Concept Attainment:  The Most Compelling of the Inductive Teaching Methods


Of all the teaching methods I have tried, the concept attainment approach requires the most careful preparation. However, the results are compelling.

This method is a more focused approach than the general inductive one. Teachers should use this method only when teaching a concept in a process-oriented manner.

It just simply is not suited for teaching generalizations.

Through the process of analyzing data and making inferences that form the core of this method, students not only become more proficient at processing information but also exercise more independence as learners.

Like the other teaching methods that appear on these pages, planning a concept attainment lesson involves planning the activity, executing the activity, and evaluating the outcome.

Planning the Activity

First, I determine the concept to be taught. For the purpose of this brief demonstration, I will select the concept, proper nouns.

With the point of the lesson firmly in mind, I carefully select two sets of examples related to this concept--positive examples and negative examples. The thinking here is that the positive examples will illustrate what the concept is. The negative examples will show what the concept is not and, therefore, establish concept boundaries and limits.

Here is the list of examples that I have chosen to teach the concept, proper nouns:

"Yes" examples: Melissa, New York, William, Detroit, Ohio, United States, German Shepherd, Toyota, and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

I selected German Shepherd, Toyota, and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire as positive examples.

Without these examples, the remaining positive examples would suggest to students that the concept of proper noun would consist only of the names of places and people, rather than including the names of things as well.

"No" examples: home, sofa, walk, below, was, or, girl, county, thin, and quickly.

I selected my negative examples for the purpose of differentiating proper nouns from common nouns, as well as other parts of speech.

Because the concept attainment teaching method involves categorizing and hypothesizing, I would strongly suggest doing a very simple practice activity as a warm-up so that students will be familiar with the procedure.

For example, I have found that the first time I try this activity with a group of kids, many do not know what a category is and many do not know how to make a hypothesis. Please see the Additional Notes section near the bottom of this page for suggestions on how to easily remedy this with a very simple practice activity.

As you may know by now, I prefer using a digital projector to display student responses. For this teaching method, I use the insert table feature available in Microsoft Word.

Now, I'm ready to begin this activity.

Executing the Activity

I begin the activity by saying, "I have a category in mind, and I'm asking you to figure out what that category is." Then I type, "New York" in the first "Yes" cell and "sofa" in the first "No" cell, like this: "Based on this evidence, what category do I have in mind?" I ask.

One by one, students state their hypotheses, and as they do, I type their responses like this: Then, I type the example "Ohio" in the "Yes" column and ask students to re-evaluate their hypotheses. I say, "Based on this new evidence, can we eliminate any of the categories that you suggested?"

After a short pause, Allan says, "Well, Ohio is not a state, so the category can't be cities."

"Quite correct," I reply as I strike through both city responses.

Cheryl adds, "And, Ohio is only one word, so the fourth one about two words can't be it."

"Very good," I reply as I strike through "states composed of two words."

Through this process of testing hypotheses and eliminating faulty ones, we are now left with "states in the U.S." and "places." I continue by saying, "Here is some additional evidence," and I write the word "Melissa" in the "Yes" column and "home" in the "No" column. Does anyone have a new ideas?" "Melissa is not a state, and I think it's not a place either," Adam replies.

"Quite right, Adam," I agree as I strike through both of those hypotheses. "Does anyone have an additional ideas what the category might be?" Ronald says, "It could be words that are capitalized."

I record his answer and ask, "Why do you think that's the category?"

"Because none of the 'No' words are capitalized and all the 'Yes' words are," he explains. "That's an interesting hypothesis, Ronald," I say. "But look at this new evidence." Then, I write the title "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," in the "Yes" column. Amy then says, "Well, it can't be words that are capitalized."

"Why is that?" I ask.

"Because three words in the 'Yes' column are not capitalized. So, it can't be words that are capitalized."

"You are quite correct," I reply as I strike through that hypothesis. We continue in this manner, testing hypotheses, eliminating faulty ones, observing new examples, and postulating additional theories, until I believe that students have realized the concept. At that point, I say, "You've all done very well today."

Now, for the first time, I take the liberty to name the category. I just simply say, "Today you have discovered what proper nouns are. How do we know that these are proper nouns? In other words, what do all of these 'yes' words have in common?" I ask the class.

At that point, we do a little brainstorming. The kids will be able to tell me that 'yes' words all name people, places, or things. They will also observe that these nouns are capitalized because they name special or particular people, places, or things.

Once I have realized that students have connected the name of the concept with the characteristics of the concept, we construct this definition of a proper noun (which I type for all to see):

Proper nouns name particular people, places, or things. As a result, they are always capitalized.

The activity is successfully completed.

Evaluating the Activity

To evaluate this activity, I have several options. The first and easiest option would be to ask students to give me additional examples of proper nouns and explain the characteristics that make them proper nouns.

I may also choose to employ a written assessment, such as, a multiple choice quiz. I might ask students to circle proper nouns on an activity sheet. Whatever method I employ, I will have a sound basis for evaluating individual effort.

Additional Notes

As mentioned previously, please consider using a simple concept attainment procedure with any groups of students who have not had any experience with this teaching method before.

This will give you an opportunity to explain, if necessary, the terms category and hypothesis, for example. In the interest of saving time, I would suggest making the target concept something simple, such as, furniture.

The "yes" examples would, of course, clearly name familiar items of furniture. So too, the "no" examples would clearly name items that in no way could be thought of as items of furniture.

Once students grasp the terminology and the procedure, they will be ready for the real thing.


I have used the concept attainment teaching method frequently over the course of my career. I have found it to be intrinsically motivating.

Students are genuinely engaged and proactive. Not only do they learn the concept, they also gain valuable experience in processing data and extracting information from it.

The trade-off, as I'm sure you will agree, is that this teaching method does require a lot of specific and thoughtful preparation on the teacher's part.

Additionally, the teacher has to be prepared to steer students in the desired direction by supplying appropriate examples at the appropriate times based on their hypotheses.

However, it's like just about everything else. The more you do it, the better you get at it.

Please consider giving this teaching method a try. I think you'll be amazed at the effect it has on your kids.

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