When school opened this fall the unevenness in learning gains from the past year was on everyone’s mind. “Catching students up” academically along with attending to their social and emotional needs were highest priorities. Now several months into the year, both issues remain crucial to helping students find success and remain successful.
For many students the task of “catching up” academically has remained a serious challenge. Certainly, there are many reasons for the continued struggle some learners are experiencing. Among the factors behind the lack of progress many students are experiencing is a mismatch in the type of support they are receiving and their learning needs.
Not surprisingly, some students need more and different support than others. For some students, a narrower focus and integration of previously learned content and skills with current learning expectations is enough to put them back on track. Others have significant content knowledge and skill gaps, but the skills underlying their learning are solid and can support ongoing progress. Still others are missing one or more key underlying learning competencies that interfere with their learning. Even when they temporarily catch up, they tend to fall behind over time due to the absence of these key competencies. We might think of the broad strategies available to address areas where learning has lagged in three categories: acceleration, tutoring, and intervention.
Acceleration has been a preferred strategy for many educators who seek to address relatively small learning gaps opened over the past year. Acceleration narrows the focus of learning challenges presented to students while combining current learning expectations with review and reintroduction of past content and skills. This strategy can be effective if learning gaps are manageable and students possess the necessary underlying competencies to construct new learning. In fact, acceleration has been a good option for most students.
Tutoring has also been a popular strategy to help some students with larger learning gaps to “catch up.” Recent research from the University of Chicago found tutoring to be a potent way to help students improve, especially in reading and math. Importantly, students need to experience tutoring daily and the support needs to focus on the specific areas of knowledge and skills in need of growth. Tutoring appears to be most effective when students have larger gaps in content knowledge and academic skills but possess core underlying learning competencies. Tutoring addresses missing information that, once absorbed, can restore them to an expected learning pace that can be sustained long-term.
Intervention, the third and most intensive strategy, goes beyond academic content and skills to focus on specific learning competencies and processes that stand in the way of students moving forward at an acceptable pace. This deeper level of skills intervention focuses on elements such as: information processing speed, sustaining attention, maintaining focus, and auditory and visual processing. Without these skills students may be able to make progress with close assistance, but they fall back once support is removed and they are expected to learn independently.
Unfortunately, many students have failed to make expected progress this fall due to a mismatch in the support they need and the support they are receiving. For example, providing tutoring when intervention is needed can be a waste of time in that a student may temporarily catch up, only to fall behind as new content and skills are introduced. Conversely, acceleration may be adequate if revisiting and reinforcing information or filling in small gaps are all that is required for a student to get back on track. The key, obviously, is to focus on the learning profile of students to ensure that key underlying learning competencies are present, assess whether the content and skills needed will require tutoring or can be addressed through acceleration, and respond with what each student needs.