Effective Classroom Demonstrations

shoe-tyingby Kelly McEnerney, Graduate Assistant, Reinert Center

As pedagogical tools for engaging students, demonstrations serve a useful role in the classroom, particularly when used to introduce concepts that are difficult to convey in words. To extend this point, imagine a classic example of a child learning to tie shoes. Take a few seconds to formulate verbal instructions that you might offer to support the child’s learning. If you discovered this task to be difficult, you are not alone. Certain concepts easily evade traditional explanations. In such cases, the most effective teaching method could be to demonstrate, or illustrate, the concept.

Of course, there are many ways to carry out a demonstration. In terms of the shoe-tying example, you could start by having the child observe and then replicate your shoe tying process. Alternatively, you could have the child first engage in a trial and error period, developing just enough familiarity with the shoelaces to perceive the relevance of your demonstration for his or her own learning.

For teachers in higher education, learning goals and objectives may be more elaborate than having students simply replicate a procedure, such as tying shoes. You may want students to develop a scientific approach to thinking about events (i.e., having them form and test hypotheses), the ability to see relationships between seemingly disparate ideas, and a penchant for novel solutions. You may want your students to experiment and, perhaps, experience the learning equivalent of “double tying” shoes or discarding laces for the more efficient Velcro approach.

According to Schmaefsky (2004), effective classroom demonstrations should include the following steps:

  • Introduce a demonstration with a brief explanation of its relation to the content being covered;
  • Offer an introductory description of the process without revealing results;
  • Have students form hypotheses based on prior course knowledge and experiences;
  • Conduct the demonstration;
  • Have students report what they observed;
  • Assess student learning through reflection or guided questions;
  • Ask the class to reflect on other applications of the demonstration or ways to enact it.

Researchers have argued that the essential feature of effective classroom demonstrations involves students’ active engagement with the material (Crouch, Fagen, Callan, & Mazur, 2004; Zimrot & Ashkenazi, 2007). For instance, for students in an introductory physics course, passively observing a demonstration was not associated with gains in understanding over and above the absence of a demonstration. However, when students approached the demonstration actively, they later described concepts at a respectively higher level of understanding (Crouch, Fagen, Callan, & Mazur, 2004).

Ultimately, I would argue that the first step to developing effective demonstrations is to reflect on what aspects of your course are not easily explainable in the traditional sense. You can then begin to implement the above techniques, as far as they align with your specific learning goals and objectives.


Child’s hands tying shoe [Online image]. 2011. Retrieved August 4, 2015 from http://nspt4kids.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/shoe-tying.jpg

Crouch, C., Fagen, A. P., Callan, J. P., & Mazur, E. (2004). Classroom demonstrations: Learning tools or entertainment?. American journal of physics,72(6), 835-838.

Shmaefsky, B. (2004). Tips for Using Demonstrations Effectively. Journal of College Science Teaching33(7), 60-62.

Zimrot, R., & Ashkenazi, G. (2007). Interactive lecture demonstrations: a tool for exploring and enhancing conceptual change. Chemistry Education Research and Practice8(2), 197-211.

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