Make Learning Last: How Diverse Learners Can Process Their Understanding

The difficult part of exercise is getting started and sticking to it. Fitness classes are like school classrooms. There are people at different skill levels of strength and conditioning. The instructor’s job is to provide an experience that challenges all participants based on where they are in fitness. Like good classroom teachers, effective fitness instructors incorporate different levels of movements into each activity so that the participants can gauge where they are and what they need to do during the session.

In classrooms, effective learning happens when teachers provide the conditions that learners find relatable. The challenge is that these conditions will vary for each learner. A common question is, “How do I meet the needs of my students when each has a different level of current understanding and tends to learn at a different pace?” The easy answer is to inform planning with various kinds of assessments, but that doesn’t make the path clear for what to do.

Differentiated instruction looks at instructional planning based on content,process, and products. These areas are familiar to teachers and their assessment practices. A typical lesson delivers content to students, and then has them create products to practice and demonstrate their learning. Many of these lessons are missing perhaps the most important element in the learning equation: process.

Processing Understanding

Whether content is delivered to the whole class, to small groups, or independently, learners need opportunities to digest the concepts and skills. For example, listening to a 30-minute lecture, watching a 15-minute video, or reading three pages without a pause risks the high likelihood that the participants will only get a surface understanding. When these examples are broken by 3-4 pauses for students to reflect and explore the parts, there’s greater opportunity for deeper understanding. Participants figure out what they comprehend and what remains foggy, and can communicate that to the teacher for just-in-time support before moving on to the next content part.

Processing opportunities do not take time from instruction. They do stabilize the supports for the instructional framework. Time taken during a lesson, often 1-4 minutes, ensures long-term understanding by all students. Those moments can provide learners with the critical teaching opportunities that they need — the epiphanies.

Here are strategies that support processing experiences. Some take a short time to accomplish. Others may take longer, but they are embedded with content delivery or while completing work products.

Quick Reflections of Understanding

Good learning experiences have a flow. When a teacher follows a carefully-crafted flow of instruction, providing each learning experience like thoughtfully-laid blocks for building a bridge, pausing for too long can break the concentration; but going on for too long means that some students become lost. When time is of the essence, take 1-5 minutes for students to check in with themselves or others on what they understand and what questions remain. Consider using these reflection strategies:

Non-tech approaches include:

Provide Diverse Perspective Assessments

Have students explore skills and concepts from different perspectives based on interests and/or learning preferences. These activities take more time, yet are ways to embed processing experiences in content or product experiences. They provide multiple tasks that are accomplished through different perspectives of learning preferences. These strategies support thinking about content through different lenses:

Empower Students With Their Learning

An important key to these strategies is that they give learners practice with checking for their own understanding. Processing learning is a muscular system that must be engaged frequently. Students need practice reflecting on their learning 2-3 times per lesson on a daily basis. This ensures that learners strengthen their connections to the concepts and skills for long-term gains.




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