Strengthening Student Learning

There are multiple strategies used by educators that have proven effective for many students.  There is, however, no "perfect" strategy that will work for all students.  Parents must seek a successful match for each student — a method or technique that has worked for one student may not work as well for the next.  The following ideas should stimulate creative thinking about how to bring about positive outcomes for each student in your home school environment.  Pray, and ask the Lord's direction and confirmation when seeking to make changes.  Be sure to allow plenty of time for a new practice to work — but don't wait too long before trying something else if there is no moentum toward improvement!

Specific Feedback

Use plenty of specific feedback — not just compliments — when a student has made a step toward learning. Indefinite praise makes anyone feel good, but it may not give a student much information about what was done well or what might need to be changed the next time a task is to be done.  Specific information lets the student focus on what he has done correctly, and it allows him to become accountable for what is being asked.

Examples of helpful comments that let the student know exactly what is being praised:

"I see that you are remembering to use capitals!  Nice work."
The child knows exactly what pleases you about this paper.

"It is great to see how well you are getting all your numbers in straight columns!"
The child is able to look for himself and agree with your perspective.  This enables him to improve his own ability to evaluate his own work before turning it in next time.

"This is very neat — I notice you stayed on the line and didn't have one messy erasure."
Here again the child's attention is directed to an attribute of his work that he can focus on next time.

Nonspecific comments don't teach the student what is "praiseworthy," even though such comments can be encouraging and are appropriate at times.  Here are examples of nonspecific comments:

"Great work!"
Tell why it is great! Find one particular feature to praise specifically — it is far more likely that the child will be able to repeat that again because he now knows what pleases you.

"This looks very neat."
This sounds "specific," yet the parent is not describing those features that are creating the impression of "neatness," such as words on the line, no smudges nor sloppy letter form. 

"I like that."
Here the student is not told what is liked — is it the picture, the text, or the grade?

Modeling is a teaching technique in which you verbalize each step you are taking in your mind while working through a problem.  As the student listens to you, he or she can focus on the sequence and the usually internalized decision-making process.

For example, the student hears you decide how to eliminate wrong choices in multiple choice questions.  As you continue to demonstrate how you approach a problem, gradually begin to ask the student to contribute an answer at the most obvious points in the process.  Eventually transfer more of the process to the student, and ask them to talk it though aloud.  In this way you are able to solve the problem together until the student is ready to work independently.

Graphic Organizers

The most common type of graphic organizer is the so-called "wheel and spokes" or "spider" form, in which a main idea/topic is written in the center and the spokes/legs are used to write the supporting ideas or details. A student then determines a sequence for the ideas and drafts a composition. 

The graphic organizer is a powerful learning tool for several reasons.  Students with special needs often have great difficulty in mentally processing ideas and data.  Therefore, the data are moved from a difficult-to-reach internal format, which they cannot achieve on their own, into a concrete, visible "structure." Also, in the creation of the completed graphic organizer, important information is being processed, stored appropriately, and arranged in various levels of priority.  Thus, the material is actually being studied during the creation of the organizer.  There are many "graphic organizers" available in ready-to-use reproducible formats ready to be filled in by the student.  Some software programs generate flow charts or graphic organizers that can serve as outlines for compositions and reports.  The publisher, CreativeThinking.com, produces a good selection of these organizers and offers very user-friendly suggestions for the effective use of each type.

Manipulatives

Manipulatives are typically considered an important component of a multi-sensory math program, and rightfully so.  The movement from the internal processing of abstract concepts into a concrete and observable form is a powerful learning tool.

It is helpful to be creative in using manipulatives — do not limit the concept to commercially produced materials.  There are countless creative alternatives all about the home — buttons, Cheerios, macaroni, and others — all are appealing and easily handled.  Small marshmallows are easy to grip for young fingers (and a handy reward as well). Older students will enjoy counting pennies instead of foods — and using too many M & M's only provokes too high an energy level!

To gain the optimal benefit from these manipulatives, it is important to help the student connect the concrete objects being counted with the written symbols we have come to associate with number quantity.  Working on an erasable surface large enough to allow both the manipulative items AND the written problem will help the young learner to connect the concepts.

A helpful model is to draw squares on the surface, large enough to hold the quantity being counted, placing them above the corresponding spaces in which numbers may be written.

It is essential that the student be able to answer the question "How many?" after counting or doing computations with manipulatives.  Parents will readily recall teaching a young child to count five fingers.  Typically the child will respond to the question, "How many?" by again saying "1-2-3-4-5!" instead of naming the final number as the answer!

For older students, manipulatives are important and are not necessarily limited to math topics.  Other academic subjects frequently require students to learn new names, vocabulary, dates, and places.  When students put these onto small file cards (words on one side — definitions on the back side), there are endless ways to study.  Cards can be flipped over to reveal only definitions which can be matched up with a word list.  Once the student can match the definitions with names or terms, the cards should be turned over to require recitation of the definitions.

Cards can also be sorted into groups on a large tabletop, organized by criteria such as chronological, alphabetical, topics, associations, or classifications. Cards could be organized for comparing and contrasting.  Notice how each activity requires the student to impose new associations of material with previously learned material.  This keeps the whole brain actively involved in the process instead of merely looking at a list with the eyes while the brain is "zoned out."

Using Mnemonics (memory aids)There are probably as many mnemonic aids as there are students.  Many of us can recall learning various rhymes or chants while learning the planets in the solar system.  Some math teachers use the first letters of each operation in the sequence for long division, Daddy-Mommy-Sister-Brother to represent Divide-Multiply-Subtract-Bring Down.  Another familiar mnemonic for the points on the compass is "Never-Eat-Shredded-Wheat" to represent North-East-South-West directions in clockwise order. 

When students have special learning needs, they may or may not benefit from using a mnemonic.  For some, it may only represent additional information to learn.  Thus, it is important that the parent test the usefulness of such memory supports carefully, and determine that they are more helpful than confusing.  Because many special needs students are very concrete thinkers, they may have trouble associating words or symbols from memory aids with the actual content that is being learned.  It may be more appropriate to provide visible cue cards which can be referenced during recitation rather than introduce additional memorization requirements. 

For other students, the mnemonic is a source of empowerment, and it provides the perfect stimulus to recall freshly learned material.  Parents should help students explore a variety of ways to help organize and recall learning — from organizing content in chronological order to associating words with mental images. Studying difficult spelling words can be facilitated with the use of a large bright marker to write those troublesome letter combinations while practicing the words.  The bright letters will "stand out" in the student's memory at test time.  Drawing funny images alongside new words to jog the memory actually forces the student to focus on essential elements or concepts related to that name or vocabulary term.  Educational research supports the use of student-generated associations as a powerful aid in learning material.  The more the students can find ways to impose organization onto newly taught material and connect it to previously learned material, the better the transfer of learning into long term memory.