Multi-modal learning strategies for all students

08/09/2011  |  David D. Lutz, M.A.T.
Learning Strategies

It is no news to anyone—not all learners are the same. Each student in a classroom has a unique and complex system of thinking and learning. So why would we think that we should teach them all alike? Effective teachers want to know better ways to reach their students because they have come to realize that cookie-cutter education usually spells disaster for many learners. Is there a more effective plan of action so that students want to learn? 

Solutions might best be found by combining the best teaching models we know instead of a one-size-fits-all approach. Successful brain-based models, such as cooperative learning, memory, and direct instruction are three such models that when implemented in combination can produce success that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Cooperative learning

Cooperative learning has long been used as a social learning strategy to enhance students’ interpersonal relationships while mastering content. Research indicates that students’ self-concepts improve when they “give and take” information during learning opportunities. Current brain research indicates that cooperative grouping promotes a positive effect in most students, providing much needed enrichment to their overall education. Students who participate in cooperative groups typically experience higher levels of motivation and lower levels of anxiety when they are well managed by their instructors.  Cooperation increases positive feelings toward one another, reducing alienation and loneliness, building relationships, and providing affirmative views of other people (Joyce, B., Weil, M., and Calhoun, E., 2000). This type of differentiation produces positive outcomes because it “levels the field” for students, making it possible for each one to approach learning with their own valuable knowledge to share. In addition, when several differentiated strategies are combined to attack multi-faceted educational problems (Joyce, Weil, and Calhoun p. 26), more students enjoy success.

Combining teaching models

Teaching models such as cooperative learning, the memory model, and the direct instruction model are brain-based approaches that work together in various ways to facilitate learning. By pairing the cooperative learning model with the memory model, students can experience great educational gains. The memory model is highly effective for students because it helps lay down new neural networks efficiently. According to recent brain studies, students who exhibit learning problems struggle with transferring information from short-term memory to long-term memory. In other words, their working memory -— the small holding tank for new knowledge -— fails to retain new information long enough to practice it and store it as permanent knowledge. Students who systematically rehearse new knowledge, as they would in the memory model, have a greater chance of retaining new neural networks — pathways of learning in the brain. All learners, including those with disabilities, can benefit from the memory model of instruction. Of course, in order for students to retain information, they must first attend to it. If the brain does not attend to new information, the input will not be stored in short-term memory. This is the interface for cooperative learning and the memory model. Teachers who value the cognitive-social-emotional brains of their students can present new content with positive emotional punctuation. Emotional punctuation, as Eric Jensen describes it, helps make the material relevant to students, enabling them to mentally mark new ideas and recall them later (personal communication, June 15, 2011). Then, when teachers encourage students to manipulate the new knowledge, analyze it and synthesize it in cooperative groups, they reinforce their new learning dramatically.

While both cooperative learning and the memory model can boost student learning when used in combination, teachers who use direct instruction methods find it easier to lay a firm foundation of background knowledge or schema on which to build new knowledge.  Advance organizers are a good example. Advance organizers, such as story maps in writing, illustrated story problems in math, or time lines in history are direct methods designed to strengthen students’ cognitive structures so that connections to new concepts can be made (Ausubel, 1963, p. 27 as cited by Joyce, B., Weil, M., & Calhoun, E., 2000).  A parallel exists between the way subject matter is organized and the way people organize knowledge in their minds. Advance organizers, consequently, are essential to students with unique learning needs because they help ease the transition from concrete thinking to abstract thinking, making analysis and synthesis of new concepts much easier in their groups and in their individual learning.

Teachers who understand the cognitive-social-emotional state of students’ brains can enrich the learning environment by differentiating their instruction with multiple models for teaching. They can level the field for all of their learners by giving students ample cooperative learning opportunities and by using strategies from teaching models like the memory and direct instruction models. If teachers strive to maintain a balance of differentiated quality instruction with an atmosphere of risk-taking and emotional safety, they up the odds that students will find success in school. By incorporating multiple modes of instruction that build up their students’ schema and when they present information in a socially and an emotionally safe climate, students attend to their learning with a higher degree of accuracy, retention, and confidence.

(For reference information contact [email protected].)

Mr. Lutz taught in elementary and junior high classrooms for over 20 years. With a master’s degree in curriculum instruction, he serves as a curriculum specialist for Shurley Instructional Materials, Inc.
Comments & Ratings

  10/11/2011 6:04:10 AM
Leslie (Kullman) Lower 

Great Article! 
Great job Mr. Lutz! You were one of my very favorite teachers. I just loved singing along when you played guitar :-)