Improving Practice Activities to Support Exceptional Learners

Sunday, 3. August 2014

Supporting Exceptional Learners with PracticeExceptional learners require specific services or support in order to reach their full potential in school. Some categories of exceptionality include students with learning disabilities, English language learners, and highly capable, among others.

Improving practice activities is one approach for supporting exceptional learners and it may be done in several ways, not the least of which is to present new information in comprehensible units, sometimes called chunking. As a general rule, most learners remember seven new pieces of information, plus or minus two, at one exposure. However, new information is more effectively assimilated into a learner’s schema when it is introduced one piece at a time. Before each new piece is presented, teachers take steps to ensure mastery of the previous piece.

Along with segmenting practice into comprehensible units, frequent review improves practice activities, especially when content is complex. Indeed, complex content should cause teachers to anticipate more errors and provide more guided review. Although there is no perfect prescription for when to begin review, a benchmark approach is one or two days after initial encounters with new information.

One reason content is challenging for students is that it may contain similar ideas, concepts, or skills, which are easily confused. Some examples include immigration and emigration, metaphor and simile, associative and commutative properties of math. Separating instruction of similar elements may reduce confusion. For example, teaching qualities of isosceles triangles one day and scalene the next, analogy one day and anecdote the next, Romanticism one day then expressionism the next, proteins then carbohydrates, armistice then peace treaty.

Nevertheless, once students master knowledge and skills of related elements independently, it is helpful to bring them back together to show their relationship to one another. For example, elements may be organized hierarchically, by location, or within systems. Graphic representations, such as Venn diagrams, concept maps, or figures are effective for summarizing relationships.

Acquisition of complex knowledge and skill may require students monitor stimuli and coordinate responses simultaneously, such as serving a volleyball for accuracy, using a particular brush stroke to create texture, playing notes on an instrument at specific times, or writing support paragraphs in defense of a thesis. Preteaching component parts of complex performances enables students to manage and master stimuli and responses discretely. For example, practicing stance before striking the ball, moving the brush before applying paint, playing the note independently before adding other instruments, and writing topic sentences before outlining the whole paragraph.

Another strategy for improving practice effectiveness is to teach easier information first. This approach may be chosen when there is significant risk students will lose confidence and thereby disengage from exerting effort to learn new information. Caution is advised however, to avoid saving all the most complex learning for last, which may subvert the benefits of teaching easier information first.

One result of effective practice is increasing fluency or improved automaticity, which is the ability to do things with reduced effort. Automaticity means students require less time to respond to questions and prompts in practice scenarios. Designing practice activities, specifically review, should account for students’ increasing automaticity and thereby require less time and leave cognitive capacity for introduction of new information.

Carnine, D. (1989). Designing practice activities. Journal of Learning Disabilities 22(10), 603-607.