Direct instruction refers to an instructional approach that is teacher-centered. Lessons are structured and involve the teacher disseminating information to students in a unidirectional path.
An example of direct instruction is the traditional lecture format in universities. The teacher lectures regarding a specific topic while students diligently take notes.
Although this may be what most people think of when hearing the term “direct instruction”, it is actually a quite narrow definition.
Direct instruction encompasses a much broader array of teaching techniques. For example, using a video to convey key points in a lesson is also direct instruction because it is the teacher that selected the video.
In practice, teachers incorporate a degree of direct instruction in most lessons, even when they involve other instructional strategies.
Direct Instruction Examples
1. SMART Learning Objectives
Learning objectives are specific statements regarding what students should be able to do or an action they should be able to perform at the end of the lesson.
Identifying learning objectives is an excellent way for teachers to align instructional content with curriculum standards and assessment procedures.
Because objectives are determined by the teacher, this is considered an example of direct instruction.
Learning objectives should be guided by SMART, which stands for:
Some modern educational approaches allow students to set their own learning objectives.
This helps students feel empowered and increases their sense of responsibility for their own learning.
However, there are many instructional scenarios where it is best that the teacher identifies the learning objectives.
See More: 55 Learning Objectives Examples
2. The Detailed Class Outline
Some teachers and professors like to write a detailed outline on the board before starting class. The outline identifies the main subjects of that day’s lesson and the various facts and concepts associated with each heading.
This helps organize the information for students. They can see how the different concepts are grouped together and relate to other key subjects.
Seeing how material is organized is extremely important for understanding, especially if there are many similar concepts involved.
The more complicated the subject, the more valuable the outline.
Outlines can also contain examples. This allows students to process information more deeply and provides context for abstract concepts.
A conclusion at the end of the outline provides a summary of key points and highlights main concepts.
3. Think Aloud When Working Through Computations
Math is an intimidating subject for many students. Especially high-level subjects such as Calculus. Those computations can get quite complicated. For a lot of students, teachers simply go through the calculations too quickly; they just can’t follow along.
This is why thinking aloud is a form of direct instruction teachers can use that can be extremely effective.
When the teacher thinks aloud as they go through each step in the line of a complex equation, it has several benefits.
First, it helps students understand the logic behind each particular step and how the teacher eventually arrived at the solution. This leads to a much clearer understanding and a deeper level of processing.
Secondly, by thinking aloud, the teacher will go at a pace that is more appropriate for students.
In most cases, the teacher has performed those calculations so many times that they really don’t have to think about what they are doing. This can lead to them going far too fast for beginners.
Thinking aloud forces the teacher to go at a much more reasonable pace.
4. Modeling Techniques in Art Class
Showing students how to perform a certain action is called modeling. It is an example of direct instruction completely controlled by the teacher. The teacher slowly and methodically displays the movements that are needed to obtain the desired results.
Modelling is a fundamental teaching technique in art class. Showing students how to create a specific effect by turning the brush a certain way and applying a certain degree of pressure are key to students developing those skills themselves.
The art teacher will often model the stroke and think aloud simultaneously so that students understand how the action is executed.
Although students could also learn by experimenting and exploring on their own, it is far more efficient to receive direct instruction from an expert.
5. Demonstrations in Physics
Concepts in physics are usually abstract and complex. Hearing an instructor’s explanations can sometimes be confusing and difficult to follow, especially if there is a lot of technical jargon involved.
This is when demonstrations can be very helpful. Seeing abstract concepts in action in the physical world facilitates student understanding.
For example, using a wind tunnel to demonstrate aerodynamic properties will help students see with their own eyes how the mathematical formulas function in the real world.
A good demonstration will involve the teacher adjusting variables to show how different results are obtained. The angle of a wing could be changed from one demonstration to the next so that students can see how important that factor is in effecting lift or direction.
During the demonstration, the teacher provides the appropriate explanations of what is happening.
6. Instructional Chunking
Chunking is a term used in teaching to refer to the breaking down of complex tasks into steps. It can be a form of direct instruction when the teacher asks students to complete one step, then the next, then the next, in very explicit order.
To ensure students are learning, the teacher will pause at certain key points and walk around the class. By checking on each student’s progress, they can help students that need guidance and ensure that everyone is on the same page.
This is a form of direct instruction when the instructor chooses the information to be learned, the specific steps in the lesson, and provides explicit verbal instructions while taking the students through the necessary steps. The students don’t get a chance to go off in their own creative direction.
7. The Gradual Release of Responsibility Model
Although it is tempting to try to put a single label on any given instructional approach so that it is easily classifiable, the reality is that any one lesson may contain elements of several methodologies. Case in point: The Gradual Release of Responsibility model.
