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Rosenshine's second Principle of Instruction: Present material in small steps

Rosenshine’s second Principle of Instruction: Present material in small steps

4 min read
  • Rosenshine’s Principles

Rosenshine’s 10 Principles of Instruction are becoming increasingly popular in education as they provide a much-needed bridge between scientific research and classroom instruction. If you are not already familiar with Rosenshine’s principles, see our brief guide to Rosenshine’s 10 principles of instruction.

Rosenshine’s second principle, which is to introduce new material in small steps, addresses the limitations of our working memory and how it is quite small. To ensure we do not overloading students’ cognitive load, Rosenshine believed that teachers should present new material in small sequential steps.

Let’s take a closer look at why…

What does Rosenshine say?

Rosenshine suggests that the best teachers are those that recognise and overcome the limitations of their students’ cognitive load by teaching material in small steps. These teachers adopt this sequential learning approach to ensure that their students have mastered a concept before moving onto the next step. Student mastery is assessed both through retrieval practice and knowledge application.

Rosenshine recognised that breaking down learning into small steps requires time, but believed the pay-off is worth it as doing so:

  • Makes the task more manageable
  • It allows students to make steady progress
  • It allows students to make connections in their learning
  • It allows students to understand why each step is important
  • It allows teachers to assess student progress more quickly

What does the research say? A quick recap of cognitive overload

Cognitive Load Theory emphasises how our working memory, which is where we initially store new information, has a limited capacity. For learning to occur, this information needs to be transferred to the near-unlimited capacity of our long-term memory. Unfortunately, there is a bottleneck between the two, meaning that information that doesn’t get transferred across is ultimately lost and forgotten.

As our working memory is so small, if students are presented with too much information at once, their brain can suffer from something known as cognitive overload. When this occurs, the learning process slows down and can even stop, as the brain can no longer process all the information being presented at that one time.

Rosenshine’s second principle provides teachers with advice on how to avoid overloading their students’ cognitive load. By presenting information in small steps, teachers will be better able to organise the learning material in a way that allows for information to be transferred to the long-term store, improving memory recall.

Help your staff understand the research behind Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction, and how to apply them in the classroom.

Practical implications in the classroom

Use worked examples

Worked examples are a great tool for teachers to reduce the load placed on their students’ working memory by showing the steps needed to achieve a particular task. When students are given problems to solve, all their focus is on how to solve the problem rather than what steps they took. Consequently, when students look over past answers to problems, they often can’t remember how they got there.

Use completion tasks

Completion tasks are another effective way for teachers to break down a complex task. Unlike standard worked examples where students don’t really interact with the material, completion tasks are worked examples that are completed partially. Therefore, students are forced to apply their knowledge by completing the rest of the task themselves. This enhances learning as it pushes students to expand and apply their knowledge but should not overwhelm them.

Reduce the amount of information on your slides

Although it may be tempting to include a lot of information on your slides and add fancy animations to make your presentation more fun and interesting, you would actually be hindering your students’ learning. Too many words on the slides? Students will likely remember a lot of redundant information. Too many fancy animations? Students will likely remember the animations more than the actual content.

Research shows that presenting information in bite-sized segments instead of including loads of information enhances overall learning. By being concise and prioritising the important information, you will give students the time they need to fully process the new information that they’re supposed to learn. This allows them to transfer the content to their long-term memory before moving onto the next segment in the presentation.

Use instructions

In his excellent book on the Principles of Instruction, Tom Sherrington suggests that teachers can simplify a complex task by providing students with clear step-by-step instructions on what to do. Rosenshine uses the example of learning how to summarise the information in a paragraph:

  1. Teacher identifies the main theme of one example paragraph;
  2. Teacher identifies the main themes of different paragraphs;
  3. Teacher presents a new paragraph and asks the class questions about the paragraph;
  4. Teacher supervises as students learn to summarise the main theme on their own;
  5. Teacher then models how to identify the information that supports these themes;
  6. Teacher supervises students attempt at identifying these supporting themes. 

By deconstructing the process in which their students should approach the task of summarising a paragraph and giving them opportunities to practice on their own, their students will understand what is expected of them.

Final thoughts

We can only process so much information at once. By identifying where students may be disadvantaged by their cognitive load, you can implement the appropriate strategies to overcome these limitations.

It’s important to note that breaking down a task, is not the same as dumbing down a task. Instead, it enhances student learning by allows them to develop a deeper understanding of the processes behind completing tasks.

You can learn all about this specific topic on the InnerDrive Online Academy with our online Cognitive Load Theory teacher CPD module. However, we also have a Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction teacher CPD module, where you can learn about this principles and the other nine…

Read our complete guide to Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction…

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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