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Explicit Instruction & Universal Design for Learning

K.C. Knudson
K.C. Knudson
May 22, 2023

There’s Macaroni on your Manifold!

Whenever my son Andre has the hood of his truck open doing some work, I poke my head in and say things like: “It looks like the carbonara is a little scallioned!” Or, “The impasto looks like it’s disconnected from the mascarpone.” In addition to the flitting look of confusion on his face, there is always the sigh that is universally emitted after a bad dad joke. The truth is that I don’t know much about cars. And neither did Andre until the pandemic. Up until that point, he was the quintessential student-athlete – going to school all day and practicing or competing during the hours in between school and sleep. So when Covid shut down his track season, he suddenly had some time on his hands. I worried a bit at first, but then noticed him starting to take a real interest in cars. Within a couple of weeks, he really put the learning pedal to the metal!  

In an educational setting, we’d call this an interest-based inquiry project or project-based learning. He took control of his own learning and genuinely started to figure out how he could “mod” his truck to get better performance. But here’s the thing. To accelerate his learning (pun intended!), he went searching for some help – for some explicit instruction.  He made arrangements to help the mechanic down at the school bus garage in exchange for explicit instruction. He went to his friend Elias’ house to help him work on his car in exchange for explicit instruction from his grandpa. He watched hundreds of videos on Youtube, taking in quick bits of explicit instruction. 

When we want to learn something new effectively and efficiently, we seek out explicit instruction. It is a critical part of our learning process, coupled with exploration, trial and error, self-study, and reflection.

There is a great deal of evidence that explicit instruction accelerates learning. The Australian Educational Research Organisation (AREO) provides a great resource linked to the research. According to AERO, “Explicit instruction involves breaking down what students need to learn into smaller learning outcomes and modeling each step so that students can see what is expected of them. Providing explicit instruction limits the mental effort for students allowing them to process new information more effectively.”

Explicit instruction is a critical part of our learning process, coupled with exploration, trial and error, self-study, and reflection.

Dataworks Educational Research notes that “explicit direct instruction (EDI) activates 18 of the top 30 influences on student achievement as measured by Hattie.”

Instruction that is explicit involves direct explanation. Concepts are clearly explained, and skills are clearly demonstrated, without ambiguity or vagueness. Throughout the lesson, the teacher uses concise, specific, and objective-oriented language. This is a critical component of teacher clarity, which Hattie found to have a .75 effect size. Page 14 of HIGH IMPACT TEACHING STRATEGIES, Excellence in Teaching and Learning provides an excellent overview of explicit instruction.

But how can teacher-directed, explicit instruction be applicable in a universally designed learning experience that is supposed to be student-centered, identity-relevant, inclusive of options to support access and expression, and aimed at developing learner agency?

The Four Big Ideas: Providing Explicit Instructions 

Explicit instruction is not just applicable, it is crucial.  But it must be done in a way that is congruent with the principles of universal design.  I offer these four big ideas to consider when providing explicit instruction:

1. Explicit instruction and inquiry-based learning can work together.

Explicit instruction can be used to teach foundational knowledge and skill, while inquiry-based learning can be used to help students apply that knowledge in real-world contexts. Students can collaboratively test, apply, and reflect on their new learning to assist with the transfer from working memory to long-term memory.

2. Explicit instruction must be conducted in a way that is accessible to the learner.

Provide translated captioning on a slide behind you if you are speaking. Record the mini-lesson for review and translation. Provide different note-taking organizers for students to use during instruction. Provide visual notes while you teach.

3. Explicit instruction must be integrated into the broader structure of a lesson.

The lesson must connect to prior learning, link to a clear learning objective, include options for practice and repeated review, provide options for deeper exploration, allow for multiple ways to demonstrate understanding, and incorporate feedback and reflection.

4. Explicit instruction must chunk both content and time for new information to be manageable and accessible.

By chunking, learners are able to reduce their cognitive load as they process new information. Chunking is achieved by dividing large amounts of information or text into smaller units. (Think Miller’s Law: the number of objects the average person can hold in working memory is about seven.) (Miller, 1956) Chunking is also achieved by attending to the duration of direct instruction or the lecture. Stuart and Rutherford (1978) found that the maximum level of concentration is achieved between 10 and 15 min from the start of the lecture. And that was for medical students!  Depending on age and complexity of the content, your sweet spot is likely between five and fifteen minutes. 

The Universal Design for Learning framework is powerful because it incorporates the most powerful elements of teaching and learning as evidenced by research, including explicit instruction. It helps educators to see how critical teaching and learning strategies and structures connect to accelerate and enhance learning for all.

Andre learned quickly and well through inquiry, collaboration, and explicit instruction. I admit I have mixed feelings about this, some pride and some chagrin. He is now the owner of a truck that is much faster and much louder. I mean really fast and really loud! The neighbors were quite excited about that truck going off to college, and Andre too of course!

When you are ready to “mod” your teaching, let’s talk UDL!

Take action to improve the outcomes of administrators, teachers, and students by designing professional learning and technical assistance in curriculum, instruction, and leadership support that is universally designed, evidence-based, customized, and ongoing.

Learn More.


  • Miller, G. A. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological review, 63(2), 81.
  • Stuart, J., & Rutherford, R. J. D. (1978, September 2). Medical student concentration during lectures. The Lancet, 514–516.

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