How to Easily Structure Your Instruction to Increase Retention

September 27, 2022

Brooke McGuire

Ed.D. in Leadership

Illustration of a circular arrow split into colored segments labeled engage, interact, reflect and connect

One of my weaknesses as a teacher was trying to cram too much into a 47-minute period. When I looked up at the clock and realized we had reached the end of our time, I would even attempt to talk over students as they scrambled to clean up in order to get to their next class on time. It wasn’t good for the lesson, it wasn’t good for the learning and it definitely didn’t support a relaxed or a productive educational culture.

Fast forward five years, a colleague mentioned CASEL’s SEL 3 Signature Practices and the concept piqued my interest. Over time, I have created my own variation of it, but I found that general structure works well whether you’re working with young people or adults, in a classroom or during a meeting, and whether it’s a quick lesson or a longer training session. Not only does it help develop social-emotional skills, but it helps maintain clarity (and sanity!) for the facilitator.

CASEL provides multiple ideas and strategies in its playbook. Here are the slight adjustments I’ve made while maintaining the basic solid structure:

Step One: Start the lesson/training with a method to ENGAGE the participants. This is your way to hook the attention of the participants and get them to start thinking about the learning ahead. A traditional “anticipatory set” or “bellringer” works well to activate the learning brain and excite your participants. Start with relevant content that makes it simple for everyone to participate or is particularly entertaining, then gradually work toward the new learning or more serious content. For example, start with “this or that” type debatable statements, ask participants to write about or discuss a question, or view a quick video clip. Humor is typically effective, so you could always share a memorable educational joke to start.

Step Two: During the lesson/training, make sure to incorporate INTERACTion. Don’t just talk at the participants for an extended period of time. Incorporate some Kagan Cooperative Learning Structures in order to encourage conversation and interaction between participants. These high-engagement strategies are meant to be used for math instruction, but the concepts work for virtually any content area.

Although the research is inconclusive, I aim for trying to break lessons up into no more than fifteen minutes of new learning. Clearly, attention span is dependent on multiple factors, and the intensity of the learning should be taken into consideration when determining when participants need a break. And incorporating movement is backed by research. Some form of interaction gives learners time to process new information, make connections to prior learning, formulate their thinking and solidify learning.

Flowchart that shows the cycle between Engage, Interact, Reflect and Connect

Step Three: Make sure participants have an opportunity to REFLECT on a lesson or training. In the moment, it isn’t always recognized how much has happened. Giving structured time to reflect can help participants consider the key points to take away from the experience and help reinforce the new learning without losing sight of what needs to be remembered. And taking this time to purposefully reflect can help teach students to self-monitor their learning process. Providing scaffolds and supports, such as a graphic organizer, can help support reflection throughout a lesson. Check out these tips and guidelines for structuring reflection.

Step Four: Taking time to make CONNECTions can help close out a lesson or training and provide a purposeful start to the next session. They might consist of making connections to prior learning or connecting one lesson/session to the next. Making connections to the participants’ lives and experiences is helpful for making the content more meaningful and memorable. And making connections to where and how that content occurs in the authentic world is particularly engaging for helping students see the purpose in what they’re learning. When I initially learned of CASEL’s Signature Practices, I was a little unimpressed by the simplicity of it. But it’s that simplicity that makes it consistently feasible and easy to remember. I intentionally plan lessons and training sessions with people of all ages to ensure they have time to reflect and connect. It increases clarity of my instruction, enhances learning and improves retention. Participants become familiar with the routine, and it helps contribute to a more positive overall learning experience and environment.

Enhance your teaching with the latest instructional strategies. Explore American College of Education’s fully online education programs.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of American College of Education.
Brooke McGuire
Brooke McGuire, Ed.D. in Leadership

Brooke has taught in a variety of settings, working everything from a service-learning summer program geared toward incoming first graders to a high school program for struggling readers. She's currently the director of teaching and learning at her district.

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