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Strategy: 3x3 Generalization of Skills

In special education, we talk a lot about the generalization of skills.

In short, generalization is when a person can take a new skill or concept learned in one environment & successfully apply it in another. Because some of our learners require more intensive & specific interventions to acquire new abilities, it can be difficult for them to turn around and generalize different environments.

After all, what good is it to teach a student how to do money math on a worksheet or with play products in a controlled environment if they cannot apply money management skills when they have real currency and actual products to purchase?

I don't want to oversimplify the learning process & I also don't want to get knee-deep into pedagogy & theory. Still, some things should be taken into account when considering generalization.

Generalization (applying newly learned concepts to various situations or demonstrate proficiency of the aforementioned skill) can only occur if learning occurs beyond the most basic surface level. Whether you're more familiar with Blooms Taxonomy or Webb's Depth of Knowledge, you'll notice similarities among the two theories: learning is a process that starts at a basic level of recalling & remembering but evolves into synthesis & application. Before we can confidently say that a student has mastered a skill, more profound levels of learning should occur.

That's one of those "easy to say, hard to do" statements, for sure.

Rest easy, though; I'm not here to bamboozle you.

Instead, I want to share a pretty straightforward strategy that I learned a few years ago. This specific strategy can help you evaluate a student's generalization abilities.

It's called the 3x3 strategy.

After explicit instruction of a specific skill, a student's acquisition can be evaluated by assessing the skill 3 different times across 3 different people with 3 different sets of resources. Performance and demonstration across these 3 areas can help determine if a student is genuinely able to generalize a skill. Ideally, students should be able to demonstrate the skill with proficiency across all observed trials, regardless of the person, time, or resources being utilized.

Here's what the 3x3 strategy can look like IRL:

3 different times (at minimum)


If we're thinking about specific skills (i.e., IEP goals), there's a good chance that the criteria are either percentage or trial-based. The reason that skills should be demonstrated with proficiency multiple times is pretty straightforward: accurate demonstration is a vital component of learning acquisition.

We wouldn't consider something mastered if it was demonstrated with proficiency only one time. Multiple & valid trials are needed to establish an accurate pattern of ability.


Don't go wild with this.

Best practice is the accumulation of acquired trials over time, so even if a student can demonstrate (insert skill) with proficiency & accuracy ten times in one day, consider revisiting the skill at a later date. We all have bad days, & we all have good days. It would be a true detriment to the student if they had one really great day with something & we used that sole day as justification to "move on" to the next skill before honestly evaluating the student's abilities over time. Doing so can cause foundational gaps in prerequisite skills to the long-term learning goal.

3 different people


Learning with different people is essential because people present content & questions differently. Different people have different expectations. If our students can demonstrate proficiency in something with 1 person, providing them with opportunities to organically address that same skill with other people will allow us to see if there's a proper generalization of the skill or if the skill is only proficient with one person.


Listen, schools do not have educators to spare. There's no secret supply closet of educators from which we can pull. If you recall, education as a whole is currently in a state of mass exodus, so when I talk about practicing a newly acquired skill with 3 different people, I don't necessarily mean 3 adults. I mean 3 different people in general. Some people (or people groups) to consider utilizing for his might be pair-share groups, small groups, parent volunteers, paraprofessionals, support staff, a peer buddy, etc. The strategy could even be used in a virtual setting by having different people zoom in with the student as the student demonstrates the skill. This is an excellent option for parents to see how their student is doing while also giving you a chance to evaluate their ability to generalize.

3 different resources


Routine is important, but it can be a limiting factor when it comes to generalization. When we teach with limited modalities, we significantly reduce content depth acquisition. Using the same instructional strategy or resources creates a familiarity that may be hard to transfer to other environments. Instead, offer instruction via multiple modes. Again, super simple to write but so much more complex to apply. I'll write about this specifically and in more detail later, but basically, avoid the stagnant and rote use of recycled strategies and materials.


Consider employing a variety of instructional strategies & resources. If your go-to instruction is paper-based, consider project-based demonstration. Utilize different manipulatives, literary genres, prompts & cues, digital resources, & student roles. Initial instruction with multiple modalities of resources can be of great value when considering the long-term goal of skill generalization.

Generalization is a critical piece of ensuring that student's learning is effective, impactful, and genuine. Without an intentional focus on it, we can easily overlook foundational components of a student's education.

Feeling a bit foggy on Blooms vs Webb's? Here's a brief video that gives an overview & comparison of both :)

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