Know how to teach your students
Australian Professional Standards for Teachers | Focus Area 3.3: Use teaching strategies
Instruction that is explicit involves fully explaining and effectively demonstrating what students need to learn. This form of instruction accords with what we know about how the human brain works (that is, that learning happens most efficiently when teaching is clear, systematic and does not leave students to construct or discover information without any guidance).
Evidence-based practices for implementing explicit instruction are listed below. Note that some of the examples offered may not apply in all contexts, may be more suitable for primary students than secondary students (and vice versa), and/or may look different in different content areas. Reasonable adjustments must be made where necessary to ensure full access and participation for students with disability.
This guide describes a set of teaching practices that have been found to improve student achievement by making instruction explicit. This guide does not refer to or endorse any pre-scripted models of instruction.
Sequence these tasks so that students can learn step by step.
- Chunk learning into small, manageable tasks. By breaking down the curriculum into smaller tasks, you reduce memory overload. This means students can focus on what needs to be learned now rather than trying to learn everything all at once1.
- Sequence tasks to meet students where they are at in their learning. Take care to ensure that the tasks build on students’ existing knowledge and are neither too easy nor too challenging2. For example, when teaching a geography class about Australia’s neighbours, your students may first need to learn which countries are Australia’s neighbours (so the task is not too challenging), though if your students already know Australia’s neighbours, they could instead learn about some of the characteristics of these countries (so that the task is not too easy).
- Make sure your students master each task before moving onto the next one. You can assess a student’s mastery of a topic by formatively assessing students after each task to see what they have and have not learned.
1 Hughes, Morris, Therrien and Benson, 2017.
2 Sweller, van Merriënboer and Paas, 1998.
As students become more proficient, gradually remove scaffolding to allow for more independent problem solving.
- Begin with a ‘worked example’ that clearly and concisely demonstrates how to complete the task. A worked example shows (or ‘models’) all the steps required to complete a task or solve a problem; for example, a fully solved algebraic equation or a step-by-step guide outlining each component required for an essay. Make sure that every step needed to complete the task is fully explained and clearly shown3.
- Supplement this first worked example with others that gradually introduce different elements of the task or alternative ways of completing it. Ensure that each new worked example presents only one new point at a time.
- Remove scaffolding as students become more proficient in a task. This means removing steps from worked examples and replacing worked examples with independent problem solving as your students become more expert4.
3 Kirschner, Sweller and Clark, 2006.
4 Martin and Evans, 2018.
Students retain knowledge and skills when practice is deliberate and purposeful.
- Make sure your students practise more than once. Provide your students with multiple opportunities to practise their skills and deepen their understanding – this also helps to retain learning in long-term memory, so your students will find it is easy to retrieve it in the future5.
- Get students to use what they have learned when practising. Ask your students questions that require specific answers and then require them to give explanations about how their answers were determined6.
- Actively supervise and interact with your students as they practise. Provide immediate elaboration and explanations as needed7. This does not mean telling your students the answer, but providing prompts and scaffolds as required8.
5 Sweller, van Merriënboer and Paas, 1998.
6 Martin and Evans, 2018.
7 Martin and Evans, 2018.
8 Archer and Hughes, 2011.
Make learning more efficient by reducing memory overload.
- Begin lessons by explaining to your students what they will be learning. Your students should know how each lesson links to prior learning and why it is important for them to learn it9.
- Present all the information required to complete a task together (i.e. in one place and at one time). For example, present a diagram and any necessary explanation in one slide instead of two. This way your students do not have to struggle to ‘hold’ information in their heads while simultaneously learning new information10.
- Remove information that your students already know or is not directly relevant to the task. This will help your students to manage the memory overload of learning something new11.
9 Ellis and Worthington, 1994.
10 Sweller, van Merriënboer and Paas, 1998.
11 Sweller, van Merriënboer and Paas, 1998.
Archer A and Hughes C (2011) ‘Exploring the foundations of explicit instruction’ in Explicit Instruction: Effective and Efficient Teaching, The Guildford Press.
This is a book chapter that draws on the seminal literature on explicit instruction to explore: 1. elements of explicit instruction; 2. the underlying principles of effective instruction; and 3. the research evidence supporting explicit instruction. It also responds to possible concerns about an explicit approach to teaching. It states that explicit instruction is characterised by a series of supports or scaffolds, whereby students are guided through the learning process until independent mastery has been achieved. Guidance through the learning process requires clear statements about the purpose and rationale for learning the new skill, clear explanations and demonstrations of the instructional target, and supported practice with feedback.
A sample chapter is available from the author's website.
Ellis E and Worthington L (1994) ‘Research Synthesis on Effective Teaching Principles and the Design of Quality Tools for Educators’, Technical Report No. 5., National Center To Improve the Tools of Educators.
This monograph presents a synthesis of the literature on empirically supported effective teaching principles, including ‘making instruction explicit’. It finds that the extent to which instruction is made explicit directly impacts both student achievement and independent, self-regulated learning. It finds that: 1. teachers should make explicit to students their goals, objectives, and expectations; 2. teachers should provide lessons that are clear, accurate, and rich in example and demonstration of a particular task; 3. teachers should develop specific instructional routines and make sure the boundaries between the different segments of a lesson are well-defined.
Hughes CA, Morris JR, Therrien WJ and Benson SK (2017) ‘Explicit Instruction: Historical and Contemporary Contexts’, Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 32:140-148.
