What do you do when students are not learning?

Listen to an extended version of this post as a podcast (transcript):Sponsored by Peergrade and mysimpleshowI first became aware that there might be a problem a few years ago, when

What do you do when students are not learning?

Listen to an extended version of this post as a podcast (transcript):

Sponsored by Peergrade and mysimpleshow


I first became aware that there might be a problem a few years ago, when one of my kids was studying weather systems: high- and low-pressure systems, cold fronts and warm fronts. We were trying to help her prepare for a test and also do some sort of homework, and she didnt get it at all.

We were really frustrated, my husband and I, because all we really had as a reference was the top half of this worksheet that explained the concept. So we were having trouble explaining it to her, and at one point I finally said to her, You know, in your class, didnt your teacher ever draw a diagram on the board?

She said, No.

I said, Did you guys ever do anything like where the teacher would grab a small group of kids and say, OK, you three, youre going to be a cold front, and then you three, youre going to be a warm front. Come up to the front of the room, OK. And I want this group here, I want you to wiggle around really fast because you are, I dont know, high pressure. And this group, I want you to move really, really slowly.'

I was trying to figure out if there had ever been some kind of physical demonstration of these concepts. It seemed like even a three-minute re-enactment of how these systems work would help the kids get it right away.

Did your teacher ever do anything like that? I asked.

She looked at me like I was crazy and said no.

I said, Well how did you learn this? How did you actually learn this for the first time?

Well, she said, we just read the book.

What do you mean we read the book? I asked. Did everybody sit down quietly and read it and then the teacher talked to you?

No. We just opened it up to page 36, and then she would read a little bit to us, and then explain something, and then we would read a little bit more, and then she would say something else, and that was it.

Is it like that all the time? I asked, hoping for a no.

She shrugged and said, Basically.

This was a couple of years ago, when my kids were all still in elementary school, but since that time, Ive seen this pattern more and more as theyve gotten older: Every day, for the most part, information is delivered to them in some really basic wayusually PowerPointand the kids copy down what the teacher tells them to from the slides. Then they have some sort of worksheet where theyre basically regurgitating what was on those slides. After this cycle repeats four or five times, they have some kind of test. And thats it.

This is not good. If we want our students to actually learn the facts and concepts and ideas were trying to teach them, they have to experience those things in some way that rises above abstract words on paper. They have to process them. Manipulate them.

To really learn in a way that will stick, they have to DO something.

I realize Im probably preaching to the choir herethat people who read these posts are probably doing a lot more in class than this information-in, information-out modeland if thats true for you, then great. But I listen to teachers talk all the time: in schools, on social media, in private messages, and I know that things are not going well for you all of the time. I hear teachers talk about covering concepts in class and even reviewing them with games, only to end up with half the class failing an exam. This is incredibly frustrating; I know. But the truth is, just because you covered it, it doesnt mean they learned it.

And I know that this is going to upset some people, but if you have a lot of students failing your tests, and those students are in class and theyre showing up, then the problem is not them. The problem is you. Its something youre doing, or maybe something youre not doing.

The Problem: A Gap in the Lesson Plan

First, let me say that authentic, project-based learning is probably the best way to have students experience meaningful learning. But many schools and classrooms arent quite there yet: They deliver instruction in a more traditional way. That model can still result in solid learning, if its implemented correctly. And thats where Im seeing a problem. I think were skipping over one of the most important steps in our lesson plans.

Lets consider the classic lesson plan format:

  1. Anticipatory set: This is where we get students interested in the lesson and set objectives for the day.
  2. Direct instruction:Facts, concepts, and skills are delivered via lecture, video, readingsome way of getting the information into students heads.
  3. Guided practice and application: With the support of the teacher, students apply what they have just been taught.
  4. Independent practice and application: Students apply the learning on their own.
  5. Assessment: The teacher measures how well students have met the objectives.

I think whats happening is that were skipping over the third step. Were going right to independent practice (often at the lowest levelsbasic regurgitation), but students arent being given any kind of task to actually process or apply the material in a meaningful way. We go straight from direct instruction to independent practice to assessment.

In some cases, we may even be skipping both steps 3 and 4. Not too long ago I had to help another of my kids study for a social studies test. All we had to work with were notes copied from a PowerPoint. I didnt understand the meaning of half of them, because they were just bulleted phrases, so it was nearly impossible to review the material. When I pointed at individual items and asked my kid to tell me what they meant, that turned out to be too difficult. The teacher had just told them to write down that bullet point, but my kid left class that day not really knowing what it meant.

Because I was a teacher myself, I know theres got to be more to the story. I remember how students could misrepresent or oversimplify the things we did in class. I would bet that this teacher took time to explain these concepts before having students copy down bullet points. But it wasnt enough. My kid was in class, paying attention, writing down the notes, but still didnt learn a whole lot.

Apart from the poor quality learning, this gap in our teaching is a problem for two more reasons.

For one, it doesnt align with the standards. Look at any social studies standards for middle school, in pretty much any state. Do any of them say that kids need to be able to identify names of significant people in historical periods, or be able to regurgitate facts about certain cultures or regions?

No. They want students to be able to understand the relationships between social movements and changes and other influences. They want students to be able to explain and analyze things. I just randomly pulled up Wisconsins standards for grade 7 social studies. Heres an example of what these students should be doing when they learn history (from page 10):

  1. Use historical evidence for determining cause and effect.
  2. Analyze, recognize, and evaluate patterns of continuity andchange over time and contextualization of historical events.
  3. Connect past events, people, and ideas to the present, usedifferent perspectives to draw conclusions, and suggestcurrent implications.
  4. Evaluate a variety of primary and secondary sources tointerpret the historical context, intended audience, purpose,and/or authors point of view.

