Volume V Number 1-2, June 1998

Instructional Design That Accommodates Special Learning Needs In Science

Bonnie Grossen
Mack D. Burke
University of Oregon

For the past dozen years, the National Center to Improve the Tools of Educators (NCITE) has been identifying features of instructional design that accommodate the needs of students who are academically behind in school. These students may be behind for various reasons. They may be unable to learn as quickly as others due to learning or behavioral disabilities or they may have started school with a different background (for example, children from impoverished backgrounds or children with limited English), or they may have a disability that has slowed their learning processes.

The central purpose of the six instructional design features identified by NCITE is to facilitate more learning in less time for the diverse learners who may be academically delayed, regardless of the cause for the delay. Below is a brief description of how each of these principles accommodates a special learning need. (For a more complete description of these features see Kameenui & Carnine, 1998.)



Diverse learners, including students with a variety of disabilities, are often academically delayed. This delay can exacerbate the behavioral problems that diverse learners have when they become aware that their peers are academically further along than they are. Diverse learners also often have difficulties grasping core concepts and distinguishing insignificant details from important points. Often, diverse learners have a greater difficulty learning than the average student and so they fall behind, only to be faced with learning more material in less time.

To teach more in less time to students with greater learning difficulties requires that instruction be organized around "big ideas." Big ideas are concepts and principles that facilitate the most efficient and broadest acquisition of knowledge across a range of examples. By organizing and prioritizing information around fundamental concepts, big ideas maximize student learning because "small" ideas can often be best understood in relationship to larger, "umbrella concepts." Organizing information around big ideas means that (a) less information is learned, but the information has more power, and (b) treatment of information is commensurate with its level of importance (Dixon, Carnine, and Kameenui, 1996).

Big ideas in science do four things. First, they represent central scientific ideas and organizing principles. Second, they have rich explanatory and predictive power. Third, they motivate the formulation of significant questions, and fourth, they are applicable to many situations and contexts common to everyday experiences.

Convection is a big idea taught in the Earth Science videodisk program. The big idea of convection ties together geology, meteorology, and oceanography. An in-depth understanding of convection allows one to predict changes in the earth. Around the convection cell are various contexts where changes in the earth can be predicted based on an understanding of the principles of convection. Convection explains many of the dynamic phenomena occurring in the solid earth (geology), the atmosphere (meteorology), and the ocean (oceanography). Plate tectonics, earthquakes, volcanoes, and the formation of mountains are all influenced by convection in the mantle.

Similarly, the ocean currents, thermo-haline circulation, and coastal upwelling are influenced by global and local convection. In turn, the interaction of these phenomena in the earth and the atmosphere results in the rock cycle, weathering, and changes in landforms. The interaction of these phenomena in the ocean and in the atmosphere influence the water cycle, wind- driven ocean circulation, El Nino, and climate in general. Learning a big idea well translates into a deep understanding of much content.


Students with learning difficulties may lack prerequisite skills or may not understand instructional vocabulary. This necessary background knowledge must be taught or "primed" before understanding of new material can occur. This requires teaching the component steps and concepts that allow an in-depth understanding of the big idea or strategy. For example, the component concepts of the relationship between mass and volume are particularly important in understanding convection. Other component concepts of convection that also relate to density include the effect of heat on density and dynamic pressure. Instruction in these component concepts and their cause-and-effect relationships is crucial to an in-depth understanding of convection. Teachers can analyze the important big ideas to identify key component concepts. These concepts will answer the question "why?" For example, a thorough understanding of density and its interaction with heat explains in large part "why" convection occurs.


Diverse learners frequently have difficulties applying what they have learned to solve complex problems and determining when and where to utilize strategies they have been taught (Dixon, et al., 1996). Therefore, discernible and distinct strategies should be identified and explicitly taught that enable learners to solve difficult tasks. Conspicuous strategies are an approximation of the steps experts follow covertly (and, perhaps, unconsciously) while working toward similar goals. Good strategy instruction starts with developing a well-organized knowledge base of component concepts and determining how to apply the big ideas of their relationships in observable, definitive steps.

