Explicit Instruction: Segmenting Complex Skills

Posts in this series…

1. What is Explicit Instruction?
2. Explicit Instruction: Segmenting Complex Skills
3. Explicit Instruction: Teacher Talk and Equity
4. Explicit Instruction: Modeling
5. Explicit Instruction: Concreteness Fading
6. Explicit Instruction: Opportunities to Respond

In this post, most of the referenced studies are from multimedia learning (educational videos) and special education contexts. However, the findings from the studies should transfer over to general education. The multimedia studies should transfer because they were looking into how segmenting a video impacts learning, this is very similar to how segmenting instruction would impact learning. The special education studies looked at effective teaching methods for learning disabled students, which should have an obvious transfer to students in general education. That said, if you know of any research on segmenting content/skills in a classroom context, please send them my way!

The Segmenting Effect

The segmenting effect states that students “learn better when multimedia interactions are presented in meaningful and coherent learner-paced segments, rather than as continuous units” (Mayer & Pilegard, 2014). I should note that in this context, learner-paced means something significantly different than what we would typically think. Learner-paced is only talking about the multimedia interaction, the assignment. In practice, this would involve some sort of pause or rewind function, allowing the student to rewatch and stop the presentation as needed. So, learner-paced only applies to the pacing of the assignment, not to the pacing of the curriculum.

Explaining the Segmenting Effect

  1. Segmenting gives students more time to mentally organize the information they are taking in. Giving them a chance to integrate it with preexisting knowledge.
  2. Continuous presentations may cause cognitive overload
  3. Segmentation may be more beneficial for novices than experts. Novices need more breaks (segments) because they lack a developed schema. Segmentation may have negative effects for experts (Spanjers et al., 2011).
  4. Experts may benefit from self segmenting their studies (Spanjers et al., 2010).

A meta-analysis found that segmenting improved both retention (45 out of 67 studies, 67%) and transfer (34 out of 56 studies, 61%) performance. It also found that, commonsensically, segmenting takes more time. In addition, learners with high levels of prior knowledge experienced greater benefits from segmenting than learners with low levels of prior knowledge. The meta-analysis also found that transfer performance was not impacted by prior knowledge (Rey et al., 2019). A study by Agarwal also found that factual knowledge did not impact transfer (2019).

An additional interesting finding by Rey et al. was that system paced segmenting (no learner choice) improves retention and transfer in addition to reducing perceived cognitive load, whereas learner-paced segmenting only led to an increase in transfer. This finding is easy to apply to the classroom.

Segmenting Instruction

Teachers should segment their lessons and provide students with “breaks” instead of allowing students to work and self-learn. What I mean by this is that we should teach something, and then, shortly after, stop the “teaching” and give students a chance to think about what they just learned.

For example, let’s say you are teaching about the rock cycle, and your students just learned weathering and erosion.

Teacher: “Ok, weathering means breaking rocks. Erosion means moving rocks. Chalk is a rock”
*grabs a piece of chalk and snaps it in half
“Ok, using our vocabulary words, what happened to the rock?”
Students: “Weathering!”
Teacher: “How do you know?”
Students: “It broke.”
Then you can draw a line by moving the chalk back and forth, heavily across the blackboard.
Teacher: See the small pieces of chalk falling down? What is that?”
Students: “Erosion?” “Weathering?”

At this point, some students will likely focus on the wrong part of your demonstration or example (regardless of what content/skill you are teaching). So, here you get specific and correct misconceptions immediately.

Teacher: “Weathering and erosion are BOTH happening in this example. But remember our definitions. Check your notes. What is weathering?”
Students: “Breaking rocks.”
Teacher: “Good! And what is erosion?”
Students: “Moving rocks.”
Teacher: “Excellent!” *resumes heavily drawing the chalk line. “Now, see the small pieces of rock falling down? What is that?”
Students: “Erosion!”
Teacher: “Perfect! Now, what is happening to the chalk when I rub it across the blackboard?”

And on and on.

While this process looks rather long and drawn out on paper (or the web) it is actually a fast paced, snappy exercise that only takes a minute or two. Using choral response is a quick, efficient way to segment your teaching, allowing students to integrate their new learning with their prior knowledge.

Since we all want our students to be able to apply what they are learning to their lives, we should give our students many differing examples, and many opportunities to apply their learning to different contexts. Research has found that exposing students to differing examples of the same concept helps them transfer their learning (Jacobson et al., 2020).

