What is Concept Attainment?

Concept Attainment is an indirect instructional strategy that uses a structured inquiry process. It is based on the work of Jerome Bruner. In concept attainment, students figure out the attributes of a group or category that has already been formed by the teacher. To do so, students compare and contrast examples that contain the attributes of the concept with examples that do not contain those attributes. They then separate them into two groups. Concept attainment, then, is the search for and identification of attributes that can be used to distinguish examples of a given group or category from non-examples.

What is its purpose?

Concept attainment is designed to clarify ideas and to introduce aspects of content. It engages students into formulating a concept through the use of illustrations, word cards or specimens called examples. Students who catch onto the idea before others are able to resolve the concept and then are invited to suggest their own examples, while other students are still trying to form the concept. For this reason, concept attainment is well suited to classroom use because all thinking abilities can be challenged throughout the activity. With experience, children become skilled at identifying relationships in the word cards or specimens. With carefully chosen examples, it is possible to use concept attainment to teach almost any concept in all subjects.


  • helps make connections between what students know and what they will be learning
  • learn how to examine a concept from a number of perspectives
  • learn how to sort out relevant information
  • extends their knowledge of a concept by classifying more than one example of that concept
  • students go beyond merely associating a key term with a definition
    concept is learned more thoroughly and retention is improved

How do I do it?

Steps of Concept Attainment:

  1. Select and define a concept
  2. Select the attributes
  3. Develop positive and negative examples
  4. Introduce the process to the students
  5. Present the examples and list the attributes
  6. Develop a concept definition
  7. Give additional examples
  8. Discuss the process with the class
  9. Evaluate

A Math example:

  • First the teacher chooses a concept to developed. (i.e. Math facts that equal 10)
  • Begin by making list of both positive "yes" and negative " no" examples: The examples are put onto sheets of paper or flash cards.
  • Positive Examples: (Positive examples contain attributes of the concept to be taught) i.e. 5+5, 11-1, 10X1, 3+4+4, 12-2, 15-5, (4X2)+2, 9+1
  • Negative Examples: (for examples choose facts that do not have 10 as the answer) i.e. 6+6, 3+3, 12-4, 3X3, 4X4, 16-5, 6X2, 3+4+6, 2+(2X3), 16-10
  • Designate one area of the chalkboard for the positive examples and one area for negative examples. A chart could be set up at the front of the room with two columns - one marked YES and the other marked NO.
  • Present the first card by saying, "This is a YES." Place it under the appropriate column. i.e. 5+5 is a YES
  • Present the next card and say, "This is a NO." Place it under the NO column. i.e. 6+6 is a NO
  • Repeat this process until there are three examples under each column.
  • Ask the class to look at the three examples under the YES column and discuss how they are alike. (i.e. 5+5, 11-1, 2X5) Ask "What do they have in common?"
  • For the next tree examples under each column, ask the students to decide if the examples go under YES or NO.
  • At this point, there are 6 examples under each column. Several students will have identified the concept but it is important that they not tell it out loud to the class. They can however show that they have caught on by giving an example of their own for each column. At this point, the examples are student-generated. Ask the class if anyone else has the concept in mind. Students who have not yet defined the concept are still busy trying to see the similarities of the YES examples. Place at least three more examples under each column that are student-generated.
  • Discuss the process with the class. Once most students have caught on, they can define the concept. Once they have pointed out that everything under the YES column has an answer of 10, then print a new heading at the top of the column (10 Facts). The print a new heading for the NO column (Not 10 Facts).

How can I adapt it?

This activity can be done on the chalkboard, chart paper or overhead projector to a large or small group. It also works well as one-on-one work. Rather than starting with the teacher's concept, use a student's concept. Concept attainment can be used to introduce or conclude a unit of study.

Variations on the Concept Attainment Model

  • Present all of the positive examples to the students at once and have them determine the essential attributes.
  • Present all of the positive and negative examples to the students without labeling them as such. Have them group the examples into the two categories and determine the essential attributes.
  • Have the students define, identify the essential attributes of, and choose positive examples for a concept already learned in class.
  • Use the model as a group activity.

Assessment and Evaluation Considerations

Have the students:

  • write the definition from memory.
  • determine positive and negative examples from a given group.
  • create their own examples of the concept.
  • "think aloud"
  • write a learning log
  • do an oral presentation
  • create a web, concept map, flow chart, illustrations, KWL chart, T chart

Teacher Resources


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