Delivering Instruction

In the previous sections, you learned about the importance of specifying goals and objectives for your learners. We pointed out that goals energize you and your students to achieve high degrees of effort and learning. We discussed how objectives specify what students are expected to do to demonstrate learning.

There is another important use for goals and objectives: they can determine your choice of instructional methods. Simply stated, instructional methods are patterns of practice that recur in classrooms time and again. They include, for example, the methods of direct (or didactic)
instruction, indirect (or inquiry) instruction, and self-directed (or self-regulated) instruction. Each of these general methods includes certain specific teaching skills, among which are structuring, modeling, coaching, and fading.

For instance, if your objective is to have students acquire facts (for example, names and dates of battles of the Civil War), rules (for forming possessives), or action sequences (for focusing a microscope), you will most likely use direct instruction, which involves some questioning, clarifying, and explaining. But if your objective is to teach concepts (for example, photosynthesis), patterns (global warming), or abstractions (environmental responsibility), you will most likely use indirect instruction, which involves constructivist teaching methods. If, however, your objective is to teach strategies for learning (for example, a model for learning to solve equations that can be used time and again), you will most likely adopt the method of self-directed instruction, which incorporates the skills of metacognition (thinking about thinking), subvocal rehearsal, guided practice, and self-evaluation.

Regardless of the instructional method you are using, you will want to be familiar with structuring, modeling, coaching, and fading. In the next section, we will study the teaching skills of structuring, modeling, coaching, and fading. We will demonstrate how successful teachers use these skills to capture student attention, convey purpose, communicate information, keep lessons moving at a brisk and lively pace, and provide opportunities for transferring what has been learned to new and different contexts.


Structuring is the process of getting learners ready to learn by selecting, organizing, and previewing the content to be presented. Structuring is that part of a lesson during which the teacher exerts the most control over the learning process. During structuring, it is essential that the teacher be skilled at capturing the attention of learners and focusing it on the outcome of the lesson. If not fully alert, learners will find it difficult to remember the information given, understand the goal of the lesson, or participate in the instructional process—all of which are essential for learning and transfer to occur.

How do you gain a learner’s attention? Your voice, your actions, and your visual displays have to compete with hundreds of other stimuli that also are vying for your learners’ attention. How can you get students to attend? What does it mean to “pay attention”? Learners who pay attention usually demonstrate several skills.

  • They orient themselves to you and what you direct them to (for example, the overhead projector, the blackboard, the text).
  • They focus their attention on the relevant aspects of what they are attending to (for example, the problem you are describing, the responses of another student, the picture in the text).
  • They ignore distracting stimuli (for example, another student or the sounds of a nearby classroom).
  • They remain alert during the lesson (for example, they maintain their engagement with the lesson despite a desire to return to a more passive state).

Structuring focuses learners on the first two of the skills above. These involve (1) focusing attention by directing the eyes, ears, and body posture of learners to a relevant stimulus and (2) holding their attention long enough to establish a learning set. We will explore the third and fourth attention-gaining skills under the expert practice of coaching. For now, let’s turn to the first two skills: focusing and holding your learners’ attention.

Focusing Attention

Before you can communicate the purpose or objective of a lesson, you must focus the eyes and ears of your learners. This is difficult at the start of class if your learners are taking out materials, finishing their homework, asking questions of one another, or catching up on the latest gossip with their friends.

Video 8.7.1. The Hook suggests techniques for getting students’ attention and motivate them to become engaged with the lessons.

Research on attention has focused on four properties of instructional stimuli that cause learners to make an attending response, such as shifting one’s body posture, changing the direction of a gaze, scanning the visual field, or holding a fixed stare (Solso, 1988). From this research, we can identify four appeals that can be used to make instructional content more attractive to learners. They are (1) psychophysical appeal, (2) emotional appeal, (3) discrepancy appeal, and (4) commanding stimuli appeal.

Psychophysical Appeal. A psychophysical appeal is any variation in the color, size, intensity, or pitch of stimuli in your learners’ visual field that causes them to make an attending response. The most accessible and efficient stimuli for you to vary are those coming from your own body: your voice, gestures, posture, movement, and facial expressions. You can most efficiently focus your learners’ attention by changing your voice inflection, moving as you talk, and varying your posture or gestures.

