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Total Confusion? What to Do When No One Gets It

Posted by on in What If?
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One of the most frustrating moments in a teacher’s school day can strike without warning. In the midst of a carefully planned lesson, it is possible for even the very best teachers in a school to experience the sinking feeling that happens as soon as they realize that no one is getting it. No one understands the lesson. Students are not learning. Everyone is confused.

This is a very different situation from the scenario where only one or two students appear to be lost. In this larger fiasco, there is a great deal that has gone wrong and that needs to be dealt with immediately. Savvy teachers do all that they can possibly foresee to prevent this, but inevitably it happens to even the most prepared teachers.

One thing is for sure. This is not a situation that can be overlooked. Things need to be fixed and fast.

headacheOne of the first mistakes to avoid is to blame students. Blaming will only waste time. Instead, be creative and calm and diagnose the situation as carefully and as accurately as possible. Ask for your students’ help. Taking a teamwork approach to the problem will convince students that they are capable learners and that the situation is manageable. A teamwork approach will also encourage student ownership of the problem and motivate them to solve it with you.

Here are some further suggestions to help you cope once you realize that many students in your class are struggling with an assignment. While some of these can be implemented at once, some will require a bit more planning. Having a quick back up plan or a change to another part of the day’s lesson may be in order to allow you enough time to think through what you need to do before you involve students.

Offer a choice of assignments that can help students remediate their knowledge. A choice board with five or six different assignments can allow students extra practice without the stigma of feeling as if they failed.

Rotate every student through kinesthetic, auditory, and visual learning assignments so that all students can use their preferred learning styles.

Provide more examples, models, and demonstrations so that all students know exactly what they are to do and learn.

Provide models or examples of the mistakes or missteps that are possible so that students can be aware of them and plan how to avoid them.

Build on what your students already know by showing them how new material relates to what they have already learned. Ask them to share those connections with small group teammates and then with the entire class.

Ask students to diagnose what they find difficult about the lesson. To obtain the specifics that you need, hand out small slips of paper or note cards and ask students to list the problems that they are having. This will usually be more productive than asking students to just share their complaints with the whole group.

Allow students to work with peers in mixed ability groups. Often being able to discuss the work with a peer is all that is needed for understanding.

Consider shortening the assignment so that the basics are covered, but frustrating extra work is not required.

Supply students with support materials such as word banks, graphic organizers, and outlines to make the content more accessible.

Handouts that help students translate parts of the lesson into their own words can be effective as students work through the material. If students have trouble articulating their learning, ask them to work together to express the ideas in other words.

Ask students to draw diagrams, sketch concepts, or make charts of various types to translate the material into meaningful bits of information.

Reteach small parts of the lesson while recording yourself using the video function on your cell phone. Post the video to your class website or to YouTube where students can access it from home. Try to keep these videos under five minutes and be sure that they are tightly focused on only small, manageable parts of the lesson.

Ask students to pause in their work and list three things that they are absolutely sure of. You can share this information easily by first putting students into groups of four or five. Hand each group a sheet of paper and ask one student to record one thing about the lesson that he or she is absolutely sure of. That student passes the paper to the next who repeats the exercise. After the sheet has gone around the group several times, not only will you have a good idea of what they do and do not know, but students will have had an opportunity to share their learning with their peers and to possibly fill in any gaps that they have.

Rethink the concepts that you expect your students to have as prior knowledge. Do they really have these concepts mastered? Check for the prerequisite concepts or skills if you notice students struggling.

Sometimes all that is necessary is more time to complete an assignment.

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Julia Thompson received her BA in English from Virginia Tech and spent the next forty years teaching in Arizona, North Carolina, and Virginia. Recently retired as a classroom teacher, Thompson works for the Bureau of Education and Research conducting seminars geared to help teachers support difficult and challenging students. She is also a contributor/blogger for the American Federation of Teacher's site, ShareMyLesson.com.


Author of several books for teachers, Thompson's most recent book, the fourth edition of The First-Year Teacher's Survival Guide, was published on Teacher Appreciation Day, May 8, 2018, a fitting date for a teacher who spent a lifetime learning from her colleagues both near and far.


Thompson offers advice for teachers on Twitter (@TeacherAdvice), on her blog (www.juliagthompson.blogspot.com) and on her web site (www.juliagthompson.com).

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Guest Monday, 20 August 2018