Big ideas in earth science are generally used to make predictions. In the Earth Science videodisk program, strategies for using the big ideas of science are initially made conspicuous for students through the use of visual maps and models which represent expert knowledge and refute common misconceptions. For example, a strategy for using density requires students to identify equivalent volumes in two substances, compare the masses within those volumes, and predict which substance will sink. These steps are not made conspicuous by orally reciting them. They are made conspicuous through "scaffolding."


Diverse learners usually have difficulty working independently and require extensive guidance at first. "Scaffolding" refers to the personal guidance, assistance, and support that a teacher, peer, or task provides to a learner. Students with disparate academic backgrounds and skills need more assistance and support, while higher performing students need less. Forms of scaffolding include teacher modeling, extracting critical skills from text, initially teaching skills in "contrived" (less demanding) contexts, clarifying confusing information, and providing multiple examples before expecting students to perform independently (Dixon, et al., 1996).

However, if instruction remains too accommodating students will not eventually become independent. To counter the "dumbing down effect" that often results from highly accommodating instruction, scaffolding should be mediated. Mediated scaffolding provides a systematic transition from the initial teacher-directed, modeled, structured, prompted practice within defined problem types to a more naturalistic environment of student-directed, unstructured, unpredictable problems that vary widely across all problem types. This transition can be provided by gradually changing the design of the tasks and examples or by changing the level of assistance that a teacher may provide.

Because scaffolding is a dynamic process, as learners become more competent, the scaffolding is removed by purposively moving slightly ahead of the learner on the imaginary continuum. As learners grow in competence and independence, effective instruction moves along the continuum. Information about the learner's level of competence in the targeted instructional activity determines what level of scaffolding should be provided.


Review occurs when students are required to draw upon and apply previously taught knowledge. The principles of effective, efficient, and cumulative review are generally most crucial for students with diverse learning and curricular needs. However, review must be judiciously planned and organized to facilitate better learning, longer retention, and better application. Review is not synonymous with "drill and kill." Judicious review should include the following principles.

Review should provide sufficient and continuous opportunities for students to apply a concept until all students are likely to demonstrate mastery of the concept. The mere presentation of a definition or formula for density (i.e., density is the amount of mass in a volume) or a description of convection are insufficient. Ample opportunities to apply the concept are necessary if students are to fully understand the relevance and utility of a concept or big idea. A program with too much repetitious review is easy to modify. Cut back review for the students who need it less. This is substantially easier than adding review for diverse learners.

Review should be distributed over time. Review that is distributed over time, as opposed to entirely massed in one learning unit, contributes to long-term retention. Students are then less likely to forget something they have learned. For example, after intensive study of density in a series of introductory lessons, density can be reviewed sporadically as it is applied in the context of learning about pressure, the effects of heat on density and pressure, the effects of changes in density on movement and pressure, and so on.

Review should be varied for generalizability. Students are more likely to use their learning in new contexts when review is varied (Grossen, Romance, & Vitale, 1994). Later instruction should provide application practice that provides widely varied examples. Varied review should include new examples, but new examples of the same type as those used during initial instruction. Application items should vary across the full range of potential applications of the concept. For example, in the Earth Science videodisk program, students have many opportunities to apply their knowledge of convection to predicting sinking and floating, predicting wind direction, explaining earthquakes, explaining black holes and novas, and so forth.

Varied practice allows students to deepen understanding. From the initial presentation, students can only acquire a basic understanding of concepts. For example, after learning about density, students may not realize that relative density holds for fragments from a piece of substance. Students might predict that a large glob of mercury would sink, but when asked about a tiny ball from that glob, they might predict that it would float.

Review should be cumulative. It should include not only the most recently learned material, but material from throughout the program. In some cases, cumulative review may look more like a salad, with all the different kinds of problems the students have learned occurring in a mixed, random order. Or the review can integrate learned concepts into a "big idea" that provides a built-in cumulative review. This cumulative review looks more like a cake. For example, the introduction of the convection model serves as a cumulative review of all the component concepts that were taught prior to the instruction in the basic convection cell. Sometimes salad-like review is the only option. When review in the context of a big idea is not possible, simply provide review of all previously learned concepts, regardless of whether they were learned in the current unit or not.


Strategic integration is the design principle that allows for the cake-like form of cumulative review, where learning is integrated into big ideas. Strategic integration also establishes connections between new knowledge and what a learner already knows and understands. However, integrating too much information too fast can easily lead to confusion. The integration must be strategic.

