Learning Strategies: Why Repetition Isn't The Answer
On one of my school evaluation visits, a young girl stopped me in the hall. After I explained my purpose for being in the school, she asked if I would tell her teachers something. I agreed, and she said, “Do you think you could tell them that they teach a lot of things we already know? We did most of this last year.” Her point—that we often spend too much time reviewing basic content with our students—has merit. I am not suggesting that you stop reviewing any content your students don’t understand. However, if students don’t know what a fraction is by the time they are in high school, completing pages of practice problems likely won’t help.
I struggled with that, too. I had students who simply did not understand basic concepts, so I tried to teach them again. My students still didn’t learn it. Repeating the same information over and over doesn’t work. Effective learning strategies shift to a more difficult, authentic purpose for using basic knowledge, and then answering questions to help students complete the assignment. Sometimes, the more rigorous, authentic activity is easier for students, simply because it makes sense to them. For example, I told my students they had to create a classified ad to sell a product of their choice, such as an app. I gave them envelopes with “free” words, but if they needed different words, they had to buy them with credits that were included. The word cards contained adjectives, adverbs—everything but nouns. One group tried to write the ad only using free words, and quickly discovered that it didn’t work. At some point, you have to tell someone what you are selling! It was a real-life lesson on the purpose of nouns and was much more effective than the standard review.
When it was evident that my students did not fully understand how to compare and contrast information, I created a folder game. Each group of students was given a folder with a picture from a newspaper or magazine article pasted on the front. The actual article was glued on the inside. Students were directed to look at the picture without opening the folder. Then, individually, each student wrote as many words as possible about the picture, one word per Post-it Note. Because they are only writing words, the one-inch by one-inch size of a sticky note is adequate. Next, students talked to each other, using all their words to create a sentence about the picture. Usually, someone asked to add words, such as “the” or “and,” or to add punctuation. That gave me a quick teachable moment to discuss grammar and sentence structure. Then I told them they could write anything they needed on more notes.
If you want to stop at a basic activity, students could individually write a descriptive paragraph about the picture. For the students who don’t know how to begin, they have a group sentence for a starting point. Each group also has a customized word bank of leftover words to use in the paragraph.
This activity can be used across a variety of content areas as we move to the next step. Students open the folder and read the accompanying news article. By comparing their sentences with the actual article, students must use analytical skills. Students use an assessment scale (see below) to determine how their work measures up, and they can revise their sentences if needed.
Learning Strategies: Scale for Comparing Sentences and Articles
- The sentence is completely reflective of the article and could be included in the story seamlessly.
- Parts of our sentence would ft into the article.
- Were we looking at the same picture?
Sharing their responses incorporates elements of comparison and contrast, and it typically leads to a rich discussion of how a picture does not always tell the full story. This allows me to teach strategic reading and thinking through application, rather than simply telling students they need to be strategic readers. It’s important that you choose articles linked to your subject area to help students see the connection between reading and learning your content.
Finally, at times, the best help comes from another student rather than the teacher. As teacher Shannon Knowles explains, “I regularly have one student who understands the concepts explain them to those who don’t. Sometimes, they explain to everyone in class, sometimes to the one or two who need it. They just say it in a way that makes more sense to the students.” That is why I incorporate group activities throughout my instruction. By working with partners or small groups, students’ learning is enhanced.
Learning Strategies: A Final Note
It’s important to find alternatives for reviewing content. Students who are struggling do not respond well to repetition. Other, more engaging, options will lead to longer lasting learning and growth.
Find more on learning strategies and other instructional techniques in Share My Lesson's free, curated collection of resources focusing on Classroom Management and Teaching Strategies.