Is Direct Instruction Better Bite-Sized?

I’m not sure why I can’t stop watching this video, because it’s “delivering” scientific content in probably one of the most ineffectual teaching modalities in today’s classroom, direct instruction. Besides just being a euphemism for “lecturing”, direct instruction has been on the decline in several classrooms due to the always-connected, media rich learning environments that students today have become accustomed to. I can recall endless hours listening to the drone of the instructor, and dutifully taking notes during my World History course in high school, or my Modern East Asia course as an undergrad, and while I passed the tests and quizzes in those classes with ease, I really can’t recall any specific piece of knowledge or information that I can attribute having learned in either of those courses.

However, watching this video, which really doesn’t do a whole lot to change the model of lecture besides adding some illustrative graphics and animations, I’m left wondering if it’s the brief nature of the instruction that makes me feel as though it’s going to stick in my head for quite some time.

Perhaps it’s just my inner digital native clinging to the imagery, or the slightly clever delivery, but I’m curious to know if more direct instruction were cut into bite-size chunks like this, would it be much easier to “deliver content”, and get to some of the deeper conversations revolving around that content, such as why is it even important that we know so much about the moon?

I’ll admit, I don’t have a full mastery of every teaching technique, strategy, or practice out there, and I doubt that I ever will, but having experienced various forms of direct instruction as both a student and a practitioner, I know that it isn’t always the most effective form of instruction, especially for students that are much more sensory or visual/spatial in nature. Whether it’s heavily scripted instructional materials, or a 45-minute lecture on the significance of Roman architecture, the old stand-by lecture seems to have gone missing as of late in many classrooms in favor of problem-based learning and hands on exploratory learning.

Not to cherry pick data to support my thesis, but Purdue published research that indicated hands-on projects trump direct instruction in terms of engaging students in the area of technology and engineering, so it’s not too far of a leap to say that a different approach to instruction might be equally engaging in other areas. Which is what takes me back to the beginning of this piece; I find this video on the Moon, while obviously done slightly tongue-in-cheek, to be very engaging, despite its roots in typical lecturing pedagogy. Which led me to believe that perhaps the brief nature of the video is what made it so engaging for me. The quick facts, humorous delivery, and animations delivered in rapid succession is something that you rarely see in classrooms, especially by teachers that are far too busy to have the time to create material like this (myself included).

This tiny snippet of direct instruction gets my brain thinking about the moon in ways that typical lectures usually don’t engage me; if the moon really is moving away from the Earth at a rate of 4cm per year, and we gain 15 microseconds each day because of it, how does a leap year figure into that equation? What happens to the gravitational effect of the moon on the oceans as it drifts farther away, and where can I go to corroborate all of this information (don’t want to be gullible just because it’s well done). I used small snippets of video in the computer lab when introducing concepts that were foreign to my students. Short clips from Bill Nye about e-waste, or NASA video about satellite imagery when studying Google Earth helped introduce concepts beyond the experience of a typical 5th grader, and I’m left wondering, if this strategy of presenting small bite-size clips of direct instruction worked for me, does it work in other classrooms as well.


  1. Thinking the time spent *between* the short segments of content delivery may make the difference. If we’re asking students to actively discuss with peers, write about, reflect on, relate to prior knowledge, or use that information in some sort of meaningful way, they’re building connections and making sense of the content. Nice post!

    1. OH, you so totally caught me on not pointing out what really was important, the “brain breaks” to dig deeper into a topic. The more time you can spend on synthesis in the classroom, the better, and that really does have to be carefully thought out I agree.

      I’ve seen teachers lead a class using a model based on what I described, but in between short clips, the “check for understanding”, the questions, and the reflection was only superficial at best, and only scratched the surface. Mostly it was done out of interest of time, making sure they could squeeze everything in the 45 minutes they had. I know, because I’ve been guilty of it myself.

      What would really be helpful would be more supportive administrators that recognize more time is needed to give teachers to thoughtfully construct lessons that are truly blended (digital and offline), that focus on problem solving, reflection, or application. Unfortunately, the administrators that want to give their teachers this time are tied to lots of standards and benchmarks that simply don’t allow for effective development of the type of lesson we’re talking about; this stuff is HARD to put together right.

    2. Great post. I have been guilty of lectures that take up the whole class period. I’m trying to break content down into chunks as you suggest. I also try some things to help engage my students. One is Prezi, which can move and zoom around. My students seem to pay attention a little better with the dynamic nature of Prezi. I also use pictures and video whenever possible. You talked about not liking lectures as a student. But I recall one of my favorite undergrad classes about Middle East History where my professor rolled a film slide projector into the small classroom every session. He’d lecture based the photos, some of which he took during visits to the region. I found the pictures with commentary very instructive. I still remember some of the pictures and topics from the class. (Although admittedly, not everything from the class stuck, but I remember that class more then most)

      When I don’t have a presentation on the projector, I try to keep talks at the beginning of the class down to 7 minutes. I don’t remember where I read that we have about 7 minutes of our student’s attention before their focus drops off. I’ve even gone so far as to set a timer on my phone and when it goes off, I stop and cut the kids loose to work.

      What kinds of strategies do you use? Are you actively working on limiting your lecture time?

      Also, I was watching the video and I recognized the voice right away, my daughters love Charlie’s videos!

