On getting it right the first time

We often tell students to just do things right the first time. Especially where tests, quizzes, and hand-in assignments are concerned, getting it right, we say, is important. However, guided practice and ongoing help (scaffolding) is necessary for students – particularly for those students who aren’t particularly motivated or skilled – to develop the habits and the mindset that will allow them to get things right when the time comes.

Fear inhibits learning – so as we prepare students for getting things right, we also have to diminish the risk factor as much as possible. These strategies can assist in working with the brain to harness new information and learn new skills – so that when it’s time to get it right, students have the best opportunity possible to do so.

1. Provide many hands-on activities. Allow students to actually “do” their discipline, as recommended by Wiggins and McTighe. When students actually use math to build a to-scale project (virtually or hands on) when they use history to defend a stance in a debate, or when they use reading to inform their character’s actions in a role-play, the discipline comes alive and has more meaning. Students who do their discipline can discover the flaws in their thinking and actions through natural consequences. These consequences, which are similar to the consequences we encounter in real-life, are reinforcing. Students will self-adjust so that their basic skills allow them to do the more authentic task required.

2. Provide opportunities for conversation and interaction. Students who plan their performances  – such as building, strategies for debate, or plots for role-play – with others have a chance to break down their thinking and make it visible. This is vital to uncovering misconceptions. Allowing students to plan together, and work through the impact the performance (whatever it is) will have allows the strength of all students to come through. Even students at the highest levels will benefit from having to explain their thinking – and even students whose strengths don’t lie in the basics can contribute to creativity, entertainment value and logistics for the performance.  ***Score the group work according to individual contributions NOT according to the overall group performance. Use a good process rubric that students can complete to assist in this task. Conference with the group if necessary to verify each group member’s contribution.

3. Systematize your formative feedback: Even though formative feedback isn’t for a grade, it counts a great deal toward student success and skills development. Conferencing with students to determine what they understand, and to correct misconceptions is very effective. Another way to provide formative feedback is through a journal, in which students reflect on their work and learning for the day, and you respond. Certainly with technology it is more efficient than ever to give feedback in a written or audio manner. I have students submit parts of large projects for written, audio or video feedback. The bigger and more complex the project, the more I “chunk” the project so that I can give feedback in small parts that can be adjusted so that the whole project is of quality.

There are times that students have to get things right the first time; however, the learning process should be as risk free as possible, so that students stretch, try new things, and experiment with new learning, until they can get it right. I hope these strategies will assist you in making sure that all students have the opportunity to learn and improve to their fullest capabilities prior to those one-shot experiences.

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