Emotional Appeal. Just as we have emotional responses associated with our names, learners have emotional responses to certain sights, sounds, words, and smells. The skillful teacher uses the emotional appeal of these stimuli to focus learners’ attention by calling on them by name, commenting from time to time on a unique article of their clothing, using words in the student’s second or native language, and introducing certain sights, sounds, and smells that may relate to the topic of a lesson.

Discrepancy Appeal. Our attention is often drawn to stimuli that make a discrepancy appeal by means of the element of surprise—something novel or unique grabs our attention. The history teacher who dresses up in an authentic costume to illustrate a period in history, the science teacher who creates an unusual noise or smell at the start of an experiment, the math teacher who begins by presenting an unsolvable problem, the language teacher who deliberately misspells a word to be used in the day’s lesson, or the speech teacher who stages a shouting match with a student before a lesson on listening skills to demonstrate inattention—all are using the property of discrepancy to focus the attention of learners.

Commanding Stimuli Appeal. Teachers often use commanding stimuli appeal to get learners to comply with a request. Statements such as “Now listen closely” or “All books and pens away,” when delivered assertively, are likely to be followed. Some teachers have their students vote on a code word during the first week of school, which when spoken assertively by the teacher gets everyone to stop what they are doing and look at the teacher.

Holding Attention. The expert practice of structuring involves not only focusing the attention of learners but also giving them something to focus on. This is accomplished by building a learning set. Hunter (1982) refers to this phase of the lesson as the anticipatory set. Its purpose is to make the goal or objective of the lesson relevant to the learners, to put the lesson into a context the learners can relate to, and to get their minds off other distracting stimuli. During this time learners recall past learning by drawing a picture, summarizing something they saw or heard, reading a short passage, or by writing down an idea—all with the intent of relating past with present learning.

Anticipatory sets often take the form of advance organizers (Ausubel, 1968). Advance organizers give learners an overview of what is to come that helps them store, label, and package the content for retention and later use. For example, “Listen to this story and think of the three things the duckling did.”

Activating Prior Knowledge

Another way to connect curriculum goals to students’ experience is by activating prior knowledge, a term that refers to encouraging students to recall what they know already about new material being learned. Various formats for activating prior knowledge are possible. When introducing a unit about how biologists classify animal and plant species, for example, a teacher can invite students to discuss how they already classify different kinds of plants and animals. Having highlighted this informal knowledge, the teacher can then explore how the same species are classified by biological scientists, and compare the scientists’ classification schemes to the students’ own schemes. The activation does not have to happen orally, as in this example; a teacher can also ask students to write down as many distinct types of animals and plants that they can think of, and then ask students to diagram or map their relationships—essentially creating a concept map (Gurlitt, et al., 2006). Whatever the strategy used, activation helps by making students’ prior knowledge or experience conscious and therefore easier to link to new concepts or information.

Anticipating Preconceptions of Students

Ironically, activating students’ prior knowledge can be a mixed blessing if some of the prior knowledge is misleading or downright wrong. Misleading or erroneous knowledge is especially common among young students, but it can happen at any grade level. A kindergarten child may think that the sun literally “rises” in the morning, since she often hears adults use this expression, or that the earth is flat because it obviously looks flat. But a high school student may mistakenly believe that large objects (a boulder) fall faster than small ones (a pebble), or that a heavy object dropped (not thrown) from a moving car window will fall straight down instead of traveling laterally alongside the car while it falls.

Because misconceptions are quite common among students and even among adults, teachers are more effective if they can anticipate preconceptions of students wherever possible. The task is twofold. First, the teacher must know or at least guess students’ preconceptions as much as possible in advance, so that she can design learning activities to counteract and revise their thinking. Some preconceptions have been well-documented by educational research and therefore can in principle be anticipated easily—though they may still sometimes take a teacher by surprise during a busy activity or lesson (Tanner & Allen, 2005; Chiu & Lin, 2005). Table 1 lists a few of these common preconceptions. Others may be unique to particular students, however, and a teacher may only be able to learn from them through experience—by listening carefully to what students say and write and by watching what they do. A few preconceptions may be so ingrained or tied to other, more deeply held beliefs that students may resist giving them up, either consciously or unconsciously. It may be hard, for example, for some students to give up the idea that girls are less talented at math or science than boys, even though research generally finds this is not the case (Hyde & Linn, 2006).

