Effective Instructional Strategies for Student Centered Learning

Updated: Jul 28, 2021


teacher reminds himself to be creative in designing effective instructional strategies for student centered learning

In my little tour through the text, Visible Learning: What Works Best to Optimize Student Learning, I’m highlighting, today, the effectiveness of various instructional strategies. This is something John Hattie and the authors refer to as “effect size”.


Part of what originally attracted me to this text was the proclamation the authors make early: “a lot of things work”.


I was so encouraged by that because, more often than not, I felt like I wasn’t accomplishing my goals as a teacher despite the heart and soul I was putting into my work. At the time, it felt to me that our school’s expectations of teacher performance could be likened to a broken compass; true north was always in a different place. So, to know that most things I was doing were making a difference … I needed someone to tell me that at the time. I’ll always be grateful to these authors for it. 🙏


The text goes on to clarify that while “a lot of things work”, only some instructional strategies actually increase the likelihood students will learn a years’ worth of content and experience a years’ worth of thinking skills in a year’s worth of school time. Our instructional decisions can have big influences on our students’ learning or they can have small influences. This is something we probably all take for granted. But, did you ever consider that the way you choose to present content could have a negative influence on their learning?!


The numerical, data-driven aspect of determining the effectiveness of various instructional strategies is presented in the Visible Learning text as “effect size”. The authors define effect size as “the magnitude, or size, of a given effect”, “helping [teachers] understand the impact in more measurable terms”. They also refer to this data as a “return on investment for a particular approach”. Through his 1400 meta-analyses of 80,000 studies and 300 million students, Hattie determined that an effect size equal to 0.40 represents one year worth of learning. So, instructional strategies we employ in the classroom that are greater than 0.40 produce even greater learning gains, and those that are less than 0.40 have much less impact.


When I learned this, it had a major impact on me. I had always aspired to be a teacher that provided the opportunity for students to be challenged.


Growing up in school myself, I was drawn to these teachers … they were my favorite! Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed the teacher who played Pink Floyd’s album, The Wall, loudly between classes and took on various silly personas to keep the energy up throughout class. I also loved the teachers who smiled ear-to-ear, the ones you could count on to bring you joy each and every day. But I wanted to do my very best in those classes led by teachers who meant business. They were nice, too, but they didn’t smile very often – looking back, I’d liken them to many college basketball coaches you might see on the sidelines of a game …. when they aren’t yelling, they are watching intently, sooooo serious. They NEVER look like the cheerleaders or the excited fans no matter how much of a lead their team has! They don’t give off that uber-positive-everything-is-rosy vibe. Instead, they look like even if the team wins, they’re probably going get a lengthy lecture about everything they did wrong!!! 🤬


Being naturally drawn to this type of provocation as a student, I think I’ve naturally gravitated to that style in my own approach as I have planned out my instruction and visualized the type of teacher I’d be. But, my first and only teaching experience has been in the virtual classroom. As you may now know from your own even temporary experience, there isn’t a great deal of flexibility in virtual classrooms and while I haven’t had to contend much with behavior management with regard to antics, I have had to largely concern myself with ensuring as many students are engaged for as long as possible because little I say or do could compete with the lively distractions some have at home.


As a novice teacher, I tried to accomplish engagement by ensuring I asked enough formative assessment questions about the lesson content and cold-called on as many students as possible. This was largely what our administration and coaches had recommended, so it’s not like I was a slacker! Try as you might, you won’t find many documented ‘best practices’ for online learning, so we’re working it out as we go, you know? And then, as the bureaucracy goes in public school systems, we have annual evaluations to satisfy. When I first started working at my school, the management was absolutely horrible. The evaluations were incredibly arbitrary and ever-changing, or so it seemed, anyway. But, who doesn’t want a good evaluation, right?!


My spirit seeks out excellence. Getting a bad evaluation just because I didn’t comply with the instructional recommendations of my principals and coaches wasn’t something I was interested in – even if those recommendations didn’t jive with my own authenticity and principles as an educator.


These are just some of the excuses I can give for why I became largely a lecture-based teacher. Your reasons, if you’ve also found yourself mostly talking to your students instead of with them, might be the same or different. But, the past is behind us, right?! This blog is about turning over a new leaf!


The authors of Visible Learning list 33 different instructional strategies and their effect sizes, calculated by Hattie.


33 INSTRUCTIONAL STRATEGIES?!?!


Reading this list was an eye-opener for me if there ever was one! I thought, “I can do these things in my virtual classroom! They don’t require students to be in-person or use any special tools or manipulatives! Why didn’t my certification program tell me about these?!”

And – as an aside – I just have to say that goes for pretty much every type of lesson plan or strategy currently out there. I think my school has provided me with some great opportunities for professional development, but they never introduced me to different approaches to leading my classroom. Just recently I was studying the 5E lesson plan and considering how it compares to my Lab In Every Lesson formula. But, it’s taken me 11 years to encounter the 5E approach!


