louisa May Alcott’s father, Bronson Alcott, but your students have just learned in their History class that Bronson Alcott was an educator, not a chaplain, there might be some confusion.
This confusion could easily be dispelled by explaining that March was only partially based off of Alcott, mostly for his temperament and personality. But if you don’t know what your students have learned about Alcott, you won’t think it a problem to convey his character as more fully realized in the book than he actually was.
Striking a Balance
Yes, this is an argument for direct instruction, but not for treating students like sponges. There is a limit to how directive instruction should be, even when it is customized. Most truly effective teaching methods strike a balance between directive and non-directive intervention. Neither approach is better than the other; both are valuable for their own reasons.
As an educator, you should always challenge your students to think for themselves. Mental effort is what keeps us all sharp and capable. But when thinking becomes challenging on a more internal, psychological level, don’t be afraid to step in. The first step is to raise awareness: By acknowledging the high demands learning places on cognition, you can frame your instruction in a way that prevents cognitive overload and allows your students to reach their full potential.
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