Many educational leaders and practitioners are anticipating large scale remediation efforts when schools resume in-person learning. They point to evidence that many students have failed to benefit enough from remote learning to keep up with the expected pace of progress. Their hope is that by providing remediation services, students will catch up to classmates and grade level performance expectations.
Yet, there is ample evidence that such a strategy is unlikely to deliver the results we hope for and need. In fact, decades of research and experience have shown remediation as a “catch-up” strategy to be expensive, time consuming, and largely ineffective.
Remediation as an approach has suffered from at least four key faults. First, efforts to remediate have too often utilized the same instructional strategies and approaches that led to the problem. Repeating what did not work the first time offers little promise for a better outcome. In fact, it may reinforce for the learner that he or she is not a capable learner and lessen confidence, commitment, and effort rather than build capacity for current and future success.
Second, the time gap between the emergence of learning problems and remediation responses are typically too long. When students are confused or hold misconceptions regarding a concept or skill, the longer we wait the more difficult it is for students to “unlearn” their faulty understanding. When students are made to wait until they are assigned to a special class or given services, they face far greater challenges than if a simple, direct intervention had occurred in real time.
Third, remediation services often target a specific problem or assignment when the problem may be broader. If the real problem is lack of background knowledge or key learning skills, targeted remediation offers little help. Meanwhile, teacher and student become increasingly frustrated with the student’s lack of progress.
Fourth, remediation focuses backward to problems with previous learning challenges. Remediation asks students to stop and focus on what they did not grasp. At the same time, they are expected to be moving forward with new concepts and skills. This challenge is especially difficult when new content is dependent on understanding what should have come before.
Rather than default to traditional remediation practices, we would do better to understand why students are falling behind. There are many reasons why some students are not keeping pace. Unless we understand these underlying causes and respond to them, we can hold little hope of making a difference. Here are five of the most common causes:
- Lack of background knowledge. When confronted with the challenge of learning something new, we immediately search for what we already know that may assist us in the task. If key aspects of our knowledge and experience are missing, making sense of what we are attempting to learn and connecting with prior knowledge can be challenging, if not impossible.
- Missing universal learning skills. Organizing information, identifying key characteristics, sorting details from main concepts, and other learning skills may be missing. Absent these skills, even seemingly simple learning tasks can prove to be unachievable.
- Mismatched instruction and learning pace. For some learners, the pace of instruction may be too slow. They become distracted and frustrated and miss key elements and characteristics of what is to be learned. For other students, the pace may be too fast and they struggle to keep up. Many of these students are capable learners, but they need more time to process content and skills or may need more examples and practice to fully grasp patterns, sequences, and key characteristics.
- Lack of self-monitoring skills. Some students are not aware of when they are falling behind until they reach a crisis. They may not know when to ask questions and tap other resources, such as classmates, to carry them through and keep their learning on pace. By the time they become aware or their performance makes their lack of progress visible, they are already far behind.
- Absence of feelings of connection, community, and caring. For some students, the problem is not lack of skills, absence of background knowledge, or level of challenge. They see no reason to invest and persist with the learning. These students may feel little connection with the teacher and other members of the class. They do not experience learning as part of a community that values their contributions and offers support. Even though they are capable of learning what is presented, they feel little reason to remain connected. Learning is not their problem. It is relationships.
So, what can we do to respond to the problems with traditional remediation and the multiple causes for learning lags and lapses? Not surprisingly, the most effective responses are aligned with the barriers and challenges encountered by students.
We can start by building strong, positive relationships with our students. We can nurture a learning community that values the uniqueness and talents of each student and is quick to offer support when members of the community struggle. When these elements are in place, many learning-related problems are prevented and those that are not can often easily be solved. Relationships, community, and caring are foundational to learning success, especially for students who are most vulnerable to falling behind, struggling, and giving up.
Second, we can assess the levels and nature of student prior knowledge and experience before we introduce new learning challenges. If there are gaps and areas in need of refreshing, pre-teaching can prevent struggles, frustration, and loss of learning commitment.
Third, we can monitor student progress closely and intervene when student confusion is fresh, progress begins to wane, and problems begin to surface. The universal key to keeping learning on pace is to anticipate, monitor, and respond in a timely manner. The earlier we intervene and help learners make adjustments and strengthen areas of vulnerability, the more likely learners are to experience success and not fall any further behind.
Fourth, when students fall behind, we can inquire, investigate, and analyze the causes rather than assume lack of effort, absence of attention, or another seemingly obvious cause. Unless we know what is causing the problem, we are unlikely to successfully solve it.
Fifth, when we encounter students who are already behind, we can employ instructional strategies and present learning experiences that are different from the strategies and experiences that led to the learning struggles and barriers that made remediation a consideration. Repeating what did not work in the past is not likely to be a good strategy.
Sixth, when we need to catch students up, we can focus on the highest leverage, most crucial concepts, and key skills rather than attempt to repeat the entire content and instructional process. If students can grasp the most crucial elements of a concept and the critical factors inherent in learning a skill, they will be better positioned for success. Later, if needed, they can fill in details, and successfully apply what is necessary to support future success. The goal is to help students get back on track, not cover every detail.