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Principles of effective instruction--general standards for teachers and instructional designers.

This paper offers a review on effective instructional methods from educational and psychological research. Thirteen instructional principles are presented which should help teachers and educators to improve the quality of their instruction. Principles 1 to 4 concern general conditions of successful instruction. Principles 5 to 8 consist of instructional methods to improve and optimize cognitive effects of learning. Principles 9 to 11 refer to motivational and emotional design. Principle 12 is dealing with the handling of ethic aspects. Finally, principle 13 concerns the design of instructional materials.


Many experts in the field of education assume that people can only manage a complex personal and professional life when they are well educated. Such a credo builds the core of actual quality assurance activities in schools. These activities are based at the best on a model of good or effective instruction. The question of what makes instruction effective has been in the focus of educational and psychological research for decades. It is obvious and helpful for instructional practice that research results are reviewed from time to time. Such a review represents the goal of this paper and will focus on: a) results of research which are repeatedly confirmed and which meet criteria of social empirical research (e.g., Atkinson, Derry, Renkl, & Wortham, 2000; Dubs, 1995; Haenisch, 2002; Helmke & Weinert, 1997; Slavin, 2000); b) approaches which not only consider cognitive characteristics of students as relevant for learning, but also motivational and emotional aspects (e.g., Astleitner, 2005; Astleitner, 2000; Bergin, 1999); c) experiences which allow to establish a nation-wide quality assurance system for improving the effectiveness of instruction (e.g., Baumert, Artelt, Klieme, Neubrand, Prenzel, Schiefele, Schneider, Tillmann, & Weiss, 2003): and d) practical approaches which do not only consist of traditional methods of instruction, but also reflect new developments which assist in facing global educational competition (e.g., Mayer, 1999; Paris & Paris, 2001).

These results of research are summarized--within this paper--as "principles" of good instruction (e.g., Sternberg, 1998). "Principles" are general standards or guidelines for acting which were created by generalizations of research results and which educational practitioners should keep in mind when they want to design effective instructional methods and processes. Focusing on such principles only increases the success of instruction when instructional methods are continuously planned, implemented, evaluated, and adapted based on these principles. To adapt means that instructional methods are calibrated to given characteristics of students, teachers, and subject matters. Such a calibration cannot be delivered by this paper, because it is assumed that the connection between research and practice can only be realized at a general level. However, when integrating these principles during planning, implementing, and evaluating instructional methods--together with a diagnosis of problems concerning students and subject matters--, then it can be expected that general guidelines have a specific influence on the design of fine-graded instructional methods. Furthermore,--is important to mention that not all principles have to be implemented in order to produce effective instruction. However, it should be the aim of instructional designers to reflect these principles periodically as general instructional standards when planning and evaluating instructional activities. These principles are:

Principle 1: Instructing based on a design for reflexive learning

During instruction, the student should get the possibility to reflect on learning. Reflective learning represents an active process of construction in which memory contents are--mediated by thinking processes--changed, expanded, linked, structured, or created. This goal can be achieved by basic characteristics of good instruction: a) taking preventive steps to implement instructional methods without disturbances and to handle successfully critical events (e.g., emotional conflicts of students); b) realizing a suitable, not maximal pace of instruction and a sequence of instruction which allows students and teachers to have enough time for thinking and asking questions; c) presenting contents and tasks organized and clearly; d) varying instructional methods during different phases of instruction: e) focusing instruction consequently on teaching goals and offering plenty of possibilities for exercising; f) considering individual differences and learning progresses; and g) establishing a good social-emotional climate between students and teachers.

Principle 2: Multiple supporting of cognitive, motivational, and emotional characteristics

Good instruction consists of a joint usage of several instructional methods with different effects on single characteristics of students. Good instruction not only supports students in thinking and learning, but also motivates them and offers an emotionally sound context. Instruction produces cognitive effects if teaching goals are stated, pre-knowledge is activated, stimulating contents are presented, learning processes are guided, feedback on tasks is given, learning progress is evaluated, and knowledge transfer is guaranteed. Instruction motivates students if attention is aroused, the relevance of the contents is shown, the self-confidence is strengthened, and satisfaction with the results of learning is achieved. In respect to emotion, instruction should decrease negative feelings (above all fear, envy, and anger) and increase positive feelings (above all sympathy and pleasure). Multiple support means that the methods for influencing cognitive, motivational, and emotional processes should be applied in a way that these methods are complementary to each other and do not disturb the effects of the other methods.