These standards are GORGEOUS. If students are actually doing these things in Wisconsin middle schools, that would be amazing. But if Wisconsin is like a lot of other places, my guess is that students are sitting through PowerPoint lectures, copying notes from the PowerPoints, and transferring that information to worksheets and tests.

I know it seems like Im picking on social studies here, but thats just because social studies is such an information-driven subject area. The same could be said for science, health, and other content-heavy classes. Even in English language arts, which really should be driven more by practicing reading and writing, there are some teachers who manage to run mostly lecture-worksheet-test-based classes.

The other problem with this kind of teaching is that it makes kids hate school. I already dealt with this extensively in this post about excessive use of worksheets, but its worth repeating: When we do little more than have students copy down information or fill out worksheets, we are making school an awful place to be.

In a 2014 article, instructional coach Alexis Wiggins reported on her findings after shadowing two high school students through a typical school day. She was horrified by the amount of sitting and passive learning these students were subjected to. Friends of mine who work as instructional consultants and coaches, who visit hundreds of classrooms every year, say they see more low-level seatwork than anything else.

My own kids hate school more and more the older they get. And they rarely bring home anything lower than an A. The other parents I talk towho live all around the countryreport a similar pattern more often than not. This is not an isolated issue.

Why Is This Happening?

I think this epidemic of passive learning has come about for a couple of reasons:

High-Stakes Testing Mania

Were in an environment right now that is so driven by high-stakes testing and data that teachers have no choice but to only do things that produce data. Teachers say that they would like to be doing more engaging activities, but they end up in this cycle of information in, information out, assess, get a score, move to the next step again, repeat.

Death by Documentation

Im hearing more and more from teachers who are required to document the crap out of their daysuper detailed lesson plans, all the way down to having to indicate what font size theyre using on something.When you have to do that much documentation,it squeezes teachers time so much that they go to this default setting of get the content out there, cover it, test it, and move to the next thing.

Holes in Teacher Preparation

A friend who consults with schools tells me she believes teachers do not have sufficient tools in their toolbox for teaching. They literally dont know enough strategies for actively engaging students in the content, and that teacher prep programs may not be equipping teachers with enough strategies. Many teachers dont necessarily know how to go beyond direct instruction, worksheets, and tests, so they just go with the default. With teacher turnover at such a high rate and the number of emergency certifications growing in some states, it may be that teacher prep programs may not even be involved: There may not be much preparation at all.

The first two reasons need to be addressed at an administrative, policy level. But the last one we can deal with right now.

How Do We Fix It?

Now comes the good news. This problem can be solved in so many ways, and the solutions dont have to be complicated, time-consuming, or fancy. Simply add activities into your instruction that will help students build more pathways in their brains, see patterns, connect to previous knowledge, and experience some novelty so they remember the material better.

In between the direct instruction step and the assessment step of your planning, start adding in some of these activities:

1. Sorting

Organize the material by similarities and differences, categorize it, label it, do something that requires students to activate schema and create connections. An inductive learning lesson would be great for this.

2. Kinesthetic Work

Doing short role-plays and simulations can really help students visualize relationships and processes. This can also be done by creating models with Play-Doh or cardboard, or doing some kind of a maker projectthat connects to your standard.

3. Discussion

Even giving students a few minutes to discuss a topicespecially if they are taking some kind of a stance on the content and backing it up with evidencecan do so much to help them process and learn the content. But make sure all students are participating! Check out this big list of discussion strategies for tons of ideas.

4. Graphic Representations

Having students put the material into any kind of visual form will help them remember it better and understand how concepts are related. Graphic organizers and sketchnotes are two ways to accomplish this. Students can do these on their own or they can be constructed as a class with your supportfor especially challenging concepts, this may be most effective.

5. Write to Learn

When students process ideas in writing, they are forced to synthesize the information that has only entered their brains passively, so stopping instruction every now and then to have students write short summaries or give their opinions on the things theyre learning is a really effective, efficient way to cement their learning. This video from the Teaching Channel shows just how simple this can be to implement.

6. Mini-Projects

For learning to be active, it doesnt have to be a super complicated, long-term project. Students can do mini-projects that take just a day or two. This poster project, where students have to rank leaders of early America, then back up their choices with evidence, is a perfect example of a project that could be done in a short period of time.

7. Anticipation Guides

Anticipation guidesare simple forms where students state their opinions on key statements before a learning activity. This primes them for the learning that is about to come. Once the direct instruction is done, they revisit the guides to see if their opinions have changed. This would be a really simple way to boost engagement and give students a bigger stake in a lesson.

8. Quality Note-taking

Although students seem to be taking a lot of notes in class, its not clear that this is being done in a way that results in high-quality learning. If your classroom practices are aligned with the research on note-taking, this activity can be a powerful processing tool.

9. Retrieval Practice

Asking students to recall information is a great way to help them learn it better, but Im not exactly talking about the kind of recall they do on worksheets. Whether its stuff that just needs to be memorized or concepts that require more complex processing, building periods of retrieval practiceinto your instruction will boost learning.

Bonus: Collaboration

Most of these activities would be enhanced by some kind of collaboration: Have students share their write-to-learn responses with a partner. Do sorting tasks with small groups. Any time they work together, theyre engaging with the content in a different way, which introduces more novelty and more opportunities to process it differently.

This is not an exact science, and no teacher designs instruction perfectly all the time. But if youre not getting the results you want, try to do more of this: When planning your lessons, ask yourself if students are doing anything with the material, or if youre just setting things up so its information in, information out. If its the latter, start adding in ways to have students engage with the stuff theyre learning. There are a lot of different ways to do it. Even though it adds a little bit more time, youre going to see such big benefits. Not only are your students going to learn better, you will allboth your students and youlike coming to school a whole lot more.

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