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Make Learning Last: How Diverse Learners Can Process Their Understanding

Make Learning Last: How Diverse Learners Can Process Their Understanding

1 March, 2016

In classrooms, effective learning happens when teachers give the conditions that learners find relatable. The challenge is that these conditions will vary for each learner. A common question is, “How do I meet the needs of my students when each has a different level of current understanding and tends to learn at a different pace?” The easy answer is to inform planning with various kinds of assessments, but that doesn’t make the path clear for what to do.

Differentiated instruction looks at instructional planning based on content, process, and products. These areas are familiar to teachers and their assessment practices. A typical lesson delivers content to students, and then has them create products to practice and demonstrate their learning. Many of these lessons are missing perhaps the most significant element in the learning equation: process.

Processing Understanding

Whether content is delivered to the whole class, to small groups, or independently, learners need opportunities to digest the concepts and skills. For example, listening to a 30-minute lecture, watching a 15-minute video, or reading three pages without a pause risks the high likelihood that the participants will only get a surface understanding. When these examples are broken by 3-4 pauses for students to reflect and explore the parts, there’s greater opportunity for deeper understanding. Participants figure out what they comprehend and what remains foggy, and can communicate that to the teacher for just-in-time support before moving on to the next content part.

Processing opportunities do not take time from instruction. They do stabilize the supports for the instructional framework. Time taken during a lesson, often 1-4 minutes, ensures long-term understanding by all students. Those moments can give learners with the critical teaching opportunities that they need — the epiphanies.

The following are strategies that support processing experiences. Some take a short time to accomplish. Others may take longer, but they are embedded with content delivery or while completing work products.

Quick Reflections of Understanding

Good learning experiences have a flow. When a teacher follows a carefully-crafted flow of instruction, providing each learning experience like thoughtfully-laid blocks for building a bridge, pausing for too long can break the concentration; but going on for too long means that some students become lost. When time is of the essence, take 1-5 minutes for students to check in with themselves or others on what they understand and what questions remain. Consider using these reflection strategies:

  1. Silent Reflection
    Have students silently reflect on a prompt about the key points of the learning experience. Give them 15-60 seconds. Reflection is a muscle that must be exercised if learners are to become proficient. Without reflection, responses can be surface-level and fragmented.
  2. Journaling
    The physical act of writing can aid learners explore their understanding. Take 2-5 minutes for participants to process and record their thinking. Mix things up withquick writes and free writes.
  3. Partner Conversations
    Talking to a partner helps the learners who prefer to think aloud. They can express their ideas and hear those of others. Paired with one of the previous individual strategies, partner conversations help internal thinkers clarify their ideas before joining a dialog. Pre-assign elbow partners orclock buddies to quickly manage the pairings. Get them out of their chairs for a quick energy boost while they talk in groups.

Quick Surveys

Use surveys for quick response on fact-based information or perceptions. Sometimes a short check-in response from students is all that’s needed for revising support while moving forward.

For tech approaches consider:


Poll Everywhere


Google Forms

Non-tech approaches include:

Hand Signals
Thumb up signals understanding, thumb pointed to the side means understanding with some questions, and thumb down says, “I don’t understand.”

Colored Cups
Students placing a colored cup on their desk — green, yellow, or red — communicates the same ideas as the hand signals.

Provide Diverse Perspective Assessments

Have students explore skills and concepts from different perspectives based on interests and/or learning preferences. These activities take more time, yet are ways to embed processing experiences in content or product experiences. They provide multiple tasks that are accomplished through different perspectives of learning preferences. These strategies support thinking about content through different lenses:

Think Dots

Task Cards

Frayer Model

Empower Students With Their Learning

A vital key to these strategies is that they give learners practice with checking for their own understanding. Processing learning is a muscular system that must be engaged frequently. Students need practice reflecting on their learning 2-3 times per lesson on a daily basis. This makes sure that learners strengthen their connections to the concepts and skills for long-term gains.