Anchored Instruction Research Paper Starter

Anchored Instruction

(Research Starters)

Anchored instruction is a technology based problem solving teaching method. The method engages students in a problem solving process that is tied, or anchored, to a realistic technology-based video presentation. Technology is used to present the story or anchor because it is seen as a vehicle to engage students in the higher order thinking skills they will need to solve the problems. Anchored instruction falls within the social constructivist paradigm, and is closely associated with situated learning. Anchored instruction is more relevant for middle school students, since the problems are difficult but not as complex as true problem-based learning (PBL). An important example of anchored instruction is the Jasper Woodbury series, which was designed by the Cognition and Technology Group (CTGV) at Vanderbilt University in 1992. The Woodbury Series is no longer maintained, but there are still a few current educational videos adapted to anchored instruction.

Keywords Behaviorism; Constructivism; Educational technology; Learning Disability; Macro contexts; Metacognition; Middle school; No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB); Problem-Based Learning; Scaffolding; Situated learning

Technology in Education: Anchored Instruction


Anchored instruction engages students in a problem solving process that is tied or anchored to a realistic technology-based presentation. The instruction is anchored to a story, not to a lecture, and video clips provide students with relevant details to help solve the problem (Chen, nd; Jasper, 1992). The stories, or anchors, are designed to "motivate students and help them learn to think and reason about important, complex problems" (CTGV, 1992a, p. 291). In addition, video technology is used to present the story because it is seen as a vehicle to engage students in the higher order thinking skills they will need to solve the problems (Love, 2004; Shyu, 1999). Also, video results in superior memory because information is dual-coded as both verbal and nonverbal representations (Journal of Special Education Technology, 26(2), 2011).

Roots in Social Constructivism

Anchored instruction falls within the social constructivist paradigm, and it is closely associated with situated learning (Kearsley, 1999). Constructivism is a broad framework and philosophy of education where learning is an active process of knowledge construction. Constructivism is often contrasted with objectivist or behaviorist models (Hofstetter, 1997). In behaviorism, learning is a process of conditioning and the mind is seen as an empty vessel that the teacher passively fills—it is a teacher-centered approach. On the other hand, constructivist approaches are often described as learner-centered because the learner has control over the learning process, and students actively construct knowledge and are encouraged to develop metacognitive processes. Learner control is a critical aspect of the anchored instruction model (Cena & Mitchell, 1998). Furthermore, in anchored instruction, students actively engage in critical thinking to solve the problems presented in the story anchor (Oliver, 1999).

Macro Contexts

Anchored instruction is more relevant for middle school students, since the problems are difficult but not as complex as true problem-based learning (PBL). However, anchored instruction sets the stage for PBL at the secondary and post-secondary levels (Jasper, 1992). The anchored environments are sometimes referred to as macro-contexts because students have to work out a solution to a complex set of connected problems (CTGV, 1992a). It is important when selecting and designing the macro-context that students, who are novices, are able to use some of their available knowledge just like experts. Experts can learn to adjust their thinking to solve a problem.

In a 2011 study of high school students, data showed a highly significant difference between students who studied using the anchored instruction and the teacher-centered. Students said the anchored instruction video made their class interesting and interactive, enabled them to study involving realistic situation, motivated them to learn on their own, promoted collaboration, allowed them to learn about environment aside from statistics, provided them episodic memory cues, and changed their perception of statistics. The students also said that they liked the new approach in learning compared to their usual classwork (Prado & Gravoso, 2011). Finally, cooperative learning is an important component of anchored instruction, but it is important to recognize that teachers may need to provide scaffolding to avoid the pitfalls of group work (CTGV, 1992a).

Origins of Anchored Instruction

Dr. John D. Bransford is credited with developing the anchored instruction theory while working at the Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt (CTGV) (Kearsley, 1999). From 1984 to 1999, Dr. Bransford was the director of the Learning Technology Center at Vanderbilt, and under his leadership the CTGV grew from 7 people the first year to more than 100 in 1999 (Bransford, 2006). Some of the technology-based programs developed during that time include the Jasper Woodbury Problem Solving Series in Mathematics, the Scientists in Action Series, and the Little Planet Literacy Series. Many of the programs are being used in schools around the globe.