This paper is a systematic review of 68 papers on explicit instruction published between 2000 and 2016. To be included in the review, each paper had to include a definition of or a list of teaching components describing explicit instruction. The papers could either describe an intervention or focus on explicit instruction as the main topic. The authors analysed these papers to identify the most common components of explicit instruction. This paper identifies five essential components of explicit instruction: 1. segment complex skills; 2. draw student attention to important features of the content through modelling/think-alouds; 3. promote successful engagement by using systematically faded supports/prompts; 4. provide opportunities for students to respond and receive feedback; and 5. create purposeful practice opportunities.
Kirschner P, Sweller, J and Clark R (2006) ‘Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching’, Educational Psychologist, 41(2):75-86.
This paper draws on cognitive load theory to explain how and why guided instruction leads to better learning outcomes for students than unguided instruction. It asserts that guided instruction not only produces more immediate recall of facts than unguided approaches, but also longer-term transfer and problem-solving skills. It finds that worked examples and/or process worksheets are two forms of guided instruction that are of particular benefit, especially for novice leaners.
Martin AJ and Evans P (2018) ‘Load reduction instruction: Exploring a framework that assesses explicit instruction through to independent learning’, Teaching and Teacher Education: An International Journal of Research and Studies, 73(1):203-214.
This paper is an individual study that explores an instructional model (load reduction instruction) intended to manage the cognitive burden on students as they learn. Load reduction instruction (LRI) aims to manage the cognitive burden on students in the initial stages of learning, and then, as fluency and automaticity develop, students are encouraged to engage in guided independent learning. LRI comprises five factors: 1. difficulty reduction, 2. support and scaffolding, 3. practice, 4. feedback, and 5. guided independence. This study examined an instrument (the Load Reduction Instruction Scale, LRIS) aimed at assessing these five factors. The instrument was tested among a sample of Australian high school students from 40 classrooms. The findings supported the validity of the LRIS, the conceptualising underpinning it, and its potential to guide instructional practice.
Sweller J, van Merrienboer J and Paas F (1998) ‘Cognitive Architecture and Instructional Design’, Educational Psychology Review, 10:251–296.
This seminal literature review provides an overview of cognitive load theory – what it is, how it relates to the human brain and the implications of cognitive load theory for instructional design. It finds that: 1. human brains can only process a small amount of new information at once; 2. unguided problem-solving places a heavy burden on working memory and inhibits student learning; 3. students do not learn effectively when their attention is directed to unnecessary or redundant information; and 4. fully guided instruction becomes less effective as students become more expert at a particular skill.
Rosenshine B (1986) ‘Synthesis of research on explicit teaching’, Educational Leadership, 4:60-69.
This seminal paper explores the existing evidence on explicit teaching. The author states that a decade of experiments undertaken in classrooms with regular teachers teaching regular subject matter has consistently shown that when teachers teach more systematically, student achievement improves. Teaching systematically is defined by the author as a pattern of instruction whereby there is a systematic method for presenting material in small steps, there is pausing to check for student understanding, and where teachers elicit active and successful participation from all students. The paper goes on to elaborate on these practices and highlight 6 ‘teaching functions’ that should be employed in the classroom.
Sweller J, van Merriënboer J and Paas F (2019) ‘Cognitive Architecture and Instructional Design: 20 Years Later’. Educational Psychology Review, 31:261–292.
This paper explores cognitive load theory and its relationship with instructional design over the last 20 years. It begins with a short history of cognitive load theory, including the categories of cognitive load and the effects of cognitive load. It then goes on to discuss the major developments in cognitive load theory between 1998 and 2018, including ‘four-component instructional design’ and new methods for measuring the different categories of cognitive load. It concludes by describing five new ‘effects’ that have been identified over the past twenty years and that have direct practical implications for instruction. These new effects are: 1. the self-explanation effect, 2. the imagination effect, 3. the isolated elements effect, 4. the collective working memory effect, and 4. the human movement effect.
Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) – Explicit number fluency
This resource provides examples of ‘chunking and sequencing learning’ and ‘providing practice opportunities’.
This video is an illustration of practice that shows a teacher in a Victorian primary school implementing a whole-school policy to improve explicit number fluency in his students. The video demonstrates how to develop students’ knowledge of number sequence and skills in counting from any starting point. The teacher sets aside five to ten minutes of time at the beginning of every mathematics lesson for students to practice counting. He then invites individual students to use the interactive whiteboard to set the starter counter from which students will count in unison by ‘twos’.
Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) – Explicit numeracy experiences
This resource provides examples of ‘breaking down complex skills and knowledge’ and ‘sequencing tasks’.
This video shows a Victorian teacher in her first year of teaching, designing and implementing explicit learning experiences for her culturally diverse Year 3/4 class. She selects and uses content and resources for her numeracy lessons that are appropriate to the strengths and needs of individual students from diverse backgrounds. In the illustration, she develops teaching activities to assist students to understand the mathematical concepts of whole numbers, fractions and decimals. She uses a literacy approach to support these numeracy activities.
Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) – Explicit instruction
This resource provides examples of ‘worked examples’ and ‘removing scaffolding’.
This video is an illustration of practice that shows a teacher demonstrating the 'I do, we do, you do' strategy in a primary school in Torres Strait. The teacher emphasises the importance of providing students with purposeful and understandable feedback to support achievement. He also demonstrates use of an online resource to differentiate teaching to meet individual student strengths and needs.
Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) – Explicit language teaching
This resource provides examples of ‘chunking and sequencing learning’.
This video shows a teacher in her second year of teaching, using individual learning plans to cater for students in her Year 1 classroom in a purpose built ‘language development school’ in Western Australia. She uses a lesson on 'What is happening in the story?' to explicitly teach comprehension, chronological understanding, phonological awareness and pragmatics. The teacher uses differentiated teaching and personal feedback to reinforce learning and behaviour to students.
Keywords: practice implementation