THEORY NAME: Anchored Instruction

John Bransford and The Cognitive and Technology Group at Vanderbilt (CTGV); 1990.


Anchored instruction arose from the problem cited in education literature as long ago as 1929, suggesting students’ knowledge often remains “inert” and cannot be used in response to many different changing situations or problems.

The innovation was to situate learning in realistic problems, allowing students to experience the same professional dilemmas facing experts in a given field. Problems are structured to be factually authentic with real data as well as performance authentic with realistic tasks that might be faced by a novice if apprenticed to an expert historian, physician, businessperson, etc.

Anchored instruction is a technology-based learning approach which stresses the importance of placing learning within a meaningful, problem-solving context. A form of situated learning, anchored instruction uses context-- stories or micro--- to situate the learning and application of knowledge. In other words, the learning is contextualized to provide students with realistic roles that serve to enhance the learning process.

Anchored instruction is a framework for learning that emphasizes complex problem solving in integrated learning contexts. Integrated learning contexts take on the form of drawing realistic connections, making learning meaningful for students, and forming connections within and between content domains. An anchored instruction activity supports learning opportunities that relate to and extend thinking to other content areas.

Learning and teaching activities are designed around an "anchor" which is often a story, adventure, or situation that includes a problem or issue to be resolved and that is of interest to the students. The “anchoring” refers to the bonding of the content within a realistic and authentic context: Anchored modules typically embed all of the information need— embedded data or hints are used as scaffolding— to solve the problem, making it easier to manage in environments with limited time or limited resources.

It is similar to problem-based learning (PBL) but not as open-ended. In PBL, students would be expected to do more first-hand research into resources external to the learning environments. Anchored learning is also related to case-based learning, although the stories presented are meant to be explored and discussed rather than simply read or watched.

Goal-based scenario model.

To design an anchored story, identify the steps required to solve a problem; then set about including them in a story line. CTGV developed the Jasper Woodbury problem solving series for middle school mathematics learning. In the “wounded eagle” scenario, students must determine the best way to move and save a wounded eagle, computing the amount of gasoline an ultra-light plane will require, weight of cargo, and other data.

The problems should not be easily solved, but somewhat complex, requiring students to discuss and debate various options. Problems with more than one solution path are fine, and may actually be preferable as the entire class comes together to describe the solutions of various groups. The Jasper problems were all complex, requiring at least 14 steps in a correct solution path.

To the extent a series of related anchored problems can be created to include generic steps or skills of a subject matter domain, they will be more likely to facilitate transfer of those skills to other problems. The CTGV (1992, p. 252) notes: “…an explicit emphasis on analyzing similarities and differences among problem situations, and on bridging to new areas of application, facilitates the degree to which spontaneous transfer occurs.”

1. Learning and teaching activities should be designed around a "anchor" which should be some sort of contextualized case-study or problem situation.

Interactive multimedia based presentation materials, allowing exploration by the learner (e.g., interactive CD-ROM programs, interactive sites).

Learners should take ownership.

Involves complex problem and content, solved through interconnectedness of sub-problems, multiple scenarios presented.

Problem presented in a narrative format, a story with embedded data.

Learning context is generative (students identify with problem and become actively involved in generating solution).

The primary application of anchored instruction has been to elementary reading, language arts and mathematics skills. The CLGV has developed a set of interactive videodisc programs called the `Jasper Woodbury Problem Solving Series'. These programs involve adventures in which mathematical concepts are used to solve problems.

Anchored instruction is a major paradigm for technology-based learning. CTGV recommends the use of video to make the anchored stories as realistic as possible. Instructional materials include resources students can easily explore, such as videodiscs or interactive computer simulations, as they decide how to solve a problem.

Anchored modules can take the form of full-blown multimedia with branching or simple Web pages with photos, text, and video streaming.

The use of interactive media technology makes it possible for students to easily explore the content-- the video materials serve as `anchors' (macro-contexts) for all subsequent learning and instruction.

In learning activities, students view a story that ultimately leads to a dilemma the students need to resolve. The story serves as an anchor to ground their initial ideas, formulate strategies to solve the problem, and later as a source of information.

Anchored instruction challenges and motivates learners to find the story’s embedded data through a realistic, narrative, storyline format. Solving the larger problem often requires that students generate sub-questions that help guide or support their thinking. They review parts of the story to find information that will support these smaller questions and then use additional resources to acquire information or skills to help them answer their questions.

Students develop solutions, working on the problems in small group. Student groups present ideas, reporting their solutions plans to the entire class. Pros and cons of the various ideas are discussed

Provides context of a problem.

Formulating a problem statement is a key role (e.g., represents the major issues or major problems that seem to be causing the problem), followed by an extraction and organization of data related to the problem. Anchored stories use embedded data— hints that are used as scaffolding to solve the problem.

Instructors facilitate and coaches the students through the anchored based learning process.

• Analogous problems using new data help students to engage in “what if” thinking about the original scenario: Analogous problems (e.g., what if you did not have this option) can help students understand problems more deeply by exploring the relationship among pertinent variables.
• Extension problems requiring similar skills or strategies can be used in the initial scenarios to facilitate transfer of those skills to a variety of tasks and to reflect on meaning beyond initial scenario:




In studies with 5th and 6th grade groups, the CTGV found students scored “above average on standard mathematics achievement tests,” but were not immediately successful at problem identification or formulation (CTGV, 1992, p. 252). Students unfamiliar with finding a problem embedded in a story might initially struggle with such tasks. Over time (four to five group problems), students will show improvements in problem formulation. To the extent a series of related anchored problems can be created to include generic steps or skills of a subject matter domain, they will be more likely to facilitate transfer of those skills to other problems.




RESOURCES (APA Style Citation)

Bransford, J.D. et al. (1990). Anchored instruction: Why we need it and how technology can hel p. In D. Nix & R. Sprio (Eds), Cognition, education and multimedia. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum Associates.

Bransford, J.D. & Stein, B.S. (1993). The Ideal problem solver (2nd Ed). New York: Freeman.
CTGV (1990). Anchored instruction and its relationship to situated cognition. Educational Researcher, 19 (6), 2-10.

CTGV (1993). Anchored instruction and situated cognition revisited. Educational Technology, 33 (3), 52- 70.

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