Thursday / April 25

It’s Not Only HOW You Use a Strategy – Its Effectiveness Also Depends on WHEN You Use It

Marzano’s (2011) insightful article, ‘It’s How You Use a Strategy’ has resonated with me since I read it years ago. It’s one of those ‘nuggets’ that as a facilitator of professional learning, I use regularly in my work in the field with teachers and school leaders. In it, Marzano points out that the effect sizes of various instructional strategies vary from one study to another and provides an example from his own research. When studying the impact of the strategy of identifying differences and similarities, in one study Marzano and his colleagues found that it was associated with a 45 percentile gain but only an 18 percentile gain in a different study. He attributes the difference in impact to different levels of implementation and noted that it’s “how a teacher uses a strategy is key to how effective the strategy is”. He shares four levels of implementation (from beginning to innovating) and notes that when we first use a strategy, we aren’t very fluent with it and therefore, are prone to errors.

What’s been your experience when trying strategies for the first time? Do you inevitably do one (or more) of the following:

  • forget to share a critical step in the execution of the strategy?
  • give too many instructions at once?
  • fail to anticipate questions from the students that might arise?
  • neglect to model what you’re asking the students to do?
  • forget to explain how the strategy will help students gain better understandings?

I am often prone to some of these errors the first time I use a new strategy in my teaching. However, I get much better – over time – with practice.

I use Marzano’s article not only to help explain the variability of effect sizes for certain strategies, but also to provide encouragement and motivation so that teachers do not abandon strategies too soon – before they see the positive effect the strategy can have on student learning.

While Marzano helps us to understand that a key to effectiveness is how the strategy is used, Hattie helps us understand that it’s also about when you use the strategy. Another reason why the effects on student learning of various instructional strategies vary from study to study, is because that for many strategies, effectiveness depends on when they are used. In a conversation with John Hattie, he provided a clear example. According to the Visible Learning Database, ‘inquiry-based teaching’ has an overall effect of 0.46. However, there is considerable variability in the individual meta-analyses. The effects range from 0.17 to 1.03. When looking deeper into the studies, John explained that the lower effects occurred when inquiry was introduced too soon – before students had enough background knowledge. When inquiry-based teaching was used at the right time (when students have sufficient background knowledge), it showed much greater potential to considerably accelerate student achievement.

Teachers can use these insights from Marzano and Hattie when planning for more impactful instruction. When designing lessons, it’s important to know what your students already know and what they don’t so that you can select strategies that will best support students in their current phase of learning. Strategies that help to support initial acquisition of knowledge and skills should be considered when students are unfamiliar with topics and concepts. Teachers can progressively move from surface to deep to transfer as determined by their students’ readiness.

In the series of Visible Learning books, authors including Hattie, Fisher, Frey, Almarode, and Stern (to name a few), explore the ways in which the Visible Learning influences, that are contained within the ‘teaching strategies domain’, could be mobilized to match the appropriate phase of students’ learning at three levels – surface, deep, and transfer (e.g., Visible Learning for Literacy: Implementing Practices That Work Best to Accelerate Student Learning). In addition, Stern and colleagues’ Learning That Transfers: Designing Curriculum for a Changing World, is a valuable resource for anyone wanting to learn more about strategies for teaching for transfer.

On a final note, when teachers collaborate to thoughtfully investigate how and when to use strategies for maximum impact, collective efficacy increases. By coming together to figure out how to increase fluency, effectiveness of delivery, and at what phase of learning that strategies work best, benefits for students will become apparent. As teachers realize the impact that their out of class collaboration had within their individual classrooms, “collective efficacy is fed by evidence of impact” (Hattie, personal communication).

Written by

Jenni Donohoo is a best-selling author and Corwin consultant with more than 20 years experience in leading school change. Jenni and Steven Katz’s latest book entitled Quality Implementation: Leveraging Collective Efficacy to Make ‘What Works’ Actually Work is available through Corwin.

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