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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Teaching Opinion

4 Instructional Strategies Teachers Can Count On

By Larry Ferlazzo — May 08, 2024 12 min read
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Today’s post is the latest in a series sharing effective instructional strategies that can be used across content areas.

‘The Spacing Effect’

Neven Holland is a Ph.D. student at the UCLA School of Education and Information Studies, a contributing writer for Edutopia, and has served as a tenured elementary teacher at Treadwell Elementary in the Memphis-Shelby County schools in Tennessee. He is also a 2022 Tennessee state finalist for the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching:

Instructional strategies that improve student outcomes are the heartbeat of any classroom. Knowing when and when not to use specific strategies is part of the craft and precision of teaching. As a mathematics teacher, I have tried the same and different strategies depending on the students in my care each year to maximize their potential to engage with the practices for mathematical standards.

One strategy that stands out is the spacing effect, which applies across multiple content areas and grades. There is a temptation among school leaders, district leaders, education consultants, and other stakeholders to put tremendous amounts of pressure on educators to elevate student achievement and knowledge in a short amount of time.

Understanding spacing has been a hallmark of helping my students remember and understand the content. With spacing, researchers define this as “studying information across two or more sessions that are separated (i.e., spaced apart or distributed) in time.” They found that students remember more and are likely prepared for their final assessment when information is strategically revisited throughout the school year. The Edutopia article “Why Students Forget—and What You Can Do About It” was helpful with additional strategies to support student retention of knowledge.

I can help my students retain and grasp information with proficiency before they enter the next grade. I saw that students could understand more challenging concepts like multidigit division or how to break down multistep word problems when they had multiple opportunities to practice the content and see how it related to other standards and concepts.

Apart from just preparing for an end-of-year assessment, students can take in the content when they do not feel pressure to master something in a couple of days or within a week. Sometimes, educators must ask themselves how many things they have mastered in a few days. I suspect most people will find very few things in their arsenal that they can perform with 100 percent proficiency and accuracy. But we expect that students will somehow be able to do this.

Suppose students struggle to integrate and evaluate literacy content in diverse media and formats, the differences between force and motion, or the American Revolution. Mastery, then, is a marathon, not a sprint. Some students will understand it immediately, but others may need more productive struggle and more opportunities to review the content over the semester, quarter, or year. Just because we taught it in October within our instructional unit, students likely still need a refresher in February, for example, on how this connects to the bigger picture concerning the state standards. Students naturally forget like adults, and relying on the fact that we have already taught it is not enough.

Spacing can also be cleverly executed if a curriculum links prior lessons to the current one, where students can see relationships between the more significant ideas and see how lessons build on each other in complexity. As researchers on the spacing effect found, many curricula do not offer this opportunity for spacing with an embedded review for each lesson, so teachers may need to supplement from previous lessons where they find time during morning meetings, warm-up activities, Do Nows, academic support periods, small groups, or during review days or weeks.

Spacing is one instructional strategy that left me less worried and stressed if students were not grasping the content immediately. Understanding that I may need to space out and revisit some standards periodically gave me hope that genuine, deeper learning is not a microwave process.

onestrategy

‘Speed Dating’

For 16 years, Diana Laufenberg taught grades 7-12 students social studies in Wisconsin, Kansas, Arizona, and Pennsylvania. In 2013, she partnered with Chris Lehmann to start Inquiry Schools, a nonprofit working to create and support student-centered learning environments that are inquiry-driven, project-based, and utilize modern technology. She currently serves as the executive director and lead teacher for Inquiry Schools:

I love the function of speed learning (speed dating knockoff) for a number of reasons. It is incredibly simple, fast, and requires all students to actively participate. Tips for setting up speed dating:

  • It is best to use this strategy when students have something unique to share. This could be the first day of a research project where they are all spitballing ideas for research, it could be mid-project when they are needing feedback. Perhaps each student was required to review a unique current event, and they would share their takeaways or each student identified a particular moment in the text that was evidence of x or that resonated with them or they use it to discuss the solution to a unique math problem, or, or, or. The most important piece is that each student has something unique to share.
  • I often lined up desks or had students sit across from each other at tables. The best situation is a classroom configuration of seats that allows for relatively easy movement.
  • Only one side of the desks or tables is in motion and always in the same direction. One trick is to encourage students to sit next to their friends (not across from), which will then set them up not to actually talk to said friends during the activity.
  • Create a graphic organizer or something that can collect some takeaways for the students. If this is used for project feedback, students could use the rubric to give specific suggestions and feedback for each person.
  • Set a timer. Do not just wing it here. Keeping a nice pace and regular movement is important. I would often have students chat for no more than five minutes (often less) and then shift.
  • Set a limit. Students will do this with a decent amount of intention for about 4-5 switches, then (at least my students) started to lose interest.

I love this as a strategy because it forces each student to engage in 1:1 conversation with a range of classmates. There is nowhere to hide in this activity, but it isn’t “public” so the potential for students to participate is high. I wouldn’t recommend doing this more than once a month (or so) as it can feel overly formulaic if used too frequently.

ilovethefunction

Visuals

Keisha Rembert is a lifelong learner, equity advocate, and award-winning educator. She is the author of The Antiracist English Language Arts Classroom, a doctoral student, and an assistant professor/DEI coordinator for teacher preparation at National Louis University. Prior to entering teacher education, Keisha spent more than 15 years teaching middle school English and U.S. history:

Every lesson, every part of my lessons are tied to visuals. In a highly visual world, I am constantly leveraging and fortifying students’ visual thinking and literacy. I realize that being able to process and understand images is something this generation of students has been doing since birth. While not an easy skill, it is one that is second nature for them, so I am using this skill to connect visuals in all their forms—pictures, art, media, etc.—to concepts as referents and scaffolds for the learning to come. In our classroom, visuals become the frame through which we explore learning.