Designing instruction in overlapping strands (topics) facilitates the naturalness of integrated review. In the Earth Science videodisk program , the strands that teach the concepts of density, heat, and pressure overlap until they are integrated in the model of the basic convection cell. The concept of density is taught first, then the scaffolding is removed and unscaffolded practice using the concept of density is provided in the context of teaching about the effects of heat on density. Similarly, in initial instruction about pressure, unscaffolded practice with density and heat are provided in the context of learning the interaction of heat, density, and static and dynamic pressure. All of these concepts are further reviewed when they are integrated in the basic convection strategy.

This basic convection strategy is then applied to explain global convection in the atmosphere, mantle, and ocean. Each of the applications provide review of the convection cell and its related concepts. In this way, students gain a holistic, rather than fragmented understanding of complex content.

All six of the above features of effective instructional design should be integrated in such a way that their incorporation seems natural in the development of understanding. Topics within content areas should be organized for instruction into overlapping strands so that the connections of the subject are more easily communicated, the big ideas are augmented, and scaffolding can build new learning on top of a foundation of prior learning that no longer requires scaffolding. Topics are sequenced so that component concepts are taught first and subsequent material builds on earlier learning. This provides the additional instruction to link the old learning with the new learning for deeper understanding.


NCITE synthesized the available research on instructional design to derive the above six features. Hundreds of studies have compared different variations in instructional design. For example, in one study Woodward (1994) found that a teacher using a science videodisk program designed around the big idea of convection was significantly more effective than a teacher using a videodisk program that was not designed around this underlying causal principle. (Other aspects of the instruction were controlled to be the same in both treatments.) The most comprehensive summary of this research is available as a college text (Kameenui & Carnine, 1998).

Most of the studies included in NCITE's synthesis looked at individual features of instructional design. Very few looked at the effectiveness of programs designed to incorporate all of the best that is known about instructional design. More recently a number of studies have evaluated the combined effect on learning of all the features incorporated in one design. The findings of these studies indicate that instruction designed according to these six principles can be so powerful that it can close the gap between students with disabilities and their general education peers. For example, in one study high school students with learning disabilities who received computer-assisted instruction in reasoning skills were better able to construct sound arguments than were college students preparing to be teachers. In another study eighth-graders with disabilities, who had received the videodisk science course and supplemental problem-solving instruction, scored as well on a test of problem-solving in earth science as university science majors. The following section summarizes much of the research on the effects of instruction designed to close the achievement gap between special education and general education students.


On a variety of measures of argument construction and critiquing, high school students with learning disabilities scored as high as or higher than high school students in an honors English class and college students enrolled in a teacher certification program (Grossen & Carnine, 1990).

In constructing arguments, high school students with disabilities scored significantly higher than college students enrolled in a teacher certification program and scored at the same level as general education high school students. All of these groups had scores significantly lower than those of the college students enrolled in a logic course (Collins & Carnine, 1988).


On a test of problem-solving to achieve better health, high school students with disabilities scored significantly higher than nondisabled students who had completed a traditional high school health class (Woodward, Carnine, & Gersten, 1988).

On a test of problem-solving that required applying theoretical knowledge and predicting results based on given information, mainstreamed middle school students with disabilities scored higher than a class of general education students taught in a student-centered treatment (Grossen, Carnine, & Lee, 1996).

On a test of misconceptions in earth science, mainstreamed middle school students with learning disabilities showed better conceptual understanding than Harvard graduates interviewed in Schnep's 1987 film, A Private Universe (Muthukrishna, Carnine, Grossen, & Miller, 1993).

On a test of earth science problem-solving, mainstreamed middle school students with learning disabilities scored significantly higher than nondisabled students who received traditional science instruction (Woodward & Noell, 1992).

On a test of problem-solving involving earth science content, most of a group of mainstreamed middle school students with learning disabilities scored higher than the mean score of the nondisabled control students (Niedelman, 1992).

On an advanced placement chemistry test, high school students with disabilities and behavior problems scored higher than a group of high- performing students in an advanced placement chemistry class on understanding equilibrium. They matched the performance of the AP students on measures of chemical bonding, atomic structure, organic compounds, energy of activation. (Hofmeister, Engelmann, Carnine, 1989).

