Methods of Teaching in the Classroom (page 2)

Updated on Nov 18, 2011

Drill and Practice

One level up from direct instruction is drill and practice. Though it might seem that this technique is even more rote in nature than direct instruction, the implication is that something has already been learned, or at the very least been presented, and now the emphasis is on repetition to hone the skill or provide a strong link to the information to improve remembering it.

With this particular technique there is not a great emphasis on abstraction or on the synthesis of new understanding. Your own experience with multiplication tables would be an example of drill and practice. There was not much mathematical theory being taught when you were required to memorize those products.


The mainstay of a traditional college education, the lecture, shows up third in our instructional technique hierarchy. What does that tell you about the thinking that lectures require of a student? We are by no means denigrating the lecture approach, but the simple fact is that lectures in their pure form serve only to offer information from one person to another in a one-way verbal transaction.

It needs to be mentioned that many times teachers will follow up a lecture with some sort of discussion session. However, lectures can be, and often are, presented without any opportunity for an intellectual exchange between student and teacher. Its strength is that a large amount of information can be conveyed to a large group of people in a short amount of time with a concomitant personal touch.

Question and Answer

At this point we begin considering techniques that actually require reflection on the part of the student and thus involve evaluation and the synthesis of new information, the two highest levels of Bloom's Taxonomy. Reflection requires that a student receive information and then consider it with regard to his or her own experiences and interpretations. The question-and-answer technique supposes that to one degree or another the teacher and the student share a common body of knowledge. This does not mean that the student has the same depth of knowledge or understanding, but there are sufficient elements to the common core that allow the student and teacher to make consideration of the topic a two-way exchange.

There are several approaches to using the question-and-answer technique. In one approach, the students may question the teacher. The teacher needs to be sufficiently knowledgeable of the subject matter to provide appropriate responses without knowing the questions in advance or having the opportunity to look things up. A teacher cannot have all of the answers, but being prepared to deal with the unexpected is part of being a teacher, not something that happens once in awhile. Children come to school thinking about the same questions that they have heard their parents discuss at home. They may not always understand those questions, but the idea of asking the teacher for an answer is typically considered to be a good one.

The other side of question and answer is the situation in which the teacher asks questions of the students. You are certainly familiar with this approach! However, our concern now is with the reason for those questions. One purpose would be for giving the students practice with the recall (and perhaps application) of particular information. Another would be for assessing the students’ acquisition of particular information. In either of these cases, techniques such as providing think-time (Gambrell, 1983) and challenging initial responses will be valuable skills to improve the use of question-and-answer sessions. Indeed, in her classic study of the effects of wait time, Mary Budd Rowe (1978) found that providing students additional time to think increased the number and quality of responses and decreased discipline situations.

Yet a third purpose for the use of this instructional technique is to stimulate thought and encourage divergent thinking (as opposed to the convergent thinking of the previous two examples). In this situation the teacher is challenging students to apply prior knowledge and then use that as a basis for synthesizing new knowledge. The challenge presented to the teacher is that when such questions are asked, a wide range of answers is possible. The teacher must be prepared for whatever might come along, and this involves finding ways to identify merit in virtually any response. If a teacher is willing to open up the classroom to divergent thinking and the opinions of the students, then he or she must be ready to help students formulate and reformulate their ideas without diminishing the value of the original idea. Asking students for their opinions and then telling them they are wrong is one of the surest ways to bring original thinking in the classroom to a halt. The amount of innovative and creative thinking that a teacher can initiate, in virtually any subject area, is empowering both for students and teachers.


A step higher on our taxonomy of instructional techniques is discussion. This differs from the previous level in that neither the teacher nor the student holds the upper hand. In this situation the teacher is concerned with a very different treatment of information than possible using the previous methods. Discussions involve the exchange of ideas. With this approach a teacher hopes to develop greater depth of thinking and perhaps to foster the manipulation of information for solving problems rather than just the acquisition of knowledge.

Some might argue that discussion is not the most appropriate term for what teachers wish to accomplish. In fact, discussion does refer more to the arguing of points of view whereas dialogue refers to an exchange of ideas. In either case, the instructional intent is to take students beyond “just the facts” and to engage them in a more poignant treatment of the subject matter.

Mental Modeling

Mental Modeling (Culyer, 1987) and a variation of it, the “I wonder . . .” model (Bentley, Ebert, & Ebert, 2000), are techniques specifically intended to enhance students’ ability to direct their own learning by modeling the use of cognitive processes in the solving of some problem. This might sound “elementary” at first, and it is quite effective when working with young children, but it is a process that you may well have been exposed to in your secondary and now higher education experiences.

For example, during an elementary school lesson about using maps a teacher might say,

I’d like to find my way to Sarah’s house. I know the address, but I don’t know how to get there from the school. I think I’ll use the map of our city to find the way there. First I’ll check the street index to find out where to look on the map. Then I’ll use the numbers from the index to find the street.

In this way a teacher demonstrates how to sequence steps and put information to work in solving a problem. Students are then able to practice the same procedure.

The “I wonder . . .” model uses the same approach, though in the context of science education. Bentley, Ebert, and Ebert (2000) consider this to be one of the best ways of initiating the information-seeking process. An otherwise unobservable process, this technique attempts to verbalize the thinking that goes on. Here’s an example from The Natural Investigator that a teacher might use with elementary level children:

This morning I looked outside and noticed that it wasn’t very sunny. I observed lots of gray clouds. I wondered if it was going to rain today. I could have just carried an umbrella in case it did rain and not thought about it anymore. However, I was planning to wear my new shoes, and I really didn’t want to get them wet and dirty the first time I wore them. So I checked the newspaper and the weather channel. The paper predicted . . . (p. 127)

In this scenario, the children are exposed to the steps of listing observations, formulating a question, and identifying possible sources of information. These steps are not confined to elementary instruction. For instance, in college-level science courses you are encouraged to go through the same three steps. Your chemistry professor probably will talk you through conducting an experiment to prepare you for what might occur.

Mental modeling is a powerful technique that is on a high cognitive level. Precisely for that reason, it is something that you should try to use with your students at every opportunity. But practice first! The keys to using this technique are modeling thinking that your students can understand and then providing them with immediate opportunities to apply what they have learned. Having your students explain their own mental models or “I wonder . . .” models aloud will help clarify the process for them and allow you to assess their understanding.

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