Principle 3: Considering the strengths of students

Instruction and achievement evaluation are especially effective, when they assist the student in finding and increasing personal strengths and, in addition, when they deliver guidance to overcome personal weaknesses. Students are more successful in learning when they are instructed in a way that their individual strengths are supported. Here, preferences have to be considered for the kind of learning (i.e., self-regulated or teacher-regulated), for instructional materials (i.e., texts or lectures), or for achievement evaluations (i.e., oral or written examinations). In addition, instruction and achievement evaluation should be based on individual- and criteria-referenced standards and not on socially-referenced standards (e.g., "You have improved since last week" or "You have achieved 80 percent of all teaching goals" and not "40 percent of the students had better achievements than you!"). Achievement evaluations should not only indicate whether a standard was reached or not, but also contain detailed and constructive information about how the given achievement could be improved.

Principle 4: Knowledge acquiring and applying in varying contexts

Daily instruction in school focuses within a first step on the acquisition of basic knowledge. It contains declarative (e.g., concepts, facts) and procedural (e.g., rules) knowledge which should be presented and become a part of the student's memory in correct, structured, and inter-linked patterns. In order to be able to use this knowledge base flexibly, it is necessary that it is applied and evaluated repeatedly within practical cases. Such cases should vary in their difficulty (number of elements to be used for problem solving), in their correspondence with a real task (reality), and in the availability of guidance (learning support). Letting students explain their knowledge to other students also represents an effective way of varying contexts.

Principle 5: Supporting and evaluating basic knowledge but also higher-order skills

In respect to research results, instruction should not only support the acquisition of basic knowledge, but also stimulate higher-order thinking which guides problem solving. During instruction, basic knowledge should be presented with illustrative examples together with tasks and their solutions. Analytical thinking processes are stimulated when students are asked to divide elements of knowledge, to compare, to evaluate, and to explain them. Creative thinking can be fostered when students are required to imagine elements of knowledge and to develop own products of learning. Analytical and creative thinking should be trained within problem solving stages which consist of: finding a problem (what is the problem here?), defining a problem (what are the components of the problem?), formulating a problem solving strategy (how can the problem be solved?), allocating resources (what is needed for solving the problem?), and evaluating the solution (was problem solving successful?). Knowledge, thinking, and problem solving should be an integrated part of the achievement evaluation. Especially, many different traditional and new ways of achievement evaluation (e.g., tests, observations, or portfolios) should be used in order to get a comprehensive and multi-faceted view of the students' knowledge, thinking, and problem solving behavior.

Principle 6: Stimulating argumentation skills

Argumentation skills or critical thinking skills concern general techniques which can be applied in many different subject areas and which represent an important capability to handle obsolete, lacking, or wrong information. For successful argumentation, it is necessary to identify, to construct, and to evaluate arguments. Instructional methods supporting argumentation are: group activities with ranking procedures (of ideas, etc.), pro-and-cons-listings (e.g., advantages and disadvantages), knowledge-wishes-learn-questions (e.g., what knowledge is available? what knowledge is desired? what was learned?), summing up (e.g., the core argument of a text), worksheets for stimulating thinking (e.g., writing a thinking protocol), debates (e.g., discussions of controversial issues), g) problem-based learning (e.g., comparison of single cases), or graphic organizer (e.g., using mapping techniques).

Principle 7: Realizing and guiding self regulated learning

In general, research found that systematically designed instruction by teachers was often able to positively influence the achievements of students, what does not mean that students cannot acquire knowledge by self-regulated learning activities. Self-regulated learning means that the students control the learning process in relation to given goals and that the student select activities to improve learning outcomes. However, for successful self-regulated learning, students must dispose of general and specific learning strategies. Such strategies concern and must be taught within different subject matters: reading skills (e.g., taking notes), studying skills (e.g., memorizing), collaborative learning (e.g., conflict resolution), project management (e.g., organizing projects), communication skills (e.g., presenting results to others), preparing and taking tests (e.g., anticipating test content), or preparing to learn (e.g., managing time).

Principle 8: Increasing the efficiency of learning

When knowledge, thinking skills, and learning strategies are acquired, then they can be optimized what concerns questions of the efficiency of learning. The efficiency of learning is defined as the invested resources in relation to the result of learning. Learning with high efficiency occurs when students are working with tasks which challenge, but not overcharge them. Such tasks are related to the pre-knowledge, but also request additional knowledge or skills. Also, learning becomes more efficient when learning and thinking processes are highly automatic. Therefore, students should get the possibility, for example, in competitions with others, not only to find a correct solution to a problem, but also to identify a quick solution which does not require much resources in time.

