Barak Rosenshine’s ‘Principles of Instruction’

Jonathan Beale, Researcher-in-Residence, CIRL

Barak Rosenshine’s ‘Principles of Instruction’ has become increasingly influential in educational research and practice since its publication a decade ago.[1] Rosenshine (1930-2017) was formerly a professor of educational psychology in the College of Education at the University of Illinois. His research focused on learning instruction, teacher performance and student achievement. Much of his research focused on the distinctive features of effective teaching. His research has made a significant contribution to knowledge of the effectiveness of certain methods of ‘instruction’, which is typically defined as ‘the purposeful direction of the learning process’.[2]  His principles of instruction are the culmination of his research into the effectiveness of methods of instruction.

Rosenshine’s ‘Principles’ provides a highly accessible bridge between educational research and classroom practice. The principles are research-based, extensively drawing upon research in education and cognitive science. Rosenshine expresses the principles succinctly and offers suggestions for the implementation of the principles in the classroom. He provides many examples of activities employed in the teaching practices of ‘master teachers’ – i.e., teachers whose students made the highest gains in achievement tests (p. 12).

Rosenshine’s principles are the culmination of his research into the effectiveness of methods of instruction. Rosenshine worked on this article for many years. He explains several of the ideas behind the principles in a talk given in 2002 on ‘Making Instruction Explicit’ (available on YouTube). In that talk, he says he’s been ‘revising this paper for ten years’.

In a book published last year, Rosenshine’s Principles in Action, educator and writer Tom Sherrington divides Rosenshine’s ten principles into four ‘strands’. He uses the strands to explain each of Rosenshine’s principles by connecting the principles with those to which they bear the closest relations, illustrating how the principles complement and support one another, and offering additional practical advice for their implementation.

Rosenshine’s article and Sherrington’s book are the subject matter for this term’s CIRL Reading Group. This blog post provides a brief introduction to Rosenshine’s principles and Sherrington’s four strands. We’ll publish further blog posts this term on Rosenshine’s principles and Sherrington’s interpretation of them, going into more specific detail on the principles and the strands into which Sherrington places them.

Rosenshine’s ‘Principles of Instruction’

Rosenshine opens his article by writing that his principles come from three sources:

  1. research from cognitive science – specifically, research concerning how the brain acquires and uses new information;
  2. research based on observations of the classroom practices of master teachers;
  3. findings from studies that taught learning strategies to students – specifically, research from cognitive science on ‘cognitive supports and scaffolds that helped students learn complex tasks’ (59). (‘Scaffolds’ are temporary instructional supports that are used to assist learners, which should be gradually withdrawn as students gain competency at the respective task or with the respective material to be learned (p. 18)).

Rosenshine observes that there was no conflict between the evidence emerging from the above sources. Indeed, the findings from the above sources ‘supplement and complement each other’ (p. 12) and the ‘sources overlap and add to each other’ (p. 39). He states that the ways in which the evidence from the sources relate to one another supports the claim ‘that we are developing a valid and research-based understanding of the art of teaching’ (p. 39).

Before outlining the principles, Rosenshine offers a list of seventeen ‘instructional procedures’ that emerge from the three research sources (p. 12). These procedures are then described throughout the ten principles; they also serve as a useful synopsis of the guidance offered in Rosenshine’s article. In a blog post on Rosenshine’s principles, Sherrington writes that these function as ‘a good simple summary of the whole document’.

A screenshot of a cell phone

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Rosenshine’s ‘17 Principles of Effective Instruction’ (p. 19)[3]

After listing the seventeen instructional principles above, Rosenshine outlines his ten principles of instruction (pp. 13-19 and 39). The principles are clearly illustrated and briefly summarised in the poster below, by Oliver Caviglioli:

A screenshot of a cell phone

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Rosenshine’s ‘Principles of Instruction’, by Oliver Caviglioli

Rosenshine explains each principle in two stages: ‘Research findings’ and ‘In the classroom’. At the end of his explanation of each principle, Rosenshine offers suggested readings.

Research findings

In this stage, Rosenshine explains the principle and the research findings supporting the importance of the principle. Rosenshine describes the advantages of the principle for teaching and learning and often outlines specific case studies to demonstrate effective uses of each principle.

For example, for the first principle, ‘Daily review’, Rosenshine describes an experiment in elementary school mathematics where teachers in the experiment spent eight minutes every day reviewing what had been learned by their students. The daily reviews consisted of teachers checking homework, going over areas where students made common errors, and providing guided practice exercises, overseeing students as they practised skills or using concepts until their mastery of the skill or using the concept became automatic (p. 13). Rosenshine reports that students participating in this experiment gained higher achievement scores than those who did not (p. 13).

