Methods for Presenting Subject Matter

The word educate comes from Latin, meaning "to bring up, to rise, and to nourish, to train." To educate is an active enterprise. In comparison, the word teach comes from German, meaning  "show, declare, warn, persuade." To teach is a more passive activity. 

The difference between these words, educate and teach, has resulted in many different instructional strategies, some more active and some more passive. The teacher has the option to choose one in order to successfully deliver content.

In choosing an active or passive instructional strategy, the teacher must also consider for other factors such as subject matter, the resources available, the time allotted for the lesson, and the background knowledge of the students. What follows is a list of ten instructional strategies that can be used to deliver content regardless of grade level or subject matter.

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Teacher talking to students in classroom
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Lectures are instructor-centered forms of instruction given to a whole class. Lectures come in many different forms, some more effective than others. The least effective form of lecture involves a teacher reading from notes or the text without differentiating for student needs. This makes learning a passive activity and students may quickly lose interest.

The lecture is the most used strategy. An article in "Science Educator" titled "Brain Research: Implications to Diverse Learners" (2005) notes:

"Although lecturing continues to be the most widely employed method in classrooms across the country, research on the way we learn indicates that lecturing is not always very effective."

Some dynamic teachers, however, lecture in a more free-form manner by including students or providing demonstrations. Some skilled lecturers have the ability to engage students using humor or insightful information.

The lecture is often coined as "direct instruction" which can be can be made into a more active instructional strategy when it is part of a mini-lesson.

The lecture portion of the mini-lesson is designed in a sequence where the teacher first makes a connection to previous lessons. Then the teacher delivers the content using a demonstration or a think-aloud. The lecture part of the mini-lesson is revisited after students have an opportunity for hands-on practice when the teacher restates the content one more time. 

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Socratic Seminar

In a whole group discussion, the instructor and the students share the focus of the lesson. Typically a teacher presents information through questions and answers, trying to ensure that all students are involved in learning. Keeping all students on task, however, may be difficult with large class sizes. Teachers should be aware that using an instructional strategy of whole-class discussions may result in passive engagement for some students who may not participate.

To increase engagement, whole-class discussions may take several different forms. The Socratic seminar is where an instructor asks open-ended questions allowing students to respond and build on each others thinking. According to education researcher Grant Wiggins, the Socratic seminar leads to more active learning when,

" becomes the student’s opportunity and responsibility to develop habits and skills that are traditionally reserved for the teacher."

One modification to the Socratic Seminar is the instructional strategy known as the fishbowl. In the fishbowl, a (smaller) inner circle of students respond to questions while a (larger) outer circle of students observes. In the fishbowl, the instructor participates as a moderator only.

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Jigsaws and Small Groups

There are other forms of small group discussion. The most basic example is when the teacher breaks the class up into small groups and provides them with talking points that they must discuss. The teacher then walks around the room, checking on the information being shared and ensuring participation by all within the group. The teacher may ask students questions to ensure that everyone's voice is heard.

The Jigsaw is one modification on small group discussion that asks each student to become an expert on a particular topic and then share that knowledge by moving from one group to another. Each student expert then "teaches" the content to the members of each group. All members are responsible to learn all content from one another.

This method of discussion would work well, for example, when students have read an informational text in science or social studies and are sharing information to prepare for questions posed by the instructor. 

Literature circles are another instructional strategy that capitalizes on active small group discussions. Students respond to what they have read in structured groups designed to develop independence, responsibility, and ownership. Literature circles can be organized around one book or around a theme using many different texts.

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Role Play or Debate

Roleplay is an active instructional strategy that has students take on different roles in a specific context as they explore and learn about the topic at hand. In many ways, role-play is similar to improvisation where each student is confident enough to offer an interpretation of a character or an idea without the benefit of a script. One example could be asking students to participate in a luncheon that is set in a historical period (ex: a Roaring 20s "Great Gatsby" party). 

In a foreign language class, students might take on the role of different speakers and use dialogues to help learn the language. It is important that the teacher has a firm plan for including and assessing the students based on their role-playing as more than participation.

The use of debates in the classroom can be an active strategy that strengthens skills of persuasion, organization, public speaking, research, teamwork, etiquette, and cooperation. Even in a polarized classroom, student emotions and biases can be addressed in a debate that begins in research. Teachers can foster critical thinking skills by requiring students to provide evidence to support their claims before any debate.

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Hands-on or Simulation

Hands-on learning allows students to participate in an organized activity best evidenced in stations or science experiments. The arts (music, art, drama) and physical education are those recognized disciplines that require hands-on instruction.

