July 13th, 2015

Rethinking Direct Instruction in Online Learning


Student at laptop

Direct Instruction has a bad reputation. It is often associated in higher education with long lectures and passive learners. “Passivity isn’t wrong because it’s boring; it’s wrong because it doesn’t work” (Daniel and Bizer, 2005, p. 103). Direct Instruction is an instructional model that consists of three main components: modeling, guided practice with formative feedback, and independent practice. When utilized correctly, the Direct Instruction model is anything but boring, and students should never be passive recipients of learning. Beyond the scope of a traditional classroom, there are ways to incorporate Direct Instruction in an online format. The I Do, We Do, You Do structure of Direct Instruction can be utilized to present new material, guide students through the learning process using constructive feedback, and allow space for students to feel part of a larger community of learners as they work in collaboration with peers to demonstrate their understanding. This takes intentionality and effort on behalf of the professor, but this is a worthwhile endeavor as we strive to educate our online learners.

1. I Do – Utilizing screencasts to teach effectively

Direct Instruction starts with the presentation of new material. In an online format, professors carefully select material for students to read or view, and we divide it into manageable-size modules for them to work through. However, we often leave students on their own to draw meaning from the material. By using screencasts, professors are able to demonstrate procedures, solve problems, and help students see how their reading assignments connect. Utilizing a think-aloud strategy during the screencast enables students to hear our thought processes as we analyze difficulties within our field or engage with concepts that may be new to students. Screencasts also allow us to show students how to correctly apply new information to a given situation. If we are active participants in the presentation of new material rather than just selecting appropriate readings or videos for students to passively absorb, we can use this first step of Direct Instruction as an opportunity to establish a clear learning goal for the block of learning.

2. We Do – Effectively guiding the learning process

The key element of this Direct Instruction phase is providing frequent feedback. Bocchi, Eastman, and Swift (2004) found that faculty contact and responsiveness were top expectations students had for online education. Guiding the learning process online is more difficult due to the lack of face-to-face contact we have with our students, especially in asynchronous courses, and it requires a more concerted effort on our part. Feedback throughout the learning process need not be long and detailed, unless we need to offer corrective feedback, but it ought to be substantial enough to communicate to students that they are correctly applying the newly learned material. Midweek check-ins with students allow us to determine whether we need to clarify material for a small group of students by providing an additional tutorial screencast, or arrange for synchronous meetings with individual students to reteach material or help them make appropriate connections to prior learning. We should not wait until students have submitted an assignment before offering feedback on their progress. Guided feedback corrects students during the learning process before incorrect understandings become ingrained patterns of thinking.

3. You Do – Independent learning does not have to be done in isolation

The final phase of Direct Instruction is independent practice. In the online classroom, students often feel as if everything in the course is independent learning because they are given few opportunities to collaborate with their peers. Online attrition rates are always a concern, and feelings of isolation are a leading cause for students to drop out of a course or fail to register for subsequent online classes (Park, Perry & Edwards, 2011). Having students work together to produce an authentic summative assessment piece is a powerful way to increase their feelings of support and connectedness in an online course. Afterwards, students can complete an independent reflection in which they discuss their contribution to the project and reflect on their own learning. This metacognitive activity allows us to assess their level of understanding without them feeling isolated and lacking support from the online community of learners.

Direct Instruction should be an ongoing exchange between professor and students. With effort, creativity, and the intentional use of the I Do, We Do, You Do structure, we can present new information in engaging ways, provide guided feedback as students strive to draw meaning from their new learning, and allow students the opportunity to collaborate with colleagues before independently reflecting on their own learning. The Direct Instruction model does not need to have the bad reputation that it does in education. We can use this model to revitalize our online courses so that student passivity becomes a thing of the past.

Daniels, H., and Bizar, M. (2005). Teaching the best practice way: Methods that matter, K-12. Portland, OR: Stenhouse.

Bocchi, J., Eastman, J. K., & Swift, C. O. (2004). Retaining the online learner: Profile of students in an online MBA program and implications for teaching them. Journal of Education for Business, 79(4), 245–253. http://doi.org/10.3200/JOEB.79.4.245-253

Park, C. L., Perry, B., & Edwards, M. (2011). Minimizing attrition: Strategies for assisting students who are at risk of withdrawal. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 48(1), 37–47. http://doi.org/10.1080/14703297.2010.543769

Kristi Bronkey is an assistant professor at George Fox University, Redmond Campus.