Implicit Instruction vs. Explicit Instruction

Implicit Instruction vs. Explicit Instruction
The Editorial Team November 13, 2023

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Ever sat through a lecture and wondered where your thoughts wandered? Education experts increasingly agree that lecture-based teaching simply doesn’t work. Instead of just listening to the teacher talk for an hour, experts now believe that students benefit from engaging through solo presentations, group discussions, and other interactive approaches

Notably, one meta-analysis revealed that students subjected to traditional lectures were 1.5 times more likely to miss learning objectives compared to those involved in active learning strategies. 

This data should be encouraging if you’re focused on getting students actively involved in the learning process. However, it poses a deeper question about how to approach active learning. Specifically, many teachers wonder if they should use implicit or explicit teaching strategies. To learn more about these approaches, here’s a closer look at implicit versus explicit learning.

Implicit and explicit instruction definition

How you guide your students through learning makes all the difference. Implicit and explicit instruction shape how students interact with the learning material. While the explicit instruction definition revolves around the teacher giving direct lessons and guidance, implicit instruction centers around students learning more independently.

Here is an implicit learning example: A second language teacher presents a movie clip that features new vocabulary. The teacher doesn’t directly ask the students to memorize these target words. Instead, once the video is done, the teacher presents articles and other media that incorporate the target words. Similar to Montessori techniques, this allows students to organically encounter the new words and piece together definitions based on context clues. 

Think of implicit learning models like the classic Pavlovian dog experiment. As students are exposed to the learning material, they subconsciously develop their own understanding of the subject without direct instruction.

Here is an example of explicit learning: A teacher directly gives students vocabulary memorization worksheets, requiring them to match the words to their definitions based on the previous lecture. The students explicitly understand the learning goal—to memorize the vocabulary words, and they have a clear directive for achieving that goal—to match the words with their definitions.

Ask yourself these questions to decide if a lesson uses implicit or explicit instruction:

  • Do your students know what they’re supposed to learn and can discuss what they’ve learned afterward? If so, you’re using explicit instruction.
  • Are students learning the objectives as they go, perhaps unaware until they apply the knowledge? If so, you’re using implicit instruction.

The benefits and drawbacks of implicit vs. explicit learning

The benefits and drawbacks of each approach can vary based on factors such as your students’ ages and existing knowledge. Generally speaking, there are clear advantages and disadvantages to consider before implementing either approach.

Advantages of implicit instruction

  • Independent learning. Since implicit learning environments are less structured, students have more space to think creatively and independently about the subject matter. Without explicit learning targets, learners can go beyond the basics and make meaningful connections between their existing knowledge and the topic at hand.
  • Efficiency. Implicit instruction can be more efficient because it’s less focused on achieving strict learning goals. In a second language class, students can simultaneously practice their listening skills and gain new vocabulary while watching a movie clip, which is more efficient than dividing each skill into a separate, explicit assignment.
  • Lifelong skills. Being able to take in knowledge and interpret it without direct instruction is a valuable lifelong skill. Students can benefit from the independent thinking skills that implicit instruction promotes in their careers, in higher education, and in their personal lives. 

Disadvantages of implicit instruction

  • Falling through the cracks. One of the biggest shortcomings of implicit instruction is the potential for some students to fall behind due to a lack of direction. In a highly implicit learning environment, your students are required to maintain a level of self-direction that they may not have. 

Consider again a second language teacher presenting media that features new vocabulary. Without direct instruction to look for unfamiliar words, some students might tune out the lesson and miss the new vocabulary. 

  • External motivation. When using an implicit approach, you might also encounter challenges with student motivation. While internally motivated language learners might excel at interpreting new words based on context, externally motivated learners can lose focus without clear learning objectives.

Advantages of explicit instruction

  • Clear learning progress. The clear outlines of explicit instruction can make it easier for you to track students’ progress. If they don’t successfully meet your predefined expectations, you’ll know exactly what skills or subjects to continue targeting.
  • Student investment. You can closely monitor students’ progress via explicit instruction—and so can the students themselves. Thanks to clear objectives, explicit teaching methods give learners obvious targets to aim for, helping them understand their progress and celebrate successes.
  • Ease of implementation. Due to its highly structured nature, explicit learning can be easier to implement in a classroom. Teachers can provide assignments with clear outlines to every student and offer consistent guidance when issues arise. 

Disadvantages of explicit instruction

  • Reduced self-direction. The rigid requirements of explicit teaching can demotivate more self-directed learners. Some students may appreciate the clear direction of a vocabulary worksheet, but others might find it boring and frustrating. This reduces opportunities for self-direction, which can hurt overall student performance.
  • Too much structure. Student frustration points to another potential problem with explicit instruction. Since this method is highly structured, learners have fewer opportunities to practice creative thinking skills and independent problem-solving—valuable skills that can promote long-term success in the classroom.

So which is better: implicit or explicit instruction?

Given the complexity of teaching, it’s no surprise that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer in the implicit versus explicit learning debate. On one hand, a study conducted by researchers at Vanderbilt University found that many students fared better with explicit instruction, and many other researchers have found similar results. Still, other studies frequently show that people can effectively gain knowledge through implicit instruction. 

For you as a teacher, this means implicit and explicit instruction can work hand-in-hand. Using the example of a second language class, the teacher could still provide a vocabulary memorization worksheet, but instead of only having students match definitions, they can also ask them to incorporate the new words into sentences.  

This strategy clarifies the learning objectives while also fostering students’ ability to apply and integrate new vocabulary on their own, effectively merging directive teaching with self-directed learning for a comprehensive educational experience. 

Through a combined approach, you can give yourself and your students visible learning goals while still leaving space for independent thinking and self-direction, creating a more enriching and effective learning environment.

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