Table 8.7.1 Several misconceptions about science
Misconception What to do
Stars and constellations appear in the same place in the sky every night. Ask students to observe carefully the locations of a bright star once a week for several weeks.
The world is flat, circular like a pancake. Use a globe or ball to find countries located over the horizon; use computer software (e.g. Global Earth) to illustrate how a round Earth can look flat up close.
Dinosaurs disappeared at the same time that human beings appeared and because of human activity. Construct a timeline of major periods of Darwinian evolution.
Rivers always flow from North to South. Identify rivers that flow South to North (e.g. the Red River in North Dakota and Canada); talk about how Southern locations are not necessarily “lower.”
Force is needed not only to start an object moving, but to keep it moving. Explain the concept of inertia; demonstrate inertia using low-friction motion (e.g. with a hovercraft or dry-ice puck).
Volume, weight, and size are identical concepts. Have students weigh objects of different sizes or volumes, and compare the results.
Seasons happen because the Earth changes distance from the sun. Explain the tilt of Earth’s axis using a globe and light as a model; demonstrate reduced heating of surfaces by placing similar surfaces outdoors at different angles to the sun’s rays.
Sources: Chi, 2005; D. Clark, 2006; Slotta & Chi, 2006; Owens, 2003.

The second task when anticipating preconceptions is to treat students’ existing knowledge and beliefs with respect even when they do include misconceptions or errors. This may seem obvious in principle, but it needs remembering when students persist with misconceptions in spite of a teacher’s efforts to teach alternative ideas or concepts. Most of us—including most students—have reasons for holding our beliefs, even when the beliefs do not agree with teachers, textbooks, or other authorities, and we appreciate having our beliefs treated with respect. Students are no different from other people in this regard. In a high school biology class, for example, some students may have personal reasons for not agreeing with the theory of evolution associated with Charles Darwin. For religious reasons, they may support explanations of the origins of life that give a more active, interventionist role to God (Brumfiel, 2005). If their beliefs disagree with the teacher’s or the textbook, then the disagreement needs to be acknowledged respectfully. For some students (and perhaps some teachers), expressing fundamental disagreement respectfully may feel awkward, but it needs to be done nonetheless.


Once your learners’ attention is on you, you have the opportunity to model what your students are about to learn.  The term modeling can mean either a demonstration of the desired behavior or representation of an important theory, idea, or object. Each of these meanings can link curriculum goals with students’ prior knowledge and experience.

Modeling as a Demonstration

In the first meaning, modeling refers to performing or demonstrating a desired new behavior or skill, as when a teacher or classmate demonstrates polite behaviors or the correct solution to a math problem. In this case, we say that the teacher or classmate models the desired behavior, either deliberately or in the course of other ongoing activity. Students observe the modeled behavior and (hopefully) imitate it themselves. Research repeatedly shows that modeling desired behaviors is an effective way to learn new behaviors, especially when the model is perceived as important (like the teacher), similar to the learner (like a student’s best friend), or has a warm, positive relationship with the learner (like the teacher or the student’s friend) (Bandura, 2002; Gibson, 2004). Modeling in this sense is sometimes also called observational learning. It has many of the same properties as classic operant conditioning, except that reinforcement during observational learning is witnessed in others rather than experienced by the learner directly. Watching others being reinforced is sometimes called vicarious reinforcement. The idea is that if, for example, a student observes a classmate who behaves politely with the teacher and then sees that classmate receive praise for the behavior (vicarious reinforcement), the student is more likely to imitate the polite behavior that he saw. As in classic operant conditioning, furthermore, if the student observes that politeness by classmates is ignored (extinction or no reinforcement), then the student is much less likely to imitate the politeness. Worse yet, if the student observes that negative behaviors in others lead to positive consequences (like attention from peers), then the student may imitate the negative behaviors (Rebellon, 2006). Cursing and swearing, and even bullying or vandalism, can be reinforced vicariously, just as can more desired behaviors.

Modeling—in this first sense of a demonstration—connects instructional goals to students’ experiences by presenting real, vivid examples of behaviors or skills in a way that a student can practice directly, rather than merely talk about. There is often little need, when imitating a model, to translate ideas or instructions from the verbal form into action. For students struggling with language and literacy, in particular, this feature can be a real advantage.

