When Students Don't Get It: Helping Low Achieving Students Understand Concepts

Abstract concepts are essential to achieving in school. They are also a source of frustration and difficulty for students who struggle in the classroom; many of these students find even basic concepts difficult to grasp. Teachers can provide low achieving students with the necessary support by applying alternative teaching techniques that take the student from where he is conceptually to the next level in the learning process. The scaffolded approach used should aim at helping students comprehend and interpret what they hear, see, and read in the classroom. Some suggestions follow.

Help Students Connect the Information.

Students can relate the new information or unfamiliar concepts by connecting it to something with which they are already familiar, for example, discuss how the Renaissance is like a video game.

Begin your lesson with a known concept and progress to the new concept. Relationships are more obvious when we progress from the known to the new.

Compare two seemingly unrelated objects, ideas, or topics by analyzing and discussing the similarities and differences between the two.

Move from simple comparison to contrasting based on multiple attributes.

Relate what the student has learned in one setting or situation to other settings or situations. For example, concepts and vocabulary words learned during the morning should be pointed out in the afternoon’s Social Studies lesson or when the student is solving math word problems. Concepts and new vocabulary words should be incorporated in writing activities.

Help Students See Patterns and Relationships.

Explicitly teach relationships among the different concepts, topics, or pieces of information.

You can use graphics like flowcharts or concept maps to help students see how two different concepts relate. Have the students talk about the patterns they see emerging, and link the patterns to what they already know.

To help your students see patterns, provide examples and “not an example” of the concept, e.g. “aren’t” and “we’ve” are examples of contractions; “Tom’s” is not an example. Help students formulate a rule from the examples.

Identify related concepts and explain how we can generalize from one concept to others, e.g. from numbers to money, from fuel to energy.

Make the New Information Relevant.

Relevancy, or meaning, is one of the major factors affecting retention of the new material. The student is not likely to retain new information if he or she perceives the information as meaningless. Discuss with students why the new information is important to learn, but remember, it is the student’s perception of relevancy what matters, not yours.

Make Key Concepts Apparent.

Make sure that key concepts are both apparent and unambiguous, that is, do not “bury” the important information in a lot of distracting and irrelevant information, and make sure that the salient characteristics of the key concept are easily identified.

When lecturing or delivering directions, stop at key points to check comprehension, clarify concepts, and answer questions.

During the lesson, provide explicit outlines and study guides to help the student organize the information. Make sure the study guide includes questions for key concepts.

Combine Storytelling with Multiple Examples of the Same Concept.

Give multiple examples of the same abstract concept.

Give visual examples (e.g. pictures) and auditory examples (e.g. analogies) of the same concept.

Stories will help illustrate the main points; examples will help associate it. Stories and examples provide the associative context that will help the student remember the new information or concept.

Use Multiple Representations of the Same Concept.

Some teachers believe that repeating the same information louder, or several times, will help the child retain it, but the truth is that repetition is only minimally helpful. What you have to do is to present the new information or concept several times but in different ways, using different formats and/or in different scenarios. For example, talk about the concept and provide pictures to look at; have students make drawings, or write songs or poems, to illustrate the concept; use films and videos, field trips, or storytellers. When you provide multiple representations of the same concept, you are presenting the same information in more than one manner, e.g. modeling, explaining, using maps, creating analogies, or singing.

Reinforce the Auditory Information with Visual Stimulus.

Use visual support combined with your verbal instructions or lectures as much as possible. For example, when you give directions, or explain a new concept, point to the area on the page, chalkboard, or chart where the relevant information is placed.

Train your students to watch and use visual cues to reinforce the information they hear. Explain to your students the importance of using visual cues to clarify the auditory information. Make them aware that watching a person’s face and paying attention to their tone of voice will give clues to meaning. Students can enhance their comprehension of material delivered orally by paying attention to the emotional impact of the speaker’s words, and watching the speaker’s facial expression, body posture, and gestures.

Train your students to use visual imaging of the verbal context introduced by drawing a mental picture of what they hear.

Make Students Aware that Not All Information is Equally Important.

Make students aware that certain points in your lecture are more important than others. Give verbal cues to direct students to pay attention to the important information, e.g. “This information is important to know.” You can begin your lesson with an advanced organizer, where you write on the chalkboard key words or phrases of the important points you are going to cover during your lesson.

Explicitly distinguish the important information from what is less important, presenting the new concept in a way that highlights what is especially pertinent, that is, what the student must pay attention to.

Use verbal organizational cues such “first,” “second,” and “now the most important point.”

To continue reading teaching strategies, click on my name (Carmen Y. Reyes) at the top of this article.

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