A More Concrete Classroom

One thing teachers do is reflect…reflect on their instruction, its impact, and how to improve.  In my reflection upon the first semester, I believe I’ve done some things quite well…introducing my students to the strategies and benefits of retrieval practice, spaced practice, dual coding, and interleaving.  I hope (fingers crossed) they take these strategies and apply them appropriately to their future studies and practice.  Although my curriculum is psychology, I pay special attention to the learning strategies mentioned above.  My students are quite intelligent, but I find they mostly rely on poor study strategies; mainly highlighting and/or rereading their notes.  Introducing my students to these more effective and efficient learning strategies is a major focus of my class.

But, as I reflect upon a successful semester, I also see some aspects I can improve upon…more retrieval practice to begin/end lessons, more efficient presentations, better interleaving of topics, etc.  Those are just a few that pop into my head.  If I had a New Year’s resolution for my instruction, though, it would be to be more deliberate with concrete examples in my classes to encourage transfer of information.  To be honest, I mostly saw the use of concrete examples as an intuitive skill students used and I paid little attention to fostering its development.

It wasn’t until a recent #lrnscichat, hosted by The Learning Scientists, that the importance of concrete examples as a learning strategy became more apparent to me.  During the chat I posed the question, “do you believe the use of concrete examples provides the best opportunity for students to transfer information?”  As with the use of most strategies, the answer is, “it depends.”  However, the wonderful Dr. Kuepper-Tetzel provided some information that took my understanding of concrete examples to another level.  She explained:

“The crucial point about concrete examples is that you need to make sure that you carefully transition to more abstract ideas…this is called concreteness fading. Don’t get stuck with concrete examples only.”

Concreteness fading (what a cool term) was a totally new concept to me.  Dr. Kuepper-Tetzel continued to explain:

“Concreteness fading is actually the key point of that strategy (concrete examples). If you don’t move beyond concrete examples, you will actually never be able to do any transfer whatsoever. It’s like memorising examples then. The underlying (abstract) principles are key…Scaffolding and starting with concrete examples, then moving slowly to more abstract principles. Let them ask and answer questions and identify their misunderstandings.”

It was as if a light bulb switched on in my head.  With this simple explanation, the use of concrete examples made complete sense.  Also, its importance in my class became apparent because my AP Psychology curriculum is very driven by new terms/concepts students need to appropriately define and transfer.  

So, the question now is, what will this look like in my classroom?  How will I use concrete examples to improve both my student’s study habits and retention of material?  Well, here’s how I believe I can use this strategy in the classroom…please keep in mind I haven’t actually used this activity yet, so some modification will certainly occur after its use.

  1. As the teacher, I’ll choose the top 5-10 (depending on the unit) most confusing terms/concepts and place them in this template:

Screen Shot 2017-12-28 at 12.03.42 PM

The idea here is that the students are representing the key terms in three different ‘forms’, some more concrete and some more abstract.

  1. Students should complete the template.
  2. Students will confirm their examples with either myself and/or students next to them.
  3. Students will cut out their squares from the template and trade their cut out terms and examples with a different student.
  4. Next, attempt to correctly identify all terms and examples by putting the other student’s template together.  If done correctly, each student will arrange the term with its definition, a real-world example, and an image depicting the term.  The swapping can happen any number of times, depending on the student’s level of understanding and time alloted.  
  5. Finally, I think I’ll bring the class together to discuss any confusing examples and/or ask for any new examples students may have developed while completing the activity.

Obviously, the hope here is that students have many different representations of a key term so they can transfer their understanding across different concrete and abstract examples, leading to an increased retention of material.  

Another conversation to have with students is how this activity, or any modification of it, can be applied to other classes in school and possibly as a study tool in college.  All strategies mentioned are highly applicable and modifiable across most curriculums and are much more effective/efficient than most student’s intuitive study habits.  Yes, they require more effort, but more effortful learning is usually more successful learning.

How do you use concrete examples in your class?

How will you apply the idea of concreteness fading to improve your student’s learning?

How would you improve/modify my activity?


9 thoughts on “A More Concrete Classroom

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  1. Sweller et al talk about the “worked example” effect which is used in math quite a bit (or should be anyway). Initial problems representing a particular problem type are given so that students are familiar with its workings. Then, the problems vary. So a set of distance/rate problems, say, which use the governing equation of distance = rate * time, start to vary. Sometimes they solve for the rate, sometimes for time. Students then are working beyond the initial worked example. But it all starts off with concrete examples. For more on this, see: http://www.ams.org/notices/201310/rnoti-p1340.pdf

  2. Interesting ideas here. In a “Brain and Behavior” course I teach in Psychology, I’ve been thinking of reframing my lectures around more applied examples – I see these as perhaps more “concrete” in student’s minds because it links to that “real world example”. This would change your template somewhat – might put the example on the right, then students identify relevant terms and principles. Right now, I feel that students spend too much time on the vocabulary and less on the application, which on-line study tools (i.e. Mindtap) and even standard lecture formats seems to emphasize. “Concreteness fading” is a new term for me, but perhaps an important idea here is to encourage students to go beyond studying as if they are taking a vocabulary exam.

  3. Useful stuff. Thanks.

    Concreteness fading seems to be one way of encouraging abstraction. Abstraction shows up a lot in the literature in one form or another: schema theory, CLT (as noted by BGarelick), analogies…

    A recent web apps course has some of this. For example, one lesson is about an example app that shows data on university courses. The next lesson starts by saying that, “Courses and dogs have much in common.”

    A student says, “Wait, what? Courses, and dogs. You mean the animals, right?”

    The author replies, “OK, courses and dogs don’t have much in common, but their data and apps do.”

    The rest of the lesson is about the how data models for courses and dogs are similar: fields, records, record sets, etc. Even app interfaces are similar.

    The lesson is at https://webapp.cybercour.se/course/courses-and-dogs

    Suggestions for improvement are welcome.

  4. Congratulations once again on such an interesting, thought-provoking post! I’m a teacher of English as a Foreign Language and the technique mentioned here made me think of how we teach grammar. Concrete examples being those that contain time expressions to help identify the tense, for example. Taking teaching grammar to the next level (production rather than reception) , concreteness fading is to make students understand what meaning is inherent to a tense, so to speak. And this is the ultimate goal!

    1. Thank you for the very kind words. The wonderful aspect of learning strategies like retrieval practice, spaced practice, concrete examples, interleaving, etc. is the ability to modify and adapt the strategies to everyone’s particular classroom. Thank you for reading. 🙂

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