Programming based on the six principles of instructional design presents remarkable learning achievement for students with disabilities. However, it turns out that these instructional designs also result in higher achievement for general education students. In studies where students with disabilities were taught with general education students, the general education students also score at much higher levels.

Videodisk instruction that incorporated the six considerations of student learning needs also considered the teacher (Grossen & Ewing, 1994). The teacher using a videodisk program designed around these six considerations had two preschool-aged children at home, and consequently, she was unable to put in a great deal of extra planning time. Nevertheless, she was an excellent teacher. The other teacher was also an excellent teacher who spent long hours in preparation, often arriving at school before 7 a.m. and staying until very late. The teaching strategy that included the six considerations of student learning helped a good teacher achieve greater gains with her students than the good teacher without that teaching strategy.

In another study, Niedelman (1992) found that the same science videodisk program was significantly more effective than a program using a good teacher, a textbook that did not incorporate the six learning considerations, and hands-on labs twice a week. The students who learned with in a program that incorporated the six learning strategies scored more than twice as high as the control group. A behavior-disordered student receiving the instruction designed for diverse learners scored much higher than the mean of the other students in the class. Here is an example of a problem the students with disabilities successfully solved:

An air mass is trapped in your valley overnight. You want to predict the weather for tonight. Select the information you would need and then predict the weather.

(a) The air mass is part of a warm front.

(b) The daytime temperature is 70 degrees.

(c) The sun will set at 6:40 p.m.

(d) The air mass has a relative humidity of 90%.

(e) The overnight temperature will be 35 degrees.

First, the students decided that the relative humidity and the temperature change (b, d, and e) were relevant pieces of information and then used that information to predict the weather. The prediction for the night was rainy or foggy because the temperature decreased enough to cause the air to become oversaturated and the moisture to condense.

In chemistry, high school students with learning disabilities and behavioral or social disorders, who received instruction designed for diverse learners did not differ significantly from a class of advanced placement chemistry students (of the same age) on a chemistry test that required applying concepts such as bonding, equilibrium, energy of activation, atomic structure, and organic compounds (Hofmeister, Engelmann, & Carnine, 1989). The students who were learning under the six considerations theory also had an increase in self-esteem, and their behavior improved dramatically over the year of the course.


The following are brief descriptions of videodisk science systems that utilize many of the principles discussed so far. The videodisk programs described are Earth Science and Chemistry. Both programs are sold by Phoenix Film, St. Louis, Missouri (1-800-221-1274). A videodisk player is a tabletop device connected to a monitor which presents programs that are stored on disks the size of LP records. Because of the large storage capability of these disks, it is possible to convey information in a way not possible by traditional teaching. When this technology is combined with research-based instructional design principles, a powerful intervention is developed capable of teaching students "basic, generalizable concepts in a way that reduces confusion and presents a minimum of technical vocabulary" (Earth Science, 1987).

Earth Science is an analytic curriculum that provides explicit, in-depth coverage of core underlying causal principles (big ideas) in earth science videodisk program (Systems Impact, Inc., 1987). The videodisk program consists of six, five-lesson units, including six in-program tests, as well as quizzes, reviews and remedial exercises. In each lesson (approximately 45 minutes long), two or more concepts were taught using dynamic video selections and fairly short explanations followed by application items. Each of the concepts that was taught is tested, referenced to a criterion of performance, and retested before the next lesson. After each test, if students do not reach a specified level of mastery, then the teacher has the option of reviewing an alternate remedial session. Once the remedial session is finished then the next teaching sequence may be addressed.

Additional components used in the research studies were cooperative learning problems, solving activities and a textbook that is particularly useful for make-up work when students are absent. These additional components are unpublished, but they are available from the authors of this article.

Chemistry (Systems Impact, 1988) is a similar program of 15 lessons. In these lessons students learn about ionic and covalent bonding, equilibrium, energy of activation, and organic compounds, among other things.

Mathematics. Several mathematics programs are also available from Phoenix Film that apply the same instructional design principles. To get a list of all the programs, ask for the "Core Concepts" programs.

Note: The authors may be contacted at the following addresses for further information regarding principles of effective instructional design: Bonnie Grossen at bgrossen@oregon.uoregon.edu or Mack D. Burke at mburke@oregon.uoregon.edu


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