Modeling as a Simplified Representation

In the second meaning of modeling, a model is a simplified representation of a phenomenon that incorporates the important properties of the phenomenon. Models in this sense may sometimes be quite tangible, direct copies of reality; when I was in fourth grade growing up in California, for example, we made scale models of the Spanish missions as part of our social studies lessons about California history. But models can also be imaginary, though still based on familiar elements. In a science curriculum, for example, the behavior of gas molecules under pressure can be modeled by imagining the molecules as ping pong balls flying about and colliding in an empty room. Reducing the space available to the gas by making the room smaller, causes the ping pong balls to collide more frequently and vigorously, and thereby increases the pressure on the walls of the room. Increasing space has the opposite effect. Creating an actual room full of ping pong balls may be impractical, of course, but the model can still be imagined.

Modeling in this second sense is not about altering students’ behavior, but about increasing their understanding of a newly learned idea, theory, or phenomenon. The model itself uses objects or events that are already familiar to students—simple balls and their behavior when colliding—and in this way supports students’ learning of new, unfamiliar material. Not every new concept or idea lends itself to such modeling, but many do: students can create models of unfamiliar animals, for example, or medieval castles, or of ecological systems. Two-dimensional models—essentially drawings—can also be helpful: students can illustrate literature or historical events, or make maps of their own neighborhoods. The choice of model depends largely on the specific curriculum goals which the teacher needs to accomplish at a particular time.


Coaching is that stage of the instructional process during which the learner converts memories into actions as a result of the modeling process. This is the aspect of instruction we usually think of as teaching. Coaching is the most physically and mentally demanding of the four teaching activities and typically takes up the most time in a lesson. Effective coaching requires:

  • establishing accountability
  • providing opportunities for practice
  • guiding practice by prompting and questioning
  • motivating.

Establishing Accountability

The following extract from a student teacher’s diary describes a common teaching problem:

School seems to mean so little for many of my kids. They can do the work but they just sit there and wait to be reminded or threatened. Take Bart. He comes into class, looks at me when I’m giving the class assignment, but then sits and does nothing until I remind him to get to work. He works for a while and then stops until the next reminder. What work he does is about 25 percent correct. During discussions he never listens to what anyone else is saying. I have about five or six Barts in every one of my eighth-grade classes. (Beth, student teacher)

This excerpt describes what many beginning teachers encounter when it is time for practice or classwork. It is tempting to assume, like Beth, that the problem is motivation: the students just don’t care. Research by Kounin (1970) and Emmer, Evertson, Clements, and Worsham (1994), however, point us in another direction. They suggest that incomplete, sloppy, or missed assignments and an “I don’t care” attitude may reflect the teacher’s failure to make learners feel accountable during the coaching stage of the lesson.

Accountability is the degree to which teachers communicate to learners the classwork they are expected to complete during a specific period of time. The more learners are told what they are responsible for, the greater the accountability for learning. From research by Emmer et al. (1994), we learn that there are three aspects to accountability: (1) communication, (2) monitoring, and (3) feedback. The accompanying box, Establishing Accountability, details the steps you can take.

Toward the end of Beth’s student teaching, she became much more skilled at establishing accountability. Here is an excerpt from her cooperating teacher’s evaluation of her performance during her last week of student teaching:

Beth, like many new teachers, tended to hide immediately after giving an assignment. She would sit at her desk and avoid even looking at students. She hoped that the students would begin work immediately and everyone would know exactly what to do. She hadn’t developed the skill of anticipating problems and giving clear step-by-step directions. No sooner would she sit down than students would swarm to her desk with questions about what they were expected to do. As time passed, she learned to move about the room during the work activity, question learners who were having problems, and encourage those who were doing well. Now, even when the class is working quietly, she continues to move about the room encouraging, praising, and prompting.

Providing Opportunities For Practice

The purpose of practice is to engage learners actively in the learning process. During structuring and modeling, students listen, observe, covertly
rehearse, or make brief responses to your questions as you check for understanding. But they have not yet had the opportunity to practice and master the skills you modeled, the information you conveyed, or the problem-solving techniques you demonstrated. During the coaching phase of instruction, learners begin to practice the objectives of their lesson.