Seven Design Principles

There are seven design principles used with the anchored instruction model (Foster, 2004; Crews, Biswas, Goldman & Bransford, 1997):

• Anchored instruction is a generative learning format because learners are motivated to construct or produce a solution to the open-ended problem in the story.

• Anchored instruction is a video based presentation that enhances textbook learning with audio, animation, graphics, simulation, color, and realism.

• The narrative format of anchored instruction makes it more authentic and the realistic storyline enriches the context of the characters and events.

• The complexity of the problem demands the learner's full attention and also stimulates their curiosity to solve the problem.

• Data are embedded in the story so that learners must explore the content; students must also learn how to identify pertinent data because not all of the data in the story are necessary to solve the problem.

• Learners are given opportunities to transfer knowledge from one subject area, such as algebra, to other settings in the same subject area.

• There are links to other areas of study within the storyline so that learning can occur across the curriculum (Foster, 2004).


A frequently mentioned anchored instruction program is the Jasper Woodbury Series, developed by CTGV in 1992 (Jasper, 1992). The video-based segments in the Jasper Series are approximately 15 to 20 minutes in length, and designed to pose problems that grade 5+ students must solve through reasoning and effective communication. The students must solve the problems on their own before they are allowed to see how the characters in the video solved the problem (CTGV, 1992a). The problems are similar to traditional word problems in mathematics instruction, but are not as structured or explicit (Solving, nd).

Example Problems

A Simple Problem: Journey to Cedar Creek

In the story "Journey to Cedar Creek," Jasper eagerly reads his newspaper and scours the ads for used boats. He finds a boat for sale that interests him, and he begins making plans to take a trip to Cedar Creek to see the boat. Students are given various bits of information throughout the video about distances, weather conditions, when the sun will set, the price of gas, how much cash Jasper has, how big his gas tank is, and the approximate miles per gallon his outboard motor will get. During the video small problems come up that change the parameters of the trip planning. For example, along the way the shear pin in Jasper's outboard motor breaks, and he has to have it repaired for a modest price at Dixon's Boat Repair. Even though Mr. Dixon did not charge a lot of money, Jasper now has a potential cash flow problem and wonders whether he has enough money for gas to get to Cedar Creek and back again. He also wonders if he has time to complete his trip before the sun sets.

After the students have finished watching the video, they are asked two questions: (1) when should Jasper leave for home, and (2) can he make it without running out of fuel? Since there is only one route Jasper can take, one mode of transportation, and a set budget, this is a relatively simple problem for the students to solve and involves approximately 15 steps (Jasper, 1992). In addition to the main problem, CTGV provides analogous and extension problems so that the teacher can focus more of the students' attention on the mathematics in the Jasper story. For example, analogous problems focus on the time and fuel sub-problems in the context of the original story where one to three factors have been changed. The Journey to Cedar Creek story is an example of a complex trip planning problem (Jasper, 1992).

A Complex Problem: Rescue at Boone's Meadow

A more difficult trip planning problem is called "Rescue at Boone's Meadow." This video begins with Larry teaching Emily some basic facts about his ultra-light airplane. A few weeks later, Emily takes her first solo flight in Larry's airplane, and Larry, Emily, and Jasper go out to supper to celebrate at Hilda's restaurant and service station. During their meal Jasper tells his friends about a fishing trip he is planning to take in Boone's Meadow, which is a five-hour hike from Hilda's. While fishing, Jasper hears a gunshot and discovers a wounded eagle; he uses a two-way radio to call Hilda for help. Hilda tells Emily about Jasper's call, and Emily drives to the nearest veterinarian to ask for advice. Meanwhile, throughout the various scenes, clues are dropped about gas prices, speed limits, rates of fuel consumption, the ultra-light plane's payload capacity, weather conditions, distances, and runway length requirements. Emily's challenge is to decide the quickest way to get the wounded eagle to the veterinarian, and how long the rescue will take. This problem is more complex because there is more than one route to take, two modes of transportation available, two speeds of travel, and two potential drivers. In other words, there is no single right answer, and students are asked to justify any assumptions they make. Extension problems for this anchor include the addition of headwind and tailwind effects.

Classroom Applications

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