How To Teach Students to Make Evidence-Based Inferences

Though abstract and difficult to model, inference is an important skill to teach students — it’s the gateway to the kind of higher-order, critical thinking students need to succeed in school and work.

Students use different processes to draw conclusions via inference. How can teachers explicitly model these processes? In Inference: Teaching Students to Develop Hypotheses, Evaluate Evidence, and Draw Logical Conclusions, Harvey Silver, Thomas Dewing, and Matthew Perini examine four inference strategies:

  • Inductive Learning, which helps students draw inferences by grouping data, labeling the data groups with descriptive titles, and using the groups to generate and test hypotheses.
  • Mystery, which presents students with a puzzling question or situation and has students examine clues that help them explain the mystery.
  • Main Idea, which teaches students how to use inferential thinking to construct main ideas that are not explicitly stated.
  • Investigation, which challenges students to use various problem-solving approaches that require inference.

Inference lessons using any of these approaches — Inductive Learning, Mystery, Main Idea, or Investigation — have five principles and corresponding phases of implementation:

  1. Principle: What’s missing is what’s important. Phase: Identify what you need to figure out.
  2. Principle: Understanding is a drive. Phase: Note information sources and look for patterns.
  3. Principle: Inference is a process. Phase: Formulate and refine hypotheses.
  4. Principle: You’ve got some explaining to do. Phase: Explain your thinking.
  5. Principle: Look back to move forward. Phase: Reflect on the process.

The first letter of the first word of each instructional phase of an inference lesson spells out the acronym INFER (Identify, Note, Formulate, Explain, Reflect). These phases and guidance for classroom implementation of the instructional phases are spelled out in more detail, in the free sample chapter of this new ASCD book.

Also — you can see a sample lesson using these strategies in action. Walk through each step of teacher Jason Mantzoukas’ 9th grade U.S. history inductive learning lesson on what life was like in Colonial New England. Each phase is described, and accompanying word lists, text passages, and graphic organizers are provided.

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