By ‘automatic’, Rosenshine means that we have learned something to the point where we can recall what we have learned effortlessly. Rosenshine writes that automaticity results from thousands of hours of effective practice; daily review supports the process of building up the stock of effective practice required to reach the level of mastery where recall is automatic (p. 13). For example, if we consider the very early stages of learning a language, Rosenshine writes engaging in ‘Daily practice of vocabulary can lead to seeing each practiced word as a unit (i.e., seeing the whole word automatically rather than as individual letters that have to be sounded out and blended)’ (p. 13).

For recall to become automatic, Rosenshine writes that sometimes we need to overlearn. ‘Overlearn’ is certainly not a pejorative term; rather, overlearning is an important concept for the level of learning required to achieve mastery of some task, skill, the use of concept or to know or understand something with fluency (p. 13). For example, in discussion of the process of gaining mastery at mathematical problem-solving, Rosenshine writes:

Mathematical problem solving is … improved when the basic skills (addition, multiplication, etc.) are overlearned and become automatic, thus freeing working-memory capacity. (p. 13)

Here we see an example of Rosenshine’s use of research in cognitive science to support the importance of a principle: one of the reasons it’s important to learn something to the level where it becomes automatic is that the absence of effort required to recall what we’ve learned frees up space in our working memory, which we can then devote to other tasks – e.g., learning something new.

In the classroom

In the second stage, Rosenshine offers advice on how the principle can be employed in the classroom. Rosenshine’s guidance is supported by observations of the teaching practices of master teachers. He often provides several suggestions for classroom activities related to the principle under discussion.

An example of a daily review practice exhibited by the most effective teachers is that ‘they would begin their lessons with a five- to eight-minute review of previously covered material’, and would provide ‘additional practice on facts and skills that were needed for recall to become automatic’ (p. 13). At the end of ‘Daily review’, Rosenshine offers an additional five recommendations for classroom practices, the final of which recommends that teachers should ‘Review material that needs overlearning (i.e., newly acquired skills should be practiced well beyond the point of initial mastery, leading to automaticity)’ (p. 13).

In the section on ‘In the classroom’ under the third principle, ‘Ask questions’, Rosenshine includes a set of stems for questions that teachers of literature, social science and science might ask students, based on the research of A. King (p. 15).[4]

For the ninth principle only, ‘Independent practice’, Rosenshine includes a third stage, ‘Students helping students’. Here, Rosenshine mentions that some researchers have developed procedures for peer learning – which Rosenshine calls ‘cooperative learning’ – whereby students help one another as they study (p. 19). He notes that the research ‘shows that all students tend to achieve more in these settings than do students in regular settings’ (p. 19). Rosenshine suggests that the advantages of peer learning are likely to be that students have to explain material to one another; that explanations are provided by someone other than the teacher; and the students have the opportunity to receive peer feedback, which promotes engagement and learning (p. 19).

Sherrington’s four strands

Sherrington divides Rosenshine’s ten principles into four ‘strands’. Each strand contains two or three of the principles. He argues that these four strands run throughout all of Rosenshine’s principles:

Strand 1: Sequencing concepts and modelling

Strand 2: Questioning

Strand 3: Reviewing material

Strand 4: Stages of practice

Sherrington offers succinct outlines of each strand in a useful poster by Oliver Caglioli, which shows which of Rosenshine’s principles each strand involves:

Rosenshine’s principles of instruction, divided into Sherrington’s four strands (image by Oliver Caviglioli)

Sherrington adds some detail to the strand summaries in the poster above in a blog post where he argues that Rosenshine’s ‘Principles of Instruction’ is ‘THE must-read for all teachers’.

In future blog posts this term, we’ll explore Rosenshine’s principles and Sherrington’s strands in closer detail.


[1] Originally published in 2010 as ‘Principles of Instruction’, by the International Academy of Education; republished in 2012 as ‘Principles of Instruction: Research-based Strategies That All Teachers Should Know’, in American Educator; reprinted in Tom Sherrington’s Rosenshine’s Principles in Action (Woodbridge: John Catt, 2019), pp. 55-84. All page references in this post are to Rosenshine’s article in American Educator.

[2] Bruce Joyce and Martha Weil, quoted in W. Huitt, ‘Classroom instruction’ (Educational Psychology Interactive) (Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University, 2003).

[3] This image features on p. 19 of Rosenshine’s article in its 2012 publication in American Educator. It’s also discussed in this blog post on Rosenshine’s principles by Tom Sherrington.

[4] A. King, ‘Guiding knowledge construction in the classroom: effects of teaching children how to question and how to explain’ (American Educational Research Journal, 30, 1994, pp. 338-368).

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