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Models and Classroom Instruction
- Preparing to Learn
- How Do Learners Acquire Knowledge?
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How Do Learners Acquire Knowledge
Study Skills in Three Parts


How Do Learners Acquire Knowledge?

In order to acquire new knowledge, students need to be able to make sense of new information. Often, students need specific skills that can help them do this. These skills or learning strategies (e.g., note-taking, outlining, learning information from a text, library reference skills) are "technical methods of studying" that help us process, and ultimately retain, information. (Bos & Vaughn, 1998, taken from Lock, 1981 (p. 305).

Students also benefit from teacher intervention and instruction that models the use of learning strategies and helps make new information more accessible to all students. Teachers can use instructional techniques that will complement the strategies students are learning to use on their own. This combined approach will reinforce concepts and foster the confidence all students need to continue meeting the learning challenges they face.

How can I adapt my instruction to help students acquire knowledge more effectively?

There are several ways that teachers can adapt or modify instruction to accommodate students with disabilities or other learners who need assistance "learning how to learn." Often, these techniques are extensions of or variations on good instructional practice teacher routinely employ.

Other techniques may require more planning and deliberate actions on the part of the teacher, but the result is more structured and accessible curricula for all students.

A general approach for teaching a learning strategy to students includes the following steps:

  1. Pretest students on the strategy and gain their interest in learning the strategy;
  2. Describe the strategy;
  3. Model the strategy;
  4. Practice the strategy;
  5. Provide feedback; and
  6. Promote generalization (i.e., find many and various opportunities for students to use the strategy, across different classes and environments.

    (Sturomski, N., 1997. NICHCY News Digest, July, 1997, pp. 7-10)

The following are general instructional methods that can be used together or in isolation. Remember it's helpful to combine these approaches with some of the learning strategies you are teaching students to use in the classroom or on their own.

  • Scaffolded instruction (aka mediated scaffolding or cognitive scaffolding):
    Scaffolding is a structured method of instruction that uses procedures (i.e., sequence of steps), explicit tasks, and personal support. Scaffolding begins with intensive support and structure, then tapers off as the child becomes more adept at using the learning procedures. This means teachers should gradually remove instructional supports as students gain skills, grow to understand the complexities of the content, and become more active and self-directed learners. Prompts and guides (to remind students to use the techniques or learning tools they have been taught to use) are examples of scaffolding tools that a teacher can use after she removes other, multi-layered supports. Eventually, when learning becomes self-directed, the teacher relinquishes control.

    Examples of scaffolded instruction include lessons that begin with simple ideas and concepts with which students can relate, and build on those ideas with more challenging content through individual or group questioning and graphic or other aides. Teachers who scaffold are careful to relate the new or compounding ideas to a student's prior experiences, or provide a chance for students to become familiar with a concept if he or she hasn't had the necessary experiences. Bos & Vaughn (1998) describe specific programs that involve scaffolded instruction, such as Cognitive Strategy Instruction in Writing (CSIW) (Englert, Raphael, Anderson, Anthony, & Stevens, 1991), and the Early Literacy Project (ELP) (Englert et al., 1994; 1995).

  • Cooperative learning:
    Also known as collaborative learning, cooperative learning is more than just physically placing students in a group to accomplish an assignment. It is a method of instruction that calls for each student's direct and active participation in acquiring knowledge by working collaboratively and interactively within a group of 4-6 people. In some collaborative learning models, students can also work in pairs. Teachers instruct students in cooperative learning procedures and provide opportunities to acquire and practice skills that lead to successful group interactions as well as successful studying skills, such as taking notes, prioritizing, organizing information, communicating with peers, and sticking to timelines. Cooperative learning targets the development and refinement of at least the following five areas, according to Johnson & Johnson (1990a):

    1. positive interdependence (individual success is dependent on group success);
    2. face-to-face positive interaction (e.g., sharing, understanding, and developing group knowledge);
    3. individual accountability;
    4. interpersonal and small-group skills (e.g., communication, conflict-resolution, decision-making); and
    5. reflection (both of academic and social processes).

      (Taken from Wood, Woloshyn, & Willoughby, 1995)

Teachers should provide students with many opportunities to use cooperative learning before academic content can be successfully acquired. Furthermore, the skills level of students within the group should be assessed (are all student performing at the same level, or is this a heterogeneous group?). Another recommendation is to post or provide outcomes expected of the group. This helps to guide students and keep them on task. For specific activities to enhance the five Johnson & Johnson elements above, refer to other articles by Johnson & Johnson listed in Models & Classroom Instruction References.

  • Collaborative teaching:
    Also known as cooperative teaching and co-teaching, collaborative teaching occurs when a special education teacher works collaboratively with a general education teacher to teach a diverse group of students in an inclusive classroom setting. For example, a middle school special education teacher may work collaboratively to prepare and deliver lessons with a science teacher whose portion of a class is made up of students with learning disabilities. According to Bos & Vaughn (1998), cooperative teaching consists of the following:


    1. Special and general education teachers work together to broadly plan general goals and desired outcomes for the class as a whole and/or for specific students in the class.
    2. Students see the special and general education teachers as figures of equal authority during the same instruction period and don't label one teacher as "the teacher for the special students."
    3. Although one teacher may provide instruction to the class as a whole from time to time, usually instruction involves teachers working with small groups or individual students.
    4. In a heterogeneous classroom, the special education teacher works with many students, including those receiving special education and related services. It should be noted that this teacher should not be restricted to working with special education students only, but should also work with general education students as well.
    5. Co-teaching involves co-planning and instruction. Both special education and general education teachers determine complementary instruction and supportive learning activities, based on their strengths as instructors in specific content and process areas. For example, one teacher may bring expertise in a particular content area and the other may bring expertise in the organization or use of aids for delivering that content.


How can students gain skills that will help them acquire knowledge independently?

Students can learn study strategies and learning tools designed to promote learning and retaining knowledge. Examples of these strategies are listed below.


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