Anyway – back to Hattie’s list ….


His list doesn’t contain those cute, trendy, acronym-based lessons or tasks like 5E, Inquiry Learning, Project-Based Learning, TDA, CER, RACE, etc. This list is full of NOUNS, actual tasks we can expect our students to complete during our time with them or execution-based strategies we need to account for in our planning. And best of all, none of the items in this list have an effect size less than the one year worth of learning, 0.40.


At the time I originally reviewed this list, I was using imagery which has an effect size of 0.45, note taking with an effect size of 0.50, direct instruction with an effect size of 0.60, questioning with an effect size of 0.48, and maybe some mneumonics with an effect size of 0.76. Chemistry, my content area, is a naturally cumulative course so there was probably some unintentional leveraging prior knowledge with an effect size of 0.65 going on in my classroom, also.


In defense of those instructional strategies I used at the time, the authors of this text don’t look down upon them. You’ll definitely get the impression from my blog posts and podcast episodes that I poo-poo lecture and note-taking. You might infer that I consider lecture and direct instruction to be one and the same, because I don’t do a great job of separating them in my own mind. But the authors note that direct instruction involves “the teacher deciding on learning intentions and success criteria, making them transparent to students, demonstrating them by modeling, evaluating if they understand what they have been told by checking for understanding, and retelling them what they have been told by tying it all together with closure”. So, if you’re doing all that, you’re still awesome! 👑


I had some key pieces missing from that detailed list. Namely, I was sharing standards and following standards but I wasn’t really making my expectations crystal clear to my students. I honestly didn’t realize that was so important.


The effect sizes related only to expectations tell a very different story. That for teacher clarity is 0.75, teacher expectations is 0.40, and student expectations of themselves is 1.44!!!!!


Just to make sure you’re following along, here …. strategies with an effect size as high as 1.44 constitutes, according to the authors, more than THREE YEARS WORTH OF LEARNING!


As this is a blog about not just my experiences and my methodology, but student centered learning in science as a whole it seems to me that teacher clarity, teacher expectations, and student expectations of self should be the foundation of how we’re implementing any and all instructional strategies in our classrooms!


Surely, they have become the bedrock for the Lab In Every Lesson formula and student centered learning approach.


One of the greatest outcomes from making the switch to student centered learning in my classroom has been that shift from students seeking to answer questions for me and take notes for me to having them complete activities for themselves, to construct their own ideas about what they observe. In doing this, it’s my experience that students do recognize the need to push themselves. It’s become so apparent how important it is for me to design their learning so they have the opportunity to spread their wings and fly! I’ve experienced the pride and satisfaction they exhibit when they succeed. I’ve witnessed them identify their weaknesses when they don’t quite get it. There’s a measure of self-compassion and grace that is born in learning this growth mindset from trial and error with a teacher supporting and nurturing that development throughout each and every lesson.


While I might have incorporated between 5 and 10 instructional strategies listed in the Visible Learning text before making the switch to student centered learning, I am pleased to report that I now incorporate nearly all of them on the list! And that incorporation has actually been quite unintentional. I didn’t use the list and purposefully include specific strategies as a sort of checklist. I simply held in the highest esteem the critical importance of teacher expectations and clarity in defining and presenting learning goals, as well as planting the seed to enhance students expectations of themselves. When planning a lesson, I focused on these goals and the other instructional strategies I’ve come to regularly lean on like creating a vocabulary program, incorporating literacy for them to synthesize information from multiple texts, integrating prior knowledge, and identifying similarities and differences just fell into place as they complimented a given concept-based task.


If you’ve purchased this text and you’re following along with my account of it in this blog, you’ll notice that I didn’t share anything about the fact that this list of 33 instructional strategies is grouped into different levels of the Visible Learning taxonomy: surface learning, deep learning, and transfer learning. Remember, Visible Learning is a taxonomy similar to Bloom and Webb’s Depth of Knowledge. Surface learning in this taxonomy is simplistic. Deep learning – as you would expect – is more relational among various aspects of the surface content learned. Evidence of transfer learning requires students to apply new knowledge to other situations, objects, or circumstances. I haven’t personally delved into the nuances of each of these levels or tried to define my instruction according to them. Perhaps that’s a flaw in my approach, because I do believe the authors’ assignment of these effect sizes was calculated based upon which phase of learning the students were introduced to them or asked to execute them during the term of the authors’ research.


I may revisit the taxonomy someday, but when I’m trying something new, I need to take baby steps. When I overreach, it becomes so much easier for me – like anyone else -- to give up.


Take that with you today.


If you’re getting excited about this, about making the switch to student centered learning, revel in it but temper it!


Give yourself time and grace to move through each phase of making such a big change. Play the long game, and it may all go much more smoothly!

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