More Examples, More Transfer

After my students have a basic understanding of the key terms and their applications, I branch into more examples to help them generalize (transfer) their learning, often using short videos. I would then end this segment of class with  a similar routine of choral response and think-pair-share.

Teacher: “The mud sliding down the mountain is an example of…”
Students: “Erosion!”
Teacher: “Good! And when that rock crashed into the other rock and exploded, it was an example of….”
Students: “Weathering!”

Immediately following the choral response, I would shift into a pair-share (the think part was ~completed in the choral response and all students will at least know the answer, if not the explanation). The purpose for the immediate shift is to keep momentum going and build anticipation. I would have students explain to each other why one part was weathering and why the other was erosion. Then I would conclude this segment of instruction by having several students share their answers, followed by me clearly and succinctly restating or correcting their answer to the class.

Digging Deeper and Building Up

As we dig deeper into the concept of the rock cycle, we will add complexity to weathering and erosion. For example, we may dig into how the material affects the rate of weathering and erosion. Or we may explore how the volume of the weathering/erosive agent affects the rate of weathering and erosion. And as we add complexity, we are always referring back to what was learned previously. This helps make learning cumulative, gives students practice with a diverse array of examples which helps them transfer their learning, and it cements previous learning (ideally to the point of automaticity).

As you can tell by the previous paragraph, segmenting isn’t just something that you should take into account within your lesson, it ought to be taken into account throughout your unit planning. And actually implementing segmenting into your instruction will take time, meaning you will likely cover less content. But, the research shows your students will likely learn and retain more of the content/skills than otherwise. In addition, you can use strategies like choral response and think-pair-share to make the segments an effective use of time.

Sources

Agarwal, P. K. (2019). Retrieval practice and Bloom’s taxonomy: Do students need fact
knowledge before higher order learning? Journal of Educational Psychology, 111, 189-209.

Jacobson, M. J., Goldwater, M., Markauskaite, L., Lai, P. K., Kapur, M., Roberts, G., & Hilton, (2020). Schema abstraction with productive failure and analogical comparison: Learning designs for far across domain transfer. Learning and Instruction,65, 101222. doi:10.1016/j.learninstruc.2019.101222

Mayer, R. E., & Pilegard, C. (2014). Principles for managing essential processing in multimedia learning:segmenting, pre-training, and modality principles. In R. E. Mayer (Ed.), The Cambridge handbook of multimedia learning (2nd ed., pp. 316–344). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rey, G. D., Beege, M., Nebel, S., Wirzberger, M., Schmitt, T. H., & Schneider, S. (2019). A Meta-analysis of the Segmenting Effect. Educational Psychology Review31(2), 389–419. doi: 10.1007/s10648-018-9456-4

Spanjers, I. A. E., Van Gog, T., & VanMerrienboer, J. J. G. (2010). A theoretical analysis of how segmentation of dynamic visualizations optimizes students’ learning. Educational Psychology Review, 22(4), 411–423.

Spanjers, I. A., Wouters, P., Gog, T. V., & Merriënboer, J. J. V. (2011). An expertise reversal effect of segmentation in learning from animated worked-out examples. Computers in Human Behavior27(1), 46–52. doi: 10.1016/j.chb.2010.05.011

What is Explicit Instruction?

Like many educational approaches, the outer edges of explicit instruction are vague. But thankfully scholars have put in the effort to define its core components. The term explicit instruction first gained traction in the early 1990s to refer to “unambiguous, structured, systematic, and scaffolded” instruction (Archer & Hughes, 2011). 

In order to determine what researchers meant when they referred to explicit instruction, Hughes, Morris, Therrien, and Benson reviewed 86 studies mentioning a variety of key phrases associated with explicit instruction and found that it has 5 key components (2017).

Pillars of explicit instruction

Hughes, C. A., Morris, J. R., Therrien, W. J., & Benson, S. K. (2017).

Pillar 1: Segment Complex Skills/Content

This strategy is rather straightforward. Instead of starting out with the whole kit and caboodle, break it up into smaller chunks. The chunks are not just pieces of information, but time as well. Complex skills and knowledge should be taught step-by-step over time. The time may be as small as a single lesson or as large as an entire unit. 

Ideally, students will be able to achieve consistent success in one chunk of the skills/content before moving on to the next. The chunks should be taught cumulatively, meaning that students will continue to practice the skills/content they have already mastered along with the new subset of skills/content.

