Instructional Practices

Introduction | Research-Based Instructional Techniques
Research and Theory on the Instructional Strategies | Resources
Service Learning | Resources


It is often productive to consider alternative instructional practices at the same time you consider alternative student learning outcomes and assessment practices. It is valuable to align the outcomes, instructional practices, and student assessment practices. For example, if a student learning outcome is focused on acquiring certain facts, a lecture method of instruction and a multiple choice test may be well aligned with that learning outcome. However, if the learning outcome is focused on developing critical thinking skills, other instructional methods (e.g., cooperative learning, questioning) and other assessment methods (e.g., having students write a paper or make a presentation and score it using a rubric) likely would be better aligned with the desired student learning outcome.

Below we discuss two categories of alternative instructional practices: Research-Based Instructional Techniques and Service Learning.

Research-Based Instructional Techniques

Given the wide variety of instructional practices that exist, we are not attempting to list all of them. Rather we have drawn on a synthesis of research that identifies nine instructional techniques with particularly strong evidence of a positive effect on student learning. These techniques can be used in a variety of combinations and settings.

Researchers at Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL) analyzed selected research studies on instructional strategies used by teachers in K-12 classrooms (Marzano, 1998). Although their focus was on K-12 classrooms, the techniques are also applicable to post-secondary classrooms.

The nine strategies are:

The MCREL researchers used a research method called meta-analysis to look at the combined results from a number of studies to determine the average effect of a given instructional strategy. When conducting a meta-analysis, a researcher translates the results of a given study into a unit of measurement referred to as an effect size. An effect-size expresses the increase or decrease in achievement of the experimental group (the group of students who are exposed to a specific instructional technique) in standard deviation units.

If the size computed for a specific study is 1.0, this means that a student at the 50th percentile in the experimental group would be one standard deviation higher than a student at the 50th percentile in the control group. An effect size of 1.0 means a percentile gain of 34 points—one standard deviation above the mean encompasses 34 percent of the scores. Table 1 shows the average percentile gains they found through their meta-analysis.

Table 1 - Categories of Instructional Strategies that Affect Student Achievement
Category Percentile Gain Number of ESs
Identifying similarities and differences 45 31
Summarizing and note-taking 31 179
Reinforcing effort and providing recognition 29 21
Homework and practice 28 134
Nonlinguistic representations 27 246
Cooperative Learning 27 122
Setting objectives and providing feedback 23 408
Generating and testing hypotheses 23 63
Questions, cues, and advance organizers 22 1,251

When interpreting Table 1 above remember that the effect sizes are averages for the various studies examined.

Research and Theory on the Instructional Strategies

In their book, Marzano and his colleagues present key findings from research and theory on each of the nine strategies. They also present classroom practices for implementing these strategies. We present here the main points from research and theory presented in the book for each of the strategies. To learn more, please see the book and tapes identified above.

  1. Identifying Similarities and Differences
  2. Summarizing
  3. Reinforcing Effort and Providing Recognition
  4. Homework
  5. Nonlinguistic Representations
  6. Cooperative Learning
  7. Goal Setting and Providing Feedback
  8. Testing Hypotheses
  9. Cues and Questions


Websites Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL)

What Works in Classroom Instruction: Researched-Based Strategies. Issue 1305. The video Journal of Education. Sandy, UT. (The Bakersfield College Professional Growth Center has this set of video-tapes and an accompanying book on the nine research-based instructional techniques. Contact Sarah Phinney in the Center.)

Marzano, R., Pickering, D., & Pollock, J. (2001). Classroom instruction that works: Research-based strategies for increasing student achievement. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. (This book was designed to accompany the book referenced above.)

Service Learning

Service-learning “is a form of experiential education in which students engage in activities that address human and community needs together with structured opportunities intentionally designed to promote student learning and development. Reflection and reciprocity are key concepts of service-learning.” (S. Jacoby & Associates, 1996).

Participation in community service projects substantially enhances an undergraduate student’s academic learning, life-skill development, and sense of civic responsibility. (Astin & Sax, 1998). Service-learning is well established in disciplines where clinical experience is an important part.

Reflection is designed to foster learning and development. It includes opportunities for participants to receive feedback from peers, program leaders, and those being served. Service- learning includes a deeper understanding of the historical, sociological, cultural, economic, and political contexts of the needs or issues being addressed.

Reciprocity is also an important part of service-learning and represents a more equal partnering of higher education institutions and the community. Members of the community define what the service tasks will be, and students are placed where there are actual needs. Students develop a sense of belonging to the community, and community members take responsibility for their own needs and become empowered to address them.

J. Howard (1993), editor of the peer-reviewed Michigan Journal of Community Service-learning, service-learning also should embody 10 best practices:


Websites The Learn and Serve America National Service-Learning Clearinghouse (NSLC) supports the service-learning community in higher education, K-12, community-based initiatives, tribal programs, and others interested in strengthening schools and communities using service-learning techniques and methodologies. The Clearinghouse maintains this website and a library collection available to grantees. It provides assistance with materials, references, referrals, and information. Math and Service-Learning in Higher Ed Engineering Education & Service-Learning PDF file of Sample faculty engineering sourcebook. Be patient this is a 90 page PDF file.

Tsang, E. (ed). (2000). Projects that matter: Concepts and models for service-learning in engineering. Washington, DC: American Association of Higher Education.