Guideline 3: Provide options for comprehension

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The purpose of education is not to make information accessible (that is the purpose of libraries), but to teach students how to transform accessible information into useable knowledge. Decades of cognitive science research has demonstrated that the capability to transform accessible information into useable knowledge is not a passive process but an active one. Constructing useable knowledge, knowledge that is accessible for future decision-making, depends not upon merely perceiving information but upon active “information processing skills” like selective attending, integrating new information with prior knowledge, strategic categorization, and active memorization. Individuals differ greatly in their skills in information processing and in their access to prior knowledge through which they can assimilate new information. Proper design and presentation of information – the responsibility of any curriculum or instructional methodology – can provide the cognitive ramps that are necessary to ensure that all students have access to knowledge.

3.1 Options that provide or activate background knowledge

Information – facts, concepts, principles, or ideas – is more accessible and open to assimilation as knowledge when it is presented in a way that primes, activates, or provides any pre-requisite knowledge. Differential barriers and inequities exist when some students lack the background knowledge that is critical to assimilating or using new information (e.g. knowing the rules that underlie math operations). Those barriers can be reduced when options are available that supply or activate relevant prior knowledge, or link to the pre-requisite information elsewhere.


  • Anchoring instruction by activating relevant prior knowledge (e.g. using visual imagery, concept anchoring, or concept mastery routines)
  • Using advanced organizers (e.g. KWL methods, concept maps)
  • Pre-teaching critical prerequisite concepts through demonstration or models, concrete objects
  • Bridging with relevant analogies and metaphors

3.2. Options that highlight critical features, big ideas, and relationships

One of the big differences between experts and novices (including those with disabilities) in any domain is the facility with which they distinguish what is critical from what is unimportant or irrelevant. Because experts quickly recognize the most important features in information, they allocate their time efficiently, quickly identifying what is valuable and finding the right “hooks” with which to assimilate that most valuable information into existing knowledge. As a consequence, one of the most effective ways to make information more accessible is to provide explicit cues or prompts that assist individuals in attending to those features that matter most while avoiding those that matter least. Depending on the goal of the lesson, highlighting may emphasize 1) the critical features that distinguish one concept from another, 2) the “big ideas” that organize domains of information, 3) the relationships between disparate concepts and ideas, 4) the relationships between new information and prior knowledge to build networks and contexts in which the new information has meaning.


  • Highlight or emphasize key elements in text, graphics, diagrams, formulas
  • Use outlines, graphic organizers, unit organizer routines, concept organizer routines and concept mastery routines to emphasize key ideas and relationships
  • Use multiple examples and non-examples to emphasize critical features
  • Reduce background of extraneous features, use masking of non-relevant features
  • Use cues and prompts to draw attention to critical features

3.3 Options that guide information processing

Successful transformation of information into useable knowledge often requires the application of mental strategies and skills for “processing” that information. These cognitive, or meta-cognitive, strategies involve the selection and manipulation of information so that it can be better summarized, categorized, prioritized, contextualized and remembered. While some students in any classroom may have a full repertoire of these strategies, along with the knowledge of when to apply them, most students do not. For those latter students, one of the most beneficial interventions is to teach them explicitly those strategies and have them practice in their appropriate use in context. Well-designed materials can provide customized and embedded models, scaffolds, and feedback to assist students who have very diverse abilities and disabilities in using those strategies effectively.


  • Explicit prompts for each step in a sequential process
  • Interactive models that guide exploration and inspection
  • Graduated scaffolds that support information processing strategies
  • Multiple entry points to a lesson and optional pathways through content
  • Chunking information into smaller elements
  • Progressive release of information, sequential highlighting

3.4 Options that support memory and transfer

While each of the cognitive scaffolds described above is likely to enhance retention for some students, others have weaknesses or disabilities that will require explicit supports for memory and transfer in order to improve cognitive accessibility. Supports for memory and transfer include techniques that are designed to heighten the memorability of information as well as those that prompt and guide students to employ explicit mnemonic strategies.


  • Checklists, organizers, sticky notes, electronic reminders
  • Prompts for using mnemonic strategies and devices (e.g. visual imagery, paraphrasing strategies, method of loci, etc.)
  • Explicit opportunities for spaced review and practice
  • Templates, graphic organizers, concept maps to support note-making
  • Scaffolding that connects new information to prior knowledge (e.g. word webs, half-full concept maps)
  • Embedding new ideas in familiar ideas and contexts, use of analogy, metaphor

7 Responses to Guideline 3: Provide options for comprehension

  1. Rachel Graham says:

    I think it is really important to tap into students’ prior knowledge and learn what they know before beginning a unit or lesson. I also think it is very beneficial to pre-teach the major concepts or ideas of the lesson, or what is imperative for students to know prior to beginning the lesson.

  2. Pretty great post. I simply stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have truly enjoyed
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  3. […] 3. Provide options for comprehension (examples) […]

  4. Hey whats up?. I stumbled across your web site while I was looking for something completely unrelated. While I do not agree with some of what you said we do have similar viewpoints by and large. I have bookmarked your web site and may visit again in the near future to see what you’re writing about in 2010!

  5. Cam Caldwell says:

    I highlight key words in power point presentations — and make them available online and in class.

    How do I use audio recording? Can our technology for online learning support that? Some of the time our classroom computers don’t even work!

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