Concept Attainment Strategy


    What is the “Concept Attainment Strategy”?

    We grow up using the concept attainment strategy to learn about our environment. Your parents did not tell you the critical attributes of a dog. You heard them refer to a variety of animals as a dog. You learned through those examples to build the concept of dog. The first time you saw a cat, you may have called it a dog because it has the many of the same characteristics. Over time, and through many examples, you can now look at a dog and just “know” it’s a dog, whether or not you have seen every possible breed of dog, whether the dog is large or small, despite its color, regardless if it has all 4 legs, etc.

    The concept attainment strategy can be applied to explore any new concept whether it is equality, geometric shapes, art genres, etc.


    The Process: Preparation

    > Step 1: Select a concept

    Example: Triangle

    > Step 2: Identify the critical attributes of the concept

    Example: Triangles have 3 straight sides, 3 vertices, and are a closed figure.

    > Step 3: Create a list of examples and non-examples

    Prepare at least 10 examples of triangles and 10 non-examples of triangles. Make sure to increase the level of complexity. Examples of non-examples: 4 sided figures; 3 sided figures with 1 curved line; 3 sided figure that is not closed


    The Process: With Students

    > Important Note

    The hardest part of this process will be the lack of speaking on your part. Your role will be to show an example and state whether it belongs in the “yes” or “no” section. It is imperative that you refrain from being “helpful”. Don’t give hints. Don’t offer suggestions. Let the students be wrong. Let them work through the process. Let them update their understanding and refine their thinking based on new examples. 

    > Step 1: Create a “Yes” and “No” Section

    Write “Yes” and “No” on the board if you are using visuals or place “Yes” and “No” tent cards on a table if you are using physical objects.

    Explain to students that you are going to play a guessing game. We have a “yes” and “no” section. You are going to take an example and place it in either the yes or no section. The students’ job is to see if they can figure out what the concept is…what the big idea is. If you put it in the “yes” section, that means it is an example of the concept. Keep coming back to the “yes” section. If you put it in the “no” section, that means the item is not an example of the concept. Look for connections in the “yes” section. The “no” section contains all of the non-examples. Anything put in the “no” section is missing something important. Students will be creating a definition that describes all of the “yes” examples.

    You will not be discussing the examples and non-examples. After you have placed several in the “yes” and “no” sections, you will give students time to talk. Students should not call out any guesses while you are showing the examples. They can keep it in their head and test each sample to see if they have placed it in the correct category.

    > Step 2: Provide two or three very strong “Yes” examples

    Example, show students an image of an equilateral triangle. Place it in the “Yes” section. Say, “This is a strong yes example. Let’s put this in the yes.” Show an isosceles triangle. Place it in the yes, telling students it is a strong  yes. Repeat for a scalene triangle.

    > Step 3: Provide two or three very strong “No” examples

    Example, show students a four sided image. Place it in the “No” section. Say, “This is a strong no example. This belongs in no.” Show a few other examples of shapes that do not have three sides.

    > Step 4: Show more examples and non-examples

    Hold up an example and ask students to think about where it belongs. Give them some time to process individually. Place the example in the “yes” section. Repeat for several examples and non-examples.

    > Step 5: Let students discuss and provide either an example or non-example

    Give students time with a partner to discuss their thinking around the examples and non-examples. After they have had some time, provide them with either an example or non-example to discuss placement. Once students have had time to decide, place the example/non-example correctly. Ask students to create a beginning definition or description. At this point, students may state that all shapes with three sides are “yes” and anything with more than three sides are “no”.

    > Step 6: Show a new non-example

    Show students a non-example that challenges their definition. For example, show them a three sided shape where one of the sides is a curve rather than a straight line. Give them time to decide where it belongs. Place it in the non-examples. Give students time to discuss with a partner why it doesn’t fit the “yes” criteria. 

    > Step 7: Repeat the process above

    Provide students with more examples and non-examples based on the refined criteria. Have them refine their definition based on the new evidence. For example, they may state that the “yes” section consists of shapes with 3 straight sides. Once they have created a new definition, show a new non-example that challenges their definition. For example, show a 3 sided figure that is not closed. Provide partner discussion time and an opportunity to refine their definition again.  

    > Step 8: Students share, discuss and refine their definitions

     Group students with another student to share, discuss and refine their definition. They must come to consensus. Once they do, that group merges with another group, repeating the process. You can do this one more time or skip to the large group discussion. Ask a group to share their definition. Ask the class to respond. Are there questions they have about the definition? Are there opportunities to tighten it up? Are there “holes”? (ie. Did they miss a critical attribute?) Is anything worded in such a way that it could be misinterpreted? As a class, come to consensus on a final definition. Have one of the students prepare a written version that can be displayed in the classroom.



    Connections to Research

    The Concept Attainment approach was introduced as early as 1956 in Bruner et al’s work.

    Marzano, Pickering and Pollock (2012) identify two strategies in their book “Classroom Instruction that Works: Research-based strategies for Increasing Student Achievement” that are specifically addressed and utilized within the concept attainment strategy: “Identifying similarities and differences” with a 45 percentile gain and “Generating and testing hypotheses” with a 23 percentile gain. 


    An Example to Explore the Strategy

    This example focuses on sorting food into “yes” and “no” categories. You can read more about the Concept Attainment Lesson Structure from the University of Saskatchewan.

    The two videos below were created by The Gwenna Moss Centre for Teaching Effectiveness at the University of Saskatchewan. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-No Derivatives 2.5 Canada License.



      More Examples

      The websites below include examples of math specific concept attainment activities.


      • triangles vs non-triangles
      • Equation in Standard Form

       Ian Byrd shares a modified version of the concept attainment strategy, in a video, to teach geometry by sorting geometric shapes into two categories, rather than yes and no.


      Bruner, J. S., & Anglin, J. M. (2010). Beyond the information given: studies in the psychology of knowing. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

      Bruner, J.S., Goodnow, J.J. & Austin, G.A. (1956) A Study of Thinking.  Chapman & Hall, Limited.  London.

      Dean, C. B., Hubbell, E. R., Pitler, H., Stone, B., & Marzano, R. J. (2012). Classroom instruction that works: research-based strategies for increasing student achievement. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.