For many students, the process of learning new material can feel like swimming in an ocean with fish moving in many different directions. Additionally, the information itself can feel like fish swimming in the minds of students -- overwhelming them, causing anxiety, uncertainty and even fear. They can feel as if what they're trying to learn has no order, especially when context is lacking.
Layering assessment on top of it all can create a maelstrom of stress.
How can we help students feel in control, confident and willing to approach learning new material? How can we help them feel poised for success on assessments and confident with new material?
1. Say It Out Loud
When students encounter material for the first time, it is helpful if they can talk it out with a peer or teacher. This might be in the form of dealing with a vocabulary word, a scientific concept, a math problem, or a verb tense in a world language. The verbal processing that takes place in conversation with a trusted peer or teacher settles the learner, provides an opportunity to try out the language associated with the new topic, and arms him or her with confidence. Through trial, error and immediate feedback, the student now feels more confident setting out on his or her own to tackle the topic.
2. Brain Dump
After learning new material for a set period of time, have students do a brain dump on a blank piece of paper. This serves the purpose of helping the student realize that learning and knowledge acquisition have been happening. It helps to raise student confidence and is also a useful approach for the teacher to receive feedback and see where gaps exist. Consider using this valuable approach with students as soon as they receive an assessment, before attempting to answer any questions. For some students, holding the information inside their head can cause anxiety and confusion. Taking a deep breath, dumping the information on a blank page, and seeing what it looks like prepares the student for success on the assessment. This brain dump then serves as a study guide.
3. Not All in a Straight Line
For many students, learning is not linear. On an assessment, one of the keys to remember is that the first question might not be the best place to start. Sometimes, a student will look at the first question on an assessment and panic, thinking he or she knows nothing. That can derail the rest of the assessment. Instead, students should take a holistic approach, spend some time scanning the entire assessment, and look for a positive entry point where they feel most confident. Similarly, as teachers consider the entry point for learning new material, recognizing that each child may have a different entry point is important, so being multi-modal is critical.
4. Be Visual or Musical
The artist and the musician live inside each student, and tapping into that creative side can unleash the student to learn and acquire knowledge. I can still recall the scene from the 1970s sitcom Happy Days when the musically talented character, Potsie, is trying to study for his biology test. The information is overwhelming him, and he doesn't know where to begin -- until he realizes that putting the vocabulary in the form of a song will help him master the material. Potsie soars from that point on as a student, and the viewer feels his newfound confidence. His teacher can't believe that he actually learned the material, so Potsie proves him wrong by performing the song, "Pump Your Blood."
As educators, we cannot underestimate the sense of being at a loss that some students feel at the outset of a new unit, and even more on assessments that require them to demonstrate mastery.
What strategies have you come up with that help instill confidence in students learning new material and showing mastery on assessments?