Practice has historically been associated with drills (Ornstein, 1992) and direct instructional methods (Borich, 1996). It has been strongly emphasized in behavioristic approaches to learning that stress the importance of building stimulus-response connections (Hilgard & Bower, 1981). Mastery learning and errorless learning methods also incorporate extensive practice and drill (Bloom, 1981).

However, practice is essential for accomplishing the goals of any instructional method—direct, indirect, or self-directed. Depending on the instructional method used and the desired objective, practice can take many forms. During direct instruction, practice may take the form of repeating multiplication tables or letters of the alphabet. It may also involve independent seatwork and the use of workbooks. Practice during indirect instruction may occur when the teacher places learners in small groups to solve science or math problems cooperatively. It may also occur when students complete problem-solving handouts and worksheets. During self-directed learning, practice may take the form of reciprocal teaching within the naturally occurring dialogue of the classroom. It may also involve completing extended projects and investigations at a learning center, at home, or in
the library.

Regardless of the type of practice activity used, there are several guidelines for promoting effective practice:

  • Students should understand the reasons for practice. Practice often turns into busy work, which can create boredom, frustration, and noncompliance. Learners should approach classroom practice with the enthusiasm experienced by an athlete in training. This is more likely to occur if (1) the purpose of the practice has been made known to learners (“We will need to be proficient at solving these problems in order to go on to our next activity”) and (2) practice occurs during as well as after new learning (“Let’s stop right here, so you can try some of these problems yourselves”).
  • Effective practice is delivered in a manner that is brief, non-evaluative, and supportive. Eliciting practice involves more than simply saying “OK. Take out your books, turn to page 78, and answer questions 1, 3, 7, and 9. You have 20 minutes.” Rather, your introduction to a practice activity should accomplish three objectives: (1) inform the learners that they are going to practice something they are capable of succeeding at (“You’ve done part of this before, so this shouldn’t be much different”), (2) dispel anxiety about doing the task through the use of nonevaluative and non-threatening language (“You’ve got part of it right, Anita; now, think some more and you’ll have it”), and (3) let the learners know that
    you will be around to monitor their work and support their efforts (“I will be around to help, so let me know if you have a problem”).
  • Practice should be designed to ensure success. Practice makes perfect only when it is done correctly. If your learners are making many math, punctuation, or problem-solving mistakes, practice is making imperfect. Design your practice to produce as few errors as possible. For example, worksheets should be developed to ensure that at least 80 to 90 percent of the problems are completed correctly.
  • Practice should be arranged to allow students to receive feedback. As we learned earlier in our discussion of modeling, feedback exerts a powerful effect on learning. Develop procedures and routines for rapid checking of work so that learners know as soon as possible
    how well they are performing. Having peers correct one another’s practice is an efficient way to give feedback. Also, having answer sheets handy so that learners can check their own work can be a simple and effective means of providing feedback.
  • Practice should have the qualities of progress, challenge, and variety. Kounin (1970) found that the key to preventing learners from becoming bored was to design practice opportunities that allow them to see that they are making progress (“Don’t forget to check your answers with the key on the board”). In addition, practice should be introduced in a challenging and enthusiastic manner (“This will really test your understanding with some new and interesting kinds of problems”). Finally, practice exercises should include a variety of examples and situations.

Guided Practice, Independent Practice, and Homework

We typically think of practice as a solitary activity during which learners master skills that have been explained or demonstrated by the teacher. This type of practice is often referred to as independent practice. However, other forms of practice involve the active participation of both teacher and learners, whether one-to-one or in groups. This type of practice is called guided practice. Much of this task involves helping students to make the transition from supervised learning to self-regulated learning—or put differently, from practice that is relatively guided to practice that is relatively independent.

Guided Practice

When students first learn a new skill or a new set of ideas, they are especially likely to encounter problems and make mistakes that interfere with the very process of learning. In figuring out how to use a new software program, for example, a student may unknowingly press the wrong button that prevents further functioning of the program. In translating sentences from Spanish into English in a language class, for another example, a student might misinterpret one particular word or grammatical feature. This one mistake may cause many sentences to be translated incorrectly, and so on. So students initially need guided practice—opportunities to work somewhat independently, but with a teacher or other expert close at hand to prevent or fix difficulties when they occur. In general, educational research has found that guided practice helps all learners, especially those who are struggling (Bryan & Burstein, 2004: Woodward, 2004). A first-grade child has difficulty in decoding printed words, for example, benefits from guidance more than one who can decode easily. But both students benefit in the initial stages of learning, since both may make more mistakes then. Guided practice, by its nature, sends a dual message to students: it is important to learn new material well, but it is also important to become able to use learning without assistance, beyond the lesson where it is learned and even beyond the classroom.

