In their 2001 cornerstone publication entitled Classroom Instruction that Works: Research-Based Strategies for Increasing Student Achievement, Robert Marzano, Debra Pickering and Jane Pollack penned one of the most thoroughly researched and practical books educators have seen in decades. As I visit classrooms meeting with teachers and with division heads, I regularly hear their keen interest in materials that have direct application to teaching and learning--today. Classroom Instruction that Works offers just that.
To prepare this book, researchers at Midcontinent Research for Education and Learning (McREL) engaged in meta-analysis, making sense of selected research studies on instructional strategies that could be used by teachers in K-12 classrooms. What the writers and researchers offer are nine strategies "that have a high probability of enhancing student achievement for all students in all subject areas at all grade levels." Of course, as the authors point out, no instructional strategy works equally well in all situations. Still, these "essential nine" offer powerful learning tools that have been shown to enhance student learning across many schools, grade levels and contexts.
Before we briefly explore each strategy, it is important to note Marzano, Pickering, and Pollack's dictum:
"Teachers should rely on their knowledge of their students, their subject matter, and their situation to identify the most appropriate instructional strategy."
So, while their meta-analysis points to the effectiveness of these approaches across contexts, the authors never lose track of this fact: countless research studies over time have demonstrated that "the most important factor affecting student learning is the teacher." In short, the essential nine, in the hands of an educator who is skilled not only in instructional strategies but management techniques and curriculum design, offer proven and effective tools for enhancing student learning.
Perhaps what is most impressive about this book is its unique combination of research & theory with classroom practice. Each chapter begins with a brief story revealing the strategy in action, followed by a section headed "Research and Theory" (on the particular strategy) and culminating with a section entitled "Classroom Practice." For those who seek strategies for Monday morning on Friday afternoon, making a beeline for the Classroom Practice section will serve you well--though I would hasten to add Robert Marzano's keen insight, as quoted in the ASCD Community Blog:
"I can think of no strategy that every teacher should use. . .My overarching comment is that. . .research only gets you so far and then teachers' reasoned adaptations must take over. All research is equivocal at least to some extent, and its application to new situations must be discussed and debated."
Again, these nine strategies are potentially powerful and effective tools for teachers who know: their students, their content, their curriculum and their learning environment. Placed in that spirit and context, a brief overview of these nine instructional strategies--along with some handy, interesting and thought-provoking links--appears below.
1. Identifying Similarities and Differences
Students' understanding of and ability to use knowledge are enhanced by:
• Presenting presenting them with explicit guidance in identifying similarities and differences
• Representing similarities and differences in graphic form
Identifying similarities and differences can take multiple forms, including
• Creating metaphors
• Creating analogies
Graphic organizers such as Venn diagrams can complement each of these forms.
2. Summarizing and Notetaking
• To effectively summarize, students must delete some information, substitute some information and keep some information.
• To effectively delete, substitute and keep information, students must analyze the information at a fairly deep level. [Dan Willingham's Why Don't Students Like School? offers keen insights into the workings of memory--and speaks specifically to the kind of deep level analysis Marzano and company are referring to.]
• Being aware of the explicit structure of information is an aid to summarizing it (e.g., knowing that a piece is a research article as opposed to a newspaper opinion piece)
• Providing students with a set of rules for creating a summary enhances their comprehension.
• When summarizing, students benefit from questioning what is unclear, clarifying those questions and then predicting what will happen next in the text.
• Research shows that taking more notes is better than taking fewer notes, though verbatim notetaking is ineffective because it does not allow time to process the information.
• Teachers should provide time for review and revision of notes, as notes can be the best study guide for tests.
3. Reinforcing Effort and Providing Recognition
• Students benefit from understanding the direct connection between effort and achievement.
• Research demonstrates that while not all students realize the importance of effort, they can learn to change their beliefs to emphasize effort. [This resonates with Carol Dweck's work on Growth vs. Fixed Mindsets.]
• Recognition is most effective if it is linked to the achievement of a standard.
• Symbolic recognition works better than tangible rewards. [Dan Pink's recent TED talk and his upcoming book offer some thought-provoking implications for educators when it comes to motivation]
4. Homework and Practice
• The amount of homework assigned to students should be differnt from elementary to middle school to high school.
• Parent involvement in homework should be kept to a minimum.
• The purpose of homework should be identified and articulated.
No truer words were ever written: "Not all homework is the same." And a related point: Practice and Preparation are two common purposes for homework. When homework is assigned for the purpose of practice, it should be structured around content with which students have a high degree of familiarity. Practicing a skill with which a student is unfamiliar is not only inefficient, but might also serve to habituate errors or misconceptions. Hardly a worthwhile endeavor. [ASCD's Rethinking Homework: Best Practices that Support Diverse Needs is well worth a look.]
• If homework is assigned, it should be commented on.
• Establish and communicate a homework policy.
• Design homework assignments that clearly articulate purpose and outcome.
• Teachers should vary their approaches to providing feedback.
• Mastering a skill requires a fair amount of practice.
Note well: "It's not until students have practiced upwards of about 24 times that they reach 80-percent competency."
5. Non-linguistic Representations
• A variety of activities produce non-linguistic representations: creating graphic representations (descriptive patterns, time-sequence patterns, process/cause-effect patterns, episode patterns, generalization/principle patterns, concept patterns), making physical models, generating mental pictures, drawing pictures and pictographs and engaging in kinesthetic activity.
6. Cooperative Learning
• Five defining elements of cooperative learning: positive interdependence, face-to-face promotive interaction, individual and group accountability, interpersonal and small group skills, group processing
• Organizing groups based on ability should be done sparingly.
• Cooperative groups should be kept rather small in size.
• Cooperative learning should be applied consistently and systematically, but not overused.
+ Most effective when applied at least once a week.
+ Misused when tasks given to groups are not well structured.
+ Overused when implemented to such an extent that students have insufficient time to practice independently the skills and processes they must master.
• One way to vary the grouping patterns within a class is to use the three types of cooperative learning groups as identified by Johnson and Johnson: informal, formal and base groups.
7. Setting Objectives and Providing Feedback
• Goal setting is the process of establishing a direction for learning.
• Instructional goals narrow what students focus on.
• Instructional goals should not be too specific.
• Students should be encouraged to personalize the teacher's goals (adapting them to their personal needs and desires).
• Specific but flexible goals
• Feedback: One of the most generalizable strategies a teacher can use is to provide students with feedback to tell them how they are doing.
• Feedback should be corrective in nature: provide students with an explanation of what they are doing that is correct and what they are doing that is not correct.
Note: Simply telling students that their answer is right or wrong has a negative effect on achievement.
• Feedback should be timely.
• Feedback should be specific to a criterion.
• Students can effectively provide some of their own feedback.
8. Generating and Testing Hypotheses
• Research shows that a deductive approach (using a general rule to make a prediction) to this strategy works best.
• Teachers should ask their students to clearly explain their hypotheses and conclusions.
• A variety of structured tasks can be used to guide students through generating and testing hypotheses: Systems analysis, problem solving, historical investigation, invention, experimental inquiry, and decision making.
9. Cues, Questions and Advance Organizers
• Cues, questions and advance organizers should focus on what is important as opposed to what is unusual.
• 'Higher level' questions and advance organizers produce deeper learning than 'lower level' questions and advance organizers.
• Waiting briefly before accepting responses from students has the effect of increasing the depth of students' answers.
• Questions are effective learning tools even when asked before a learning experience.
• Advance organizers are most useful with information that is not well organized.
• There are four kinds of advance organizers: expository, narrative, skimming, and graphic
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