Simulations are also hands-on but are different than role-playing. Simulations ask students to use what they have learned and their own intellect to work through an authentic problem or activity. Such simulations might be offered, for example, in a civics class where students create a model legislature in order to create and pass legislation. Another example is having students participate in a stock market game. Regardless of the kind of activity, a post-simulation discussion is important for assessing student understanding.

Because these kinds of active instructional strategies are engaging, students are motivated to participate. The lessons do require extensive preparation and also require the teacher to make clear how each student will be assessed for their participation and then be flexible with the results.

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Software Program(s)

Teachers can use a variety of educational software on different platforms to deliver digital content for student learning. The software might be installed as an application or a program that students access on the internet. Different software programs are selected by the teacher for their content (Newsela) or for the features that allow students to engage (Quizlet) with the material.

Longterm instruction, a quarter or semester, can be delivered over software platforms online such as Odysseyware or Merlot. These platforms are curated by educators or researchers who provide specific subject materials, assessment, and support materials.

Short term instruction, such as a lesson, can be used to engage students in learning content through interactive games (Kahoot!) or more passive activities such as reading texts.

Many software programs can collect data on student performance which can be used by teachers to inform instruction in areas of weakness.  This instructional strategy requires that teacher vets the materials or learns the software processes of the program in order to best use the data that records student performance.

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Presentation Through Multimedia

Multimedia methods of presentation are passive methods of delivering content and include slideshows (Powerpoint) or movies. When creating presentations, teachers should be aware of the need to keep notes concise while including interesting and relevant images. If done well, a presentation is a kind of lecture that can be interesting and effective for student learning. 

Teachers may want to follow a 10/20/30 rule which means there are no more than 10 slides, the presentation is under 20 minutes, and the font is no smaller than 30 points. Presenters need to be aware that too many words on a slide can be confusing to some students or that reading every word on the slide aloud can be boring for an audience that can already read the material.

Movies present their own set of problems and concerns but can be extremely effective when teaching certain subjects. Teachers should consider the pros and cons of using movies before using them in the classroom.

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Independent Reading and Work

Some topics lend themselves well to individual classroom reading time. For example, if students are studying a short story, a teacher might have them read in class and then stop them after a certain time to ask questions and check for understanding. However, it is important that the teacher is aware of student reading levels to make sure that students do not fall behind. Different leveled texts on the same content may be necessary.

Another method some teachers use is to have students select their own reading based on a research topic or simply on their interests. When students make their own choices in reading, they are more actively engaged. On independent reading selections, teachers may want to use more generic questions to assess student understanding such as:

  • What did the author say?
  • What did the author mean?
  • What words are the most important?

Research work in any subject area falls into this instructional strategy. 

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Student Presentation

The instructional strategy of using student presentations as a way to present content to the class as a whole can be a fun and engaging method of instruction. For example, teachers can divide up a chapter into topics and have the students "teach" the class by presenting their "expert" analysis. This is similar to the Jigsaw strategy used in small group work.

Another way to organize student presentations is to hand out topics to students or groups and have them present information on each topic as a short presentation. This not only helps students learn the material in a deeper manner but also provides them with practice in public speaking. While this instructional strategy is largely passive for the student audience, the student presenting is an active demonstrating a high level of understanding.

Should students choose to use media, they should also adhere to the same recommendations that teachers should use with Powerpoint (ex: a 10/20/30 rule) or for films.

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Flipped Classroom

Student use of all manner of digital devices (smartphones, laptops, i-Pads, Kindles) that allow access to content brought the beginning of the Flipped Classroom. More than a switch of homework to classwork, this relatively new instructional strategy is where the teacher moves the more passive elements of learning such as watching a powerpoint or reading a chapter, an activity outside of the classroom, usually the day or night before. This design of the flipped classroom is where valuable class time is available for more active forms of learning.

In flipped classrooms, one goal would be to guide students to make decisions on how to learn better on their own rather than having the teacher deliver information directly.

One source of materials for the flipped classroom is Khan Academy, This site originally began with videos that explained math concepts using the motto "Our mission is to provide a free, world-class education to anyone, anywhere."

Many students preparing for the SAT for college entry might be interested to know that if they are using Khan Academy, they are participating in a flipped classroom model.

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Your Citation
Bennett, Colette. "Methods for Presenting Subject Matter." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Bennett, Colette. (2023, April 5). Methods for Presenting Subject Matter. Retrieved from Bennett, Colette. "Methods for Presenting Subject Matter." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).