Explicit instruction involves breaking down what students need to learn into smaller learning outcomes and modelling each step so that students can see what is expected of them. Providing explicit instruction limits the mental effort for students allowing them to process new information more effectively.
Why explicit instruction works
Understanding the science behind learning and memory can help teachers understand why explicit instruction is so effective. Explicit instruction is a very efficient strategy for helping students learn because it suits how the brain processes, stores, and retrieves information.
Long-term memory is the system that handles persistent memories of experiences and ideas. Long-term memory is a network of overlapping information with many rich connections. There does not seem to be any limit to the amount or complexity of information that can be stored in long-term memory. Forgetting has more to do with accessing memories than having enough space for them.
In the image below, think of the circles as ideas, and the connections in each colour as one of the overlapping memories, made up of several ideas.
Long-term memories are relatively stable and tend to come out the same way they went in, meaning that it can be difficult to adapt existing information to new situations. With time and repeat use, information in long-term memory can change, becoming generalised or less dependent on a specific context. Information can also be lost over time or changed by interference from other memories (particularly those which overlap).
Memories of experiences, which are heavily tied to a context, are known as episodic memories. Semantic memory, on the other hand, is the store of general or concept knowledge, which is less specifically tied to a single context. Procedural knowledge is another form which memory can take, containing knowledge of how to perform various tasks and skills at conscious and unconscious levels. For example, not all the knowledge required to ride a bike is something that you could easily put into words – some of that information is unconscious or ‘implicit’.
Working memory is a fast and flexible system which we use to represent and manipulate information. Unlike long-term memory, working memory is strictly limited in capacity and is not a persistent store, so information must be moved to long-term memory for lasting storage.
Working memory can be thought of as using 'chunks' of varying amounts to represent information. In general, the more parts and ideas that are involved, the more chunks will be required. For instance, learning about 'mammals' might initially require separate chunks for their features: animals with hair, spines, and that produce milk.
However, previously learned information from long-term memory can be heavily condensed as a single chunk. Once children are familiar with the concept of a 'mammal' it can be represented as a single chunk, using the idea from long-term memory which contains multiple associated facts. There is debate over the number of chunks that working memory can handle, but it can clearly be overloaded and so managing the burden can improve learning.
An example of working memory
When you first meet someone, you use working memory to store the new name and face, but because this space is limited, it is hard to learn a lot of new names and faces at once. On the other hand, when you know all the students in your class, their names and faces are already in long-term memory, and you can easily recall all that information.
Types of memory
In this diagram each circle is a ‘chunk’ of information. In this example, one ‘chunk’ in the working memory is a complex concept from long-term memory made up of multiple connected pieces of information, and others are new information.
Working memory is what we use to learn new ideas and manipulate information. Working memory has limited capacity.
When we are required to manage a lot of new information, we can run out of space in our working memory. The scientific term for this is cognitive overload. If you are cognitively overloaded, learning can suffer, and it can be harder to move information to long-term memory.
Example of preventing cognitive overload
A student might initially need nearly all their working memory (several chunks) to represent the idea of an atom, leaving no further room to learn about related topics like an atom’s structure or properties. However, when the idea of an atom is learned and accessed from long-term memory, that complex idea will only take up one chunk, leaving the rest of working memory free to build on that knowledge.
Preventing cognitive overload diagram
Presenting new information gradually so students can store and then retrieve information from long-term memory is one of the ways teachers can reduce the burden on working memory and make learning more effective.
Explicit instruction is effective across a variety of contexts
To understand whether explicit instruction is effective across different contexts, AERO conducted a review of more than 328 studies. The review found that explicit instruction is an effective teaching practice across a variety of contexts and for different subgroups of students. Studies conducted across various locations suggest that explicit instruction:
- has a positive impact on student achievement in mathematics, reading, spelling, problem solving and science
- works for primary and secondary students
- benefits students with and without additional learning needs.
Because of this, explicit instruction is likely to work in most contexts.
Using the practice
To be effective, explicit instruction needs to be implemented well. See below for more information on the ‘things to know’ when using the practice.
Planning for explicit instruction
Archer and Hughes (2011) provide a useful planning guide with their 6 teaching functions of explicit instruction. By cycling through this planning process, you can deliberately embed explicit instruction in your lesson processes.
To plan explicit instruction activities and supports as referenced by Archer and Hughes, it may also be helpful to work backwards from where you want your students to be at the end of the learning session to see how you can slowly remove scaffolds and supports to enable student mastery.
Snapshots of practice
Explicit instruction may look different in different contexts. See below examples of explicit instruction in a variety of classrooms and settings.
Here you will find tools to help you implement explicit instruction in your classroom or setting.