Seeing students become ensnared by misconceptions and slowed by learning barriers can be among the most disappointing and disheartening experiences we confront in our role as educators. Our disappointment is only further compounded when our students are otherwise interested, engaged, and committed to their learning.
Fortunately, there are several steps we can take to help students avoid predictable misconceptions and sidestep common learning barriers. However, we need to anticipate potential problem areas and learning traps, and then we need to develop plans to help our students avoid them before they are encountered in order for our efforts to be effective.
A good place to start is sorting through our experiences with student struggles in the past and refreshing our knowledge of how our students learn. We might think about what has worked and where students have been challenged with past learning, especially with the learning that parallels what they are about to learn.
We can pre-assess our students to measure their current understanding and recall of the key content and skills necessary to be successful with the planned new learning. However, we must remove any hint or intention of consequences for their not knowing or recalling. In short, we need an accurate assessment of what students know—and what they are ready to learn.
Using the information from our prior knowledge and pre-assessment activities, our next step is to coach and support students to activate their prior knowledge. We might use practice problems, reteaching, or simply a discussion with students to bring what they have learned into an active state that can be employed to support new learning.
Next, we can design scaffolding to support students to find success as they approach the next learning challenge. The scaffolding design might include key vocabulary words students will need to know, important concepts and skills to employ, strategies to consider, and background information that might be helpful.
Depending on the nature, scope, and challenge of the new learning, we might develop a more comprehensive preview guide to create interest, stimulate curiosity, and build confidence in our students. The guide might include questions that students will find compelling, provocative statements to consider, and hints regarding the value and purpose of what students will be learning. Any scaffolding and supports we have designed can be included in the guide, as well as reminders of the prior learning and skills that students already possess, that will be useful to their new learning.
Of course, we want our preparation to help students avoid needless and distracting barriers and missteps as they learn, but our purpose is not to remove all the challenges and struggles students may encounter. Learning that comes through effort, and even mistakes, is also important to our students’ development, competence, and confidence to take on future learning challenges. The bottom line is this: Our goal is not to prevent all mistakes and setbacks that will occur as students learn. We want students to experience enough success to create learning momentum, but we also want to build learning resilience and flexibility that will serve them long after they leave our classroom.