Guided practice is much like the concepts of the zone of proximal development (or ZPD) and instructional scaffolding that we discussed in connection with Vygotsky’s theory of learning. In essence, during guided practice, the teacher creates a ZPD or scaffold (or framework) in which the student can accomplish more with partial knowledge or skill than the student could accomplish alone. But whatever its name—guided practice, a ZPD, or a scaffold—ensuring the success of guidance depends on several key elements: focusing on the task at hand, asking questions that break the task into manageable parts, reframing or restating the task so that it becomes more understandable, and giving frequent feedback about the student’s progress (Rogoff, 2003). Combining the elements appropriately takes sensitivity and improvisational skill—even artfulness—but these very challenges are among the true joys of teaching.

Independent Practice

As students gain facility with a new skill or new knowledge, they tend to need less guidance and more time to consolidate (or strengthen) their new knowledge with additional practice. Since they are less likely to encounter mistakes or problems at this point, they begin to benefit from independent practice—opportunities to review and repeat their knowledge at their own pace and with fewer interruptions. At this point, therefore, guided practice may feel less like help than like an interruption, even if it is well-intentioned. A student who already knows how to use a new computer program, for example, may be frustrated by waiting for the teacher to explain each step of the program individually. If a student is already skillful at translating Spanish sentences into English in a language class, it can be annoying for the teacher to “help” by pointing out minor errors that the student is likely to catch for herself.

By definition, the purpose of independent practice is to provide more self-regulation of learning than what comes from guided practice. It implies a different message for students than what is conveyed by guided practice, a message that goes beyond the earlier one: that it is now time to take more complete responsibility for own learning. When all goes well, independent practice is the eventual outcome of the zone of proximal development created during the earlier phase of guided practice described above: the student can now do on his or her own, what originally required assistance from someone else. Or stated differently, independent practice is a way of encouraging self-determination about learning. In order to work independently, a student must set his or her own direction and monitor his or her own success; by definition, no one can do this for the student.


The chances are that you already have experienced many forms of homework in your own educational career. The widespread practice of assigning review work to do outside of school is a way of supplementing scarce time in class and providing independent practice for students. Homework has generated controversy throughout most of its history in public education, partly because it encroaches on students’ personal and family-oriented time, and partly because research finds no consistent benefits of doing homework (Gill & Schlossman, 2004; Kohn, 2004). In spite of these criticisms, though, parents and teachers tend to favor homework when it is used for two main purposes. One purpose is to review and practice material that has already been introduced and practiced at school; a sheet of arithmetic problems might be a classic example. When used for this purpose, the amount of homework is usually minimal in the earliest grades, if any is assigned at all. One educational expert recommends only ten minutes per day in first grade at most, and only gradual increases in amount as students get older (Cooper & Valentine, 2001).

The second purpose of supporting homework is to convey the idea of schoolwork being the “job” of childhood and youth. Just as on an adult job, students must complete homework tasks with minimal supervision and sometimes even minimal training. Doing the tasks, furthermore, is a way to get ahead or further along in the workplace (for an adult) or at school (for a child). One study in which researchers interviewed children about these ideas, in fact, found that children do indeed regard homework as work in the same way that adults think of a job (Cornu & Xu, 2004). In the children’s minds, homework tasks were not “fun,” in spite of teachers’ frequent efforts to make them fun. Instead, they were jobs that needed doing, much like household chores. When it came to homework, children regarded parents as the teachers’ assistants—people merely carrying out the wishes of the teacher. Like any job, the job of doing homework varied in stressfulness; when required at an appropriate amount and level of difficulty, and when children reported having good “bosses” (parents and teachers), the job of homework could actually be satisfying in the way that many adults’ jobs can be satisfying when well-done.