      1. Having visual aides to go with the lecture certainly helps, and it was to your professors credit to use images that he had captured, as it adds a sense of storytelling to the presentation. It’s that personal touch that I think makes these uses of media more memorable for us.

        We’re social creatures, and the nature of the particular YouTube clip I choose wasn’t accidental. While YouTube is filled with lots of great videos of people talking directly to their audience, creating an almost 1 on 1 private viewing experience, Charlie in particular is great at presentation and editing to make it seem that much more intimate an experience (and I use that word in the sense of coziness).

        I’ve been working my lessons into 3 distinct strategies through the lesson. Direct instruction, connection to relevant resources, and exploration. The activation of what the students know happens first, and I often use media or some interactive to pull that out into the open, followed by guiding questions and direct instruction, then exploration with hands on activities and/or guided “play”, followed by reflection.

        It helps limit my lecture a LOT, and if I am going to to lecture, I make sure to have some sort of visual media to focus on.

  2. It’s hard to pick out one important variable, because there are tons of things this video does right:

    – The presenter is honest and open and seems credible, and he gives his support for the topic. He moves quickly, so you don’t get bored.
    – The content begins with a brief story, which is more engaging than diving right into the facts.
    – All the technical details are right: the video is visually appealing, with a high resolution, sharp picture, the audio is clear, the presenter is in focus and the background is not, it’s bright/well lit with good colors.

    Basically, everything is done right for an engaging brief video clip about science.

    One problem you’d have translating this style to a real classroom is that we often need to teach students specific predetermined information; you can’t just pick the interesting bits like you could for a relatively aimless online video.

    There’s definitely a lot to learn from effective presentations like this, though, and it definitely lets us know that we should be setting the bar high.

    1. Spot on Dave with your analysis about why this video works. It plays on the viewers prior knowledge (having a conversation with a relative), frames up the anticipatory set (what’s so cool about the moon?), and then delivers in a very succinct and clever manner.

      I’ve heard people describe this as “creative curriculum”, and try to dismiss it as entertaining students rather than helping to educate them, but I disagree. It is very compelling, and delivers what teachers sometimes need, something to catch your students attention before engaging them.

      The problem you pointed out trying to translate this into regular practice is a great point. It would take a dedicated individual to sift through thousands of videos trying to find one that hits upon that “sweet spot” of delivery and content. Hence the popularity of services like Discovery Education, which has a much more cultivated video selection. However, I think this problem would be easily overcome by introducing class and/or group projects that asked for students to create these type of clips, for use with next semester’s or next year’s students, hence a nice little self replicating system for keeping up with changing times, and reducing teacher work load.

  3. I am very new to this field in general, and I’m taking an interest in research on DI in particular. I’m not sure I understand the points of contrast being drawn in this discussion between DI and problem-based learning, I guess because DI seems to be identified with the dreadful lecture format, but in the DI literature, the lecture format typically serves as contrasting methodology as well, so I think I’m confused about the definition of DI at work here? The article on the Purdue Study didn’t mention DI, I don’t think, although I only read it quickly and didn’t look at the footnotes…. In summary, I am confused about the meaning of DI. I must say, however, it’s not hard to imagine why a problem-based learning approach would be more effective for engineering and technology students. Again, I can’t even imagine how you would teach these subjects with DI. Ben, as an expert in this area, maybe you should set up an experiment of your own, just for purposes of demonstrating how a few different approaches would attempt to the meet the same goal?

    1. There’s certainly some confusion about what makes effective pedagogy, as teachers can certainly make different methods of teaching “work” depending on the types of learners they’re working with.

      Perhaps the trouble with the terminology comes from the fact that direct instruction is almost always used in the K-12 educational setting as a euphemism for lecture (Wikipedia even points this out I am certainly not an expert in this area, just a simple practitioner, but I thank you for the compliment.

      I might be able to do some video work with some different instructional approaches, but the reality is, every teacher uses a multitude of teaching strategies within a 45 minute lesson, and my original post was talking about reducing the amount of time spent on the lecture format, and more on the exploratory through the use of small “lecture” videos.

  4. Back in college, when working on my bachelor’s, I needed 9 hours of humanity courses. I ended up taking three art history classes by the same instructor. The prof basically showed slides of art work depending on the century and lectured on each painting. I found her classes to be very fascinating. Her lectures lead me to do some intense research. Keep in mind that I had to do three papers for her classes. Her classes lead me to a deeper appreciation of art. Before her classes, it was rare for me to go to an art museum. After, I took advantage of going to museums, even the ones in Las Vegas. And because of my deeper interest, my wife took on a stronger interest in art. Lecturing on an intersting subject along with visual seemed to work for me.

    1. You make an interesting point Tony, one that many veteran educators understand…..every learner is different, and while a vast majority of students decry the tried and true lecture format (you hear students complain about it all the time in the hallways), direct instruction does work for some individuals. My guess is that your professor probably had a great narrative to tell about the artwork, and often a compelling story is the difference between boring and fascinating…..that and the topic is always a big motivator for learners as well.

      Whichever was the case for your engagement, I fully believe there’s room for direct instruction in education, but with so many students able to “tune out” to lecture delivered by the teacher, I’m postulating that perhaps through video and short structured narrative you could provide more of a balance between the direct instruction and hands on exploration.

Comments are closed.