Gradual release of responsibility involves the teacher transferring responsibility for learning from themselves to the students (Fisher & Frey, 2013). The model contains four stages:
- I Do…teacher models the lesson objective
- We Do…guided instruction involving teacher and students
- You Do Together…collaborative learning in small groups or pairs
- You Do Alone…students practice independently
The first step is direct instruction where the teacher models the goal behavior and provides the necessary verbal explanations.
Gradually, the students take more control of the learning process until they are able to perform the tasks without assistance.
Gradual release of responsibility is another great instructional strategy for any teacher’s toolbox.
8. As Preparation for Experiential Activities
Experiential learning involves students participating in an activity that requires the use of specific skills or abilities. Students engage in hands-on activities that give them an opportunity to learn those skills by practicing. It is often called “learning by doing”.
Before the activity is begun, the teacher usually provides direct instruction regarding the objectives, the process, and what skills will be exercised.
Sometimes those instructions are brief, but sometimes the activity requires more detailed explanations. So, the teacher may need to define key concepts or even demonstrate specific skills.
Although the teacher does not play a central role in the experiential activity itself, they help students prepare for the lesson by directing their focus on key elements of the learning objectives.
9. Teaching Phonics
There are many techniques to teach phonics to young learners, and most involve direct instruction.
The teacher has to model the sounds that each letter makes first so that children will understand what those lines on paper actually represent.
Once the basics have been learned, then the teacher can move to the next step and teach students how to read simple CVC words.
A demonstration is the first step. The teacher will point to each letter, pronounce it, and then put all the letters together to produce a single word.
Scaffolding is when the teacher arranges the sequence of learning steps so that each one builds upon the skills obtained at the previous stage. It inherently involves teacher instruction and guidance followed by student-centered work.
While scaffolding is seen as a student-centered approach, it does nonetheless have direct instruction features. The teacher needs to be there to help and instruct the student through a task, and only once the student understands, can the teacher start withdrawing support and allowing the student to take the lead.
Although the concept of scaffolding originates from Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), the term comes from Dr. Jerome Bruner, who defined scaffolding as a process “that enables a child or novice to solve a task or achieve a goal that would be beyond his unassisted efforts” Wood et al. (1976, p. 90).
Pros and Cons of Direct Instruction
|Clarity: Instruction is clear and explicit, which helps the students to know exactly what to do and doesn’t miss any steps.||Passive learning: The student starts off as a passive learner. They sit and listen to the teacher rather than actively completing a task.|
|One-to-many: Direct instruction often takes place in one-to-many instructional settings like university lectures, which can help get information to a large group at one time.||Teacher-Centered: It mostly involves the teacher talking and guiding, meaning it can be harder to receive feedback from students.|
|Replicable: Direct instruction tasks can be repeated over and over again because they’re often in the form of a list or recipe that has clear guidelines.||No Trial and Error: Constructivist theory holds that students should learn through trial and error rather than simply following pre-set directions.|
|Recordable: As direct instruction is mostly teacher-centered, it can be recorded and replayed over and over again for students.||Lacks verbal exchange: Sociocultural theory holds that students often learn best through verbal exchange where they can talk through nuances, while direct instruction doesn’t allow the back-and-forth required for contextualized learning to occur.|
Direct instruction may be teacher-centered, but in many instructional scenarios, it is an absolutely necessary first step.
Teachers use direct instruction when they identify learning objectives, provide students with an outline of the day’s lesson, and model or demonstrate abstract concepts.
Direct instruction can also be applied as a first step to set the stage for another instructional approach. For example, a teacher may define specific concepts needed for an experiential activity.
Gradual release of responsibility starts with direct instruction and then gradually transfers the instructional focus to the students until they can perform independently.
Direct instruction is both necessary and valuable in just about any learning scenario.
Bloom, B. S. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational goals. New York, NY: Longmans, Green.
Chatterjee, D., & Corral, J. (2017). How to write well-defined learning objectives. The Journal of Education in Perioperative Medicine: JEPM, 19(4), E610.
Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2013). Engaging the adolescent learner: Gradual release
of responsibility instructional framework. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.
McLeskey, J., Billingsley, B., Brownell, M. T., Maheady, L., Lewis, T. J. (2019). What are high-leverage practices for special education teachers and why are they important? Remedial and Special Education, 40(6), 331-337.
Wood, D., Bruner, J., & Ross, G. (1976). The role of tutoring in problem solving. Journal of Child Psychology and Child Psychiatry, 17, 89−100.