Motivating Learners

Successful groups of learners, no less than successful teams of athletes, demand that their coaches be skilled motivators. The expert practice of coaching, therefore, requires that teachers be skilled at motivating learners. The learning that is elicited and strengthened during guided practice must be maintained, generalized, and transferred outside of practice. Your knowledge of motivation acquired and your ability to instill it in your learners will help this take place.


Although all four teaching activities include elements of transfer of learning, fading is the event that most directly achieves it. The expert practice of fading, whether used during direct, indirect, or self-directed instruction, involves two steps:

  1. The removal of any external supports required to activate learning (for example, prompts and reinforcers).
  2. The provision of independent practice that promotes transfer.

Prompt Fading

The teaching of many action sequences, such as testing a hypothesis, forming correct letters in handwriting, tying knots, focusing a microscope, or dissecting a frog, frequently requires prompts to guide correct responses. Likewise, prompts are frequently required to help learners develop oral language proficiency, essay writing, and problem-solving skills. These prompts may be verbal, gestural, or physical.

You can fade verbal prompts by gradually using fewer words or shorter explanations, allowing more time for learner response, or lowering the sound of your voice as the student begins to work more skillfully and independently. We often fade gestural prompts by gradually shortening the length of the gesture from a full arm sweep, for example, to a short pointing response. Physical prompts can be faded by slowly moving your assistance from hand-over-hand to guiding the wrist, to lightly touching the forearm, to lightly tapping the elbow. Delaying the fading of prompts can lead to prompt dependency. Conversely, removing prompts too soon can create frustration and anxiety in the learner.

Reinforcer Fading

The purpose of reinforcer fading is to gradually transfer the motivation for performing a skill from extrinsic reinforcers (such as food, tokens, stickers, and praise) to intrinsic reinforcers. It is more desirable and natural for learners to read because they enjoy it than because their parents give them a dollar for every book they read. Likewise, we want learners to keep the classroom neat and to play sports or musical instruments for the enjoyment of the activity rather than to obtain a grade.

Providing Independent Practice That Promotes Transfer

The following first-person account describes one of the most vexing problems in teaching: how to help students demonstrate their learning in new situations and settings.

Yesterday afternoon I had the most frustrating experience. I was walking to the subway after school and I ran into Gabriel, one of my ESL (English as a Second Language) students. We had just spent the last two days drilling the future tense of “going to,” as in “What are you going to do tomorrow?” So I said, “Gabriel, what are you going to do tonight?” And do you know what he said after two days of drill and practice? “I went to finish my homework tonight.” Not “want” …but “went.” He completely mixed up the past and future tenses. I don’t know how these kids are ever going to learn this stuff. (Author, personal experience)

Transfer of learning is the phrase used to describe this problem. Teachers want their students to transfer their learning, or generalize it from the classroom to the world outside the classroom. Of what value is learning how to speak or write grammatically correct English, solve math problems, type with accuracy, read poetry, plan a menu, or use logic if these skills are practiced only in a classroom under the guidance of a teacher?

Transfer of learning is a central concern whether you are engaged in direct, indirect, or self-directed instruction—that is, whether you want learners to acquire facts, rules, and action sequences; concepts, patterns, and abstractions; or learn how to learn. Regardless of which instructional method you choose or what the goal or objective of instruction is, effective instruction should culminate in the learner’s demonstrating her learning in a new or different context.

The purpose of guided practice during coaching is to help learners acquire new intellectual, social, and motor skills. The purpose of independent practice during fading is to help learners transfer those skills to real-world contexts. Achieving this goal requires teachers to design independent practice with transfer in mind. Independent practice that promotes transfer should:

  • emphasize mastery by beginning after learners have mastered the original task that has been modeled for them
  • have real-world similarity by being completed under the same time constraints and with the same distractions that exist in the real world
  • provide variety by giving learners as many different examples and situations as possible on which to practice, using a variety of sources, such as fiction, editorials, poetry, and magazines
  • offer flexibility by changing the conditions, locations, and peers under which practice occurs
  • promote self-direction by asking learners to identify examples where they can use their skills, such as measurement, punctuation, money management, scientific inquiry, and classifying objects, and to monitor their own progress.

In the chapters ahead we will present several means by which you can determine the degree to which you have acquired the expert practices of structuring, modeling, coaching, and fading.


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Educational Psychology Copyright © 2020 by Nicole Arduini-Van Hoose is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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