Scientific Method Example: There are a variety of ways that I like to segment the various skills/content I teach my students. In science class, one complex skill all students must learn is how to apply the scientific method. Depending on where you look, there can be anywhere from 6-9 steps. So, I segment this by teaching one step at a time. However, even when breaking this down into single steps, the steps each have their own unique substeps students must master before they can successfully apply the scientific method. 

Step 1: Ask a question

Scientific Method Example: I first teach my students that an observation precedes a question and that we use knowledge gained from our senses to generate questions. Next, I define what a scientific question is (must be testable). Then we generate some examples and non-examples. 

Pillar 2: Draw Student Attention to Important Features of the Content through Modeling/Think-Alouds

Modeling and think-alouds are used extensively in this pillar. The goal is to both show and tell students how to solve a problem or complete a task. Both modeling and think-alouds should be kept brief and consistent language should be used. Consistent word choice acts as another que, helping students remember the next step in a procedure, subset of the skill, part of the content.

Scientific Method Example: As I model making observations and asking scientific questions, I am conscious to consistently use various keywords as I provide numerous examples. 

“I observed the lion roaring with my sense of hearing. I observed the lion chasing the zebra with my sense of sight.” 

This gives students more exposure with the vocabulary and provides a familiar format for them to later apply the skill themselves. I then tell my students that we need to link our observations to our questions.

“I am going to use my observation of the lion chasing the zebra to create a question. Why is the lion chasing the zebra?”

Pillar 3: Promote Successful Engagement by Using Systematically Faded Supports/Prompts

After the initial set of modeling and explaining, teachers should still provide students with a substantial amount of support. This helps to ensure a high rate of initial success. As students find success in applying the skill/content, teachers should gradually remove support and give students more independence. This process should repeat until students are able to successfully complete work with full independence.

Scientific Method Example: Students will start applying the skill of asking scientific questions using the exact same structure I used in my examples in scenarios that are, initially, similar as well. This initial similarity helps students to successfully apply the skill. Then I gradually withdraw the support by having students make observations and ask questions in scenarios that become significantly different from the examples I taught at the beginning of class.

Pillar 4: Provide Opportunities for Students to Respond and Receive Feedback

Frequent opportunities to respond gives students frequent practice, which ensures that the teacher is able to give frequent feedback. This is a flexible strategy and can easily be applied to group, pair, or individual work in a variety of forms including oral, written, and action. It can also be used to informally assess a variety of knowledge depths and types including factual, procedural, conceptual, and conditional. In addition, these opportunities can be scaffolded, allowing all students to access the opportunity to respond.

Scientific Method Example: As my students are practicing the skill of making observations and asking scientific questions I walk around the room and provide feedback to different groups of students. I also keep the work periods relatively short by bringing the class back together to do brief whole-class activities.

For example, I may write a question on the board and ask students to raise their hand if it is a scientific question. This gets all students participating. I then confirm the answer. “It is a scientific question.” or “It is not a scientific question.”

I quickly shift into a Pair and Share activity (Students already did the “Think” step by raising or not raising their hand). “Tell you neighbor why this is/isn’t a scientific question. Ready… GO!”

During the whole-class activities I am able to get a rough gauge on the class’s understanding and can adjust my teaching as I go. After a few brief whole-class activities I redirect my students to their individual/small group work.

Pillar 5: Create Purposeful Practice Opportunities

Practice after the initial lesson reinforces what was learned and is important for generalizing and transferring new knowledge and skills. What is important is that the teacher is intentional with the practice opportunities they craft for their students. Whatever form the practice takes should be accompanied with feedback.

Scientific Method Example: See the example for pillar 4.

As you read through this, hopefully it became clear that many of the pillars should be applied at the same time. For example, if you are providing students with purposeful practice in class (Pillar 5) you should also be providing live feedback (Pillar 4). In giving feedback, you will find that students benefit from additional modeling/thinking aloud (Pillar 2) because they need more support (Pillar 3) as they practice that particular segment of the content (Pillar 1).

Other blogposts in this series

  1. Explicit Instruction: Segmenting Complex Skills
  2. Explicit Instruction: Teacher Talk and Equity
  3. Explicit Instruction: Modeling
  4. Explicit Instruction: Concreteness Fading
  5. Explicit Instruction: Opportunities to Respond

 

 

 

Citation:

Archer, A. L., & Hughes, C. A. (2011). Explicit instruction: Effective and efficient teaching. New York: Guilford Press.

Hughes, C. A., Morris, J. R., Therrien, W. J., & Benson, S. K. (2017). Explicit Instruction: Historical and Contemporary Contexts. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice32(3), 140–148. doi: 10.1111/ldrp.12142