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.

Characteristics of Scaffolding and Activities for Using it in Classrooms

Monday, 27. January 2014

Scaffolding is a metaphor for an approach to teaching which refers to the way temporary support is provided by one person to another for purposes of learning. Scaffolding describes interactions between expert to novice, teacher to student, or knowledgeable peer to less knowledgeable peer. There is no exact definition of scaffolding, or consensus about its central characteristics, but most agree that it is predicated on the axiom that learning is often guided by others.Scaffolding as an Approach to Teaching

Lev Vygotsky’s socio-cultural learning theory serves as the theoretical backdrop to scaffolding. One element of socio-cultural learning is the Zone of Proximal Development, which is the “range of achievements that includes tasks that learners cannot accomplish independently, but can accomplish with assistance.”

Although scaffolding is often discussed in terms of the relationship between expert teacher and novice learner, scaffolding supports is based on communication between expert and learner, not transmission of information. Communication between participants is active, constructive, it adjusts to need, and tends toward common understanding. These characteristics have led some to suggest that scaffolding is a derivative of one-to-one tutoring.

Research about scaffolding includes different definitions of it and different emphasis of components of socio-cultural learning theory. One common model for defining and describing scaffolding includes contingency, fading, and transfer of responsibility.

Contingency is used to describe the way the expert adjusts or supports the learner. Selecting and deploying effective contingencies depends on knowing the learner’s current level of ability. Acquiring an understanding of the learner’s current level of ability is accomplished through assessment. The integration of selecting contingencies based on assessment information naturally links scaffolding to formative assessment and the two are often discussed together.

Fading is the gradual withdrawal of contingencies, or supports. Fading occurs as the expert observes that the learner is becoming competent.

Transfer of responsibility refers to the learner’s internalization of new knowledge or skill so that there is a change in cognitions or affect. Transfer of responsibility is also directly related to the learner’s control over subject matter and perceptions of self-efficacy.

Scaffolding may be done in the context of classrooms in many ways, so many in fact that categories are used to discuss scaffolding strategies. Commonly referenced categories include feedback, hints, instruction, explaining, modeling, and questioning.

Providing feedback is giving information about the learner’s performance, focusing on learning goals, progress toward meeting those goals, and identifying resources required for making more progress. An example method for generating peer feedback is Expert Groups, where the teacher instructs a handful of students on a task, skill, or activity, then those specially trained students are assigned to groups to teach others.

Providing hints, such as giving clues or suggestions, advances the learner’s performance, but in a way that does not provide the entire solution. Cooperative Paragraph writing, where students take turns writing sentences to compose a paragraph, is an example activity that uses peer-generated hints.

Instructing means sharing information, or showing the learner what to do. A Comparative Input Chart is a form of instruction, based on comparison, such as recording the similarities and differences of types of animals, exercises, or pieces of art on the same poster or section of dry board.

Explaining is providing more detail or elaborations to improve clarity. Explanations may also address why the learning is important. Pictorial Input Charts show an illustration related to subject matter, with captions. The teacher uses an outline and illustrates the chart across lessons, adding information over several days as students observe the illustration taking form.

Modeling means showing or demonstrating some behavior for the learner to replicate. Team Task Posters are an example of modeling. A Team Task Poster is especially effective when the task is complex or has multiple steps. The teacher lists one or two tasks to start, but then adds more tasks over time.

Asking questions involves the learner in active listening and thoughtful responding. Inquiry Charts are used to record student questions or comments about a topic for later reference.

Some contend that effective scaffolding requires social and emotional learning by attending to the learner’s sense of belonging and identification, both with the teacher and nearby peers.

One strategy for addressing sense of belonging is ensuring a positive classroom environment. For example, eliminating putdowns and giving positive reinforcement. An activity to address promoting a positive environment is teaching students social skills, perhaps by using a T-Graph, which lists the social skill with a student-generated definition at the top, while the columns describe what is seen and heard as the social skill is used.

Another strategy is ensuring students perceive the classroom as a place where making a mistake is acceptable. One way to do this is by reframing failure by identifying positive aspects of performance.

A third strategy is adapting curricula to fit student interests and special talents. Although it is impossible to do this all the time, it can be done on occasion. The occasional opportunity for students to integrate their preferences, creativity, or exercise their unique talents and gifts, provides engaging variation and relief from the predictability that may result from over-emphasis of standards-based teaching.

Scaffolding that attends to cognitive and social-emotional learning enables students to progress from novice to expert. The tenants of socio-cultural learning also suggest that once novices attain expert knowledge and skill, they are then able to contribute to the learning of others. Taking full advantage of scaffolding means integrating cognitive and social-emotional supports, along with adopting the perspective that students are expected to work with their peers to learn together.