Principle 9: Arousing and sustaining interest

Interest as motivation which is directed to a certain subject matter, can be stimulated by different instructional methods. Students find interest when they think that they are an important part of a development or a group. Both, the development and the group should be linked to values ("We do good things!"), be presented in public, and offer support for individuals. Interest can also be increased when students experience competence (based on success) in a subject area, when they are able to set own goals, and when they can work protected from social comparisons with other students. For teaching contents, it should be illustrated why they are important (relevant) for the goals and the life of students. Showing students what kind of knowledge they do not dispose of and how this knowledge can be acquired also represents a major source for increasing interest. Finally, interest can be aroused when integrating idols, activating worksheets, learning games, or story telling into instruction.

Principle 10: Increasing positive feelings

Sympathy and pleasure represent positive feelings of students. Sympathy among students can be increased with instructional strategies like: intensify relationships (e.g., get students to know other students, friends, and families), install sensitive interactions (e.g., reduce students' sulking and increase their directly asking for help), establish cooperative learning structures (e.g., use group investigations for cooperation), and implement peer helping programs (e.g., let students "adopt" children in need). Pleasure can be increased by enhancing well-being (e.g., illustrate students a probabilistic view of the future), establishing open learning opportunities (e.g., use self-instructional learning materials), using humor (e.g., produce funny comics with students), or installing play-like activities (e.g., use simulation-based instructional games).

Principle 11: Decreasing negative feelings

Fear, envy, and anger are negative feelings which often occur during instruction. There are several instructional strategies to reduce these feelings: ensure success in learning (e.g., use well-proven motivational and cognitive instructional strategies), accept mistakes as opportunities for learning (e.g., let student talk about their failures, their expectations, the reasons for errors), induce relaxation (e.g., apply muscle relaxation, visual imagery, autogenics, or meditation), be critical, but sustain a positive perspective (e.g., train students in critical thinking, but also point out the beauty of things) for reducing fear; encourage comparison with autobiographical and criterion reference points instead of social standards (e.g., show students their individual learning history), install consistent and transparent evaluating and grading (e.g., inform students in detail about guidelines for grading), inspire a sense of authenticity and openness (e.g., install "personal information boards" telling others who you are), and avoid unequal distributed privileges among students (e.g., grant all students or no student access to private matters) for decreasing envy among students; and stimulate the control of anger (e.g., show students how to reduce anger through counting backward), show multiple views of things (e.g., demonstrate how one problem can be solved through different operations), let anger be expressed in a constructive way (e.g., do not accept escaping when interpersonal problem solving is necessary), and do not show and accept any form of violence (e.g., avoid threatening gestures).

Principle 12: Establishing respect and responsibility

Changes in society require the school to overtake the teaching of general life skills. Such general life skills are--above all--focusing on respect and responsibility concerning other people, the environment, the society in general, etc. During instruction, such values and related attitudes can be obtained if several conditions are established: building a community with members who take care about each other, using democratic rules when decisions have to be made, making ethical reflexions (what is allowed?), answering questions concerning individual personality development and finding sense of living, discussing ways of how to design daily living, or integrating controversial issues (e.g., genetics or nuclear power) in subject matters.

Principle 13: Using self-instructional learning materials

Many of the presented principles can more easily be integrated in daily instruction, when learning materials are designed in a way that they stimulate self-regulated learning, in order that self-regulated learning can take place, learning materials must be self-instructional. Such materials show these characteristics: a reason why the material should be learned, a statement what pre-knowledge is necessary to understand the material and how this knowledge can be acquired, a consequent orientation on teachings goals, a clear structure of the content, tasks which allow students to test their knowledge, learning guidance by questions and marginalia, pre- and post-organizers, a pool of tasks varying in difficulty together with (complete, incomplete, or multiple) solutions and solution paths, also text attributes which support the search, the organization, and the integration of knowledge, and figures which help to understand the material better.


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Hermann Astleitner, Professor of Educational Psychology, University of Salzburg, Salzburg, Austria.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Dr. Hermann Astleitner, Associate Professor, Department of Education and Sociology, University of Salzburg, Akademiestrasse 26, A-5020 Salzburg, Austria.
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Author:Astleitner, Hermann
Publication:Journal of Instructional Psychology
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2005
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