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Helping students process new content

It’s the million dollar question of teaching, how to help students process new content? This question is closely tied to the question how to present the new information in the first place. In this article, I’ve collected some basic teaching paradigms for helping students process new content. The best result will always be achieved with varying approaches, you can get tired even to gamification!

Presenting a concept for a first time

The Feynman technique

The Feynman technique emphasizes that even if you think you know something, you don’t really know it until you can explain it to a five year old. This approach can be used to improve teachers’ lectures but also for students to check if they have really learned the subject. The steps are: 

  1. Select your concept
  2. Write down your own explanation of the concept in plain English
  3. Find where you fell short with the explanation and check if you could improve that somehow
  4. Use an analogy (This is an optional step. Using too many analogies all the time can become confusing.)

SQ3R

The abbreviation stands for survey, question, read, recite, review. 

  1. Get a general overview of what you will be learning (survey). In a classroom environment, this can be done by a teacher. 
  2. Next, you want to state the question(s), what you want to know about the subject. Students participation in this is crucial.
  3. At the reading stage, you will dive into the material at hand.
  4. At the recitation face, students are asking questions about the material and taking notes.
  5. And finally at the review stage students try to memorize what they have just learned.

Cornell Notes

This idea means that there will be two versions of notes: on the one side of the paper there are quick notes written during the lesson, and on the other side students will make more sophisticated notes afterwards. This won’t fit for the smallest learners but could be worth a try with older ones. The upside of this method is that students have to process for themselves which bits of information they value the most.

Mnemonics

Mnemonics is about making information more memorable to the human brain. This can be a poem, a song, an infographics, something spatial, you name it. Making these up every time would be extremely time consuming but luckily you can easily get ideas from, let’s say, youtube or other platforms. 

Connecting new concept to previous knowledge

Scaffolding

The basic idea is to be aware of the students’ current knowledge and to build upon that one small piece at a time. In fact, this strategy can be implemented perfectly when there is only one student and a teacher but in a way, you can also practice this in your classroom. You may ask yourself, is this only a fancy name given to things that have always been practiced in all classrooms around the world? The answer is yes and no. No, if you pay attention to the fact that students ability to process new information is limited due to limitations in working memory. Yes, if you think on a more general level, like “There is no teaching astrophysics to a toddler, anyway.”

There is also another aspect in scaffolding, which is gradually giving the responsibility of learning to the student:

  1. Teacher gives an example of how you do (“I do”)
  2. Teacher and student do together (“we do”)
  3. Students makes it in her/his own (“you do”)

Inquiry-based approach

This method is essentially based on questions. There are three parts: The question, a way to get the answer and answer itself. For example, you can give the students the question and a method to get the answer, but not the answer itself. This is, in a way,  a very common method to do teaching. Or, you can just give them the question and let them find the ways to get the answer for themselves. If you take this to an extreme, that is, let the children decide everything: you will get the Montessori method. 

I could add from my own experience that in mathematics, I find it very lucrative to let the children form the question, and then think with the teacher what are the possible ways to get the answer and how we know if the answer is right.

A concept map

This method is in its place when you want to know how your students can make connections with the information they currently have. It may also reveal gaps in their knowledge, and that will help you to plan the upcoming lessons.

Short after-lesson feedback

One thing that could help students process new content, is to ask them to write short feedback after every lesson. The idea is that students write down one thing they learned, one thing that they still struggle with and possible questions. This is a good tool to use in planning future lessons if you don’t have all the time in the world to use but want to utilize some feedback from the students.

More time-consuming (but effective) approaches

Problem-based learning

If you are able to state a problem that students need to solve, you can use problem based learning. The drawback is that it often requires more resources for students to pick from. For example, in science class you just can’t think of one path that students should follow and prepare equipment for that. Instead, you will need a more open playing field. The best side is of course students’ motivation and engagement.

Productive failure

The idea of productive failure is that failing first and then finding the right way leaves more permanent marks in the brain compared to situations when the right way is already signposted. Of course, you can’t exactly plan when the failure is going to happen and this approach is closely related to problem-based learning. 

Project work

This is still a valid way to spice up the learning, although the drawbacks are all too familiar: It’s time-consuming and the work won’t be divided evenly between students. 

Gamification

Could you build up some game around the learning goal? Could there be some problem to solve, a treasure to find, a way to gather points or beat competitors? It sounds very difficult at first but today you can find numerous examples of gamification methods, one lesson escape rooms etc. See also: Classroom Gamification

Using the time more efficiently

Spaced repetition

It’s an old concept but studies have shown that the same time (for example 60 minutes) is more effective if it’s spaced over different occasions. For example, if you study foreign language vocabulary 10 mins a day six days a week, you will learn more than sitting down 60 mins once a week for studying. 

However, implementing this in a classroom environment is not that straightforward because you have a limited control over your students way of doing homework. But, keeping this in mind, it could be beneficial to favor homework that is not a massive pile about one thing but rather small bits about several things they have learned lately. 

Flashcards

Probably familiar to most of us, flashcards have a question on one side and answer on the other side. They help revisiting content, but are not the best tool for presenting brand new information. 

Helping students process new content, summary

To sum it up, helping students process new content is an everlasting journey, but varying different techniques can surely help you on this challenging profession! Learning one or two new techniques per semester is also a good idea for professional development.

Main resources: Peter Hollins, How to Teach anything

Supporting Neurodiverse College Student Success

See also: Why my students dislike me, 11 timesavers for teachers

By TheBrightestKid

Hi! My name is Jenni and I used to be a math teacher in Finland. I have a master's degree in math and also studies in computer science and pedagogy. Talented students are close to my heart, hence the name of the site. But I also might write about other stuff.

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