I have witnessed the transformative impact of visual imagery across various subjects. When teaching writing, visuals serve as powerful prompts, inspiring students’ imagination and helping them generate ideas. In my history class, visuals bring historical events to life, enabling students to empathize with the past and make connections to the present. When paired with complex literary texts, visuals provide contextual cues and enhance comprehension for students who may struggle with language or comprehension difficulties.

Integrating visual imagery and thinking into my lessons makes the content more relatable, accessible, and enjoyable for students. I also find it naturally acts as a bridge for technology integration and for students to bring other texts and connections into the lessons.

Some of my favorite visual-literacy strategies are:

In a world of where YouTube is the second largest search, NFT’s (non-fungible tokens) hold more value than homes, and AI can generate images and tell stories in a matter of seconds, visual thinking cannot be ancillary to learning—it is integral to it. I find that visual-thinking and -literacy strategies lead to more active engagement; innovative, critical, and collaborative thinking; enhance inquiry and communication skills; and enable students to make connections among concepts and the complex visual landscape they encounter daily. Visual thinking not only enhances the learning experience in the classroom but also equips students with vital skills for the future.

ihavewitnessed

Arts Integration

Kelly Mancini Becker, Ed.D., is an educator, researcher, and performing artist, currently teaching preservice teachers at the University of Vermont how to integrate the arts into classroom instruction. She is the author of Learning Through Movement in the K-6 Classroom: Integrating Theater and Dance Across the Curriculum:

In a 6th grade science class, students enter the room and are greeted with a statement on the board: “Do you know that the water you drink today could be the same water that dinosaurs drank 65 million years ago? How might this be?” Then students are tasked with exploring how this could be possible through a creative process. Students are put into groups of five or six, given a visual model of the water cycle with a basic definition of each stage, and provided time and space to create a movement piece that models this process. Students get right to work! Students are fully engaged using their bodies to show, for example, rain and discussing the various ways they can show precipitation. One group is discussing evaporation and after reviewing the definition, decides that they need someone to act as the sun in their model.

In all cases, students are active, discussing ideas, and using scientific terminology as they work through the challenge. After about 10 minutes, students are invited to present their work. As they do, the rest of the students act as observers and are asked to identify what they are seeing, responding to prompts such as: “How does this group show precipitation?” or “What did this group add to their model that was different from the previous group?” As each performance is discussed, it is a chance to repeat terminology, clarify meaning, and engage students in meaningful dialogue about the subject area. This acts to reinforce ideas, acknowledge and celebrate student work, and improve long-term retention. At the end of this process, the initial question is revisited, and students are invited to share their thoughts on how water today could be the same as in prehistoric times.

This is an example of an arts-integrated lesson, a type of instructional strategy that utilizes the arts as a vehicle for learning. It is the best instructional strategy that I use in my classroom and can be applied to any content area. The Kennedy Center, a leader in the field, defines arts integration as “an approach to teaching in which students construct and demonstrate understanding through an art form. Students engage in a creative process which connects an art form and another subject area and meets evolving objectives in both” (kennedy-center.org). Other examples of arts-integrated lessons are creating a song based on the moon cycle, a pioneer musical about Westward Expansion, photo journals about the elements of a story, or a math dance that explores shapes through movement. Why do I think it’s the best instructional strategy?

Because it is:

  • Student-centered: Students get to approach the creative process or challenge in their own way, often focusing on the part of the content that most interests them.
  • Engaging: Students are on their feet and fully active in the learning process, doing and creating rather than listening and consuming information.
  • Fun: Students get to collaborate with their peers and perform.
  • Inclusive: It provides an opportunity for all students to succeed, allowing for varied students to shine because a nontraditional method is being utilized, and students get to bring their whole selves to the learning process.

And it …

  • Increases retention: Students are using a multimodal approach, which is known to improve long-term retention.
  • Improves learning: It makes complex concepts more tangible or understandable, and students have to grapple with concepts not just consume information.
  • Allows for movement: Using theater and dance gives students a chance to move their bodies, which is good for their bodies, minds, and well-being.
  • Results in deeper learning: Students are making things that are real world and relevant, which requires creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills.

If you do not have a lot of experience working with the arts, it may seem daunting to integrate them into lessons. However, once you gain a few key concepts and skills in this practice (i.e., using gestures, creating movement pieces based on key ideas of a subject area, or having students create scripts based on their learning about any given content), you can adapt it to any content area or lesson. The Kennedy Center has lots of resources on their education site.

artsintegration

Thanks to Neven, Diana, Keisha, and Kelly for contributing to today’s post.

Guests answered this question:

What is the best instructional strategy that you have used that can be applied across multiple content areas?

In Part One, Abeer Ramadan-Shinnawi, Donna L. Shrum, Kanako Suwa, and Cindy Garcia shared their answers.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email. And if you missed any of the highlights from the first 12 years of this blog, you can see a categorized list here.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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