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Helping Students Retain and Build on Prior Knowledge

By Nicole Smith — October 12, 2016 5 min read
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I love my students. I get intense satisfaction from seeing a student grasp a new concept for the first time. I like to call that magical moment “teacher catnip.” Every day when I teach, I get the pleasure of seeing students say “I get it” for the first time about a new topic.

However, the day after the “aha moment” is sometimes not so exceptional.

The same young lady who thoroughly explained the last practice problem to her small group yesterday is panicking during today’s warm-up, an extension of yesterday’s topic. We are on day three of the same topic. The young man who high-fived me after he correctly completed his class work early yesterday is looking as confused as a kindergartner in trigonometry class today.

I have spent hours trying to figure out where I went wrong. How did I cause students to forget new skills the moment after they were taught?

I continuously work to teach my 10th graders how to use high-level math skills to model and solve problems. Often, as I’m helping a student grasp a new concept, I find that the current struggle is related to an earlier misunderstanding or knowledge gap. For example, sometimes as I’m teaching how to find points on and model a specific advanced function. I find that the difficulty for my student lies not in understanding the new skills I’ve taught, but in remembering exactly how to plot a point once he or she finds the coordinates.

The Importance of ‘Old Mastery’

Whether it is a student who is struggling with remembering new knowledge or applying old knowledge, the problem is the same. New learning is heavily dependent upon old mastery, and quite often students are unable to access prior knowledge in order to move forward in their learning. Sometimes I start to teach a new topic, and I hear from the back of the room, “I’m not going to get this. I forgot how to add fractions.” Other times I’m focused on trying to help students make connections from last week’s topics and today’s new skill, only to find that some don’t remember last week’s classes at all, and they can’t even find last week’s notes to help them.

It is obvious that my daily informal checks for understanding, coupled with quizzes and tests to force students to study, are not enough to ensure students retain knowledge. Too many of my students are not taking their new skills and incorporating them into the larger body of knowledge encompassed in their brains. I believe a fair number of students do not see my class or other classes as opportunities to grow their minds, but as obstacles to be navigated before receiving a diploma.

If I were to compare the human mind to a computer, a lot of the skills I teach don’t end up in the long-term memory or hard drive of my students’ minds. Rather, they feel free to trash the checklist because they will never have to worry about or see these skills and topics again.

I think that on a big picture level, many of my students have a checklist where they cross off each item they were supposed to learn after cramming the night before a test—and they cross off each grade and course as they complete the courses on the road to graduation. The more I think about it, the deeper the problem becomes. As an educator, it is not my job to simply give my kids the skills to pass the next test. I aim to help them become problem-solvers in other areas of their lives. When students see each course, skill, book, and practice problem as something to be done and then checked off without any further consideration, we have collectively missed the mark.

I don’t have all the solutions to this issue. But I can offer a few ideas of where to start, based on my experiences.

Connect Current Classroom Skills and Topics to Students’ Futures

As we celebrate the daily successes of our kids, let’s also help our students celebrate the ways in which today’s success will help them tomorrow. We can be deliberate in our actions to help students draw connections between how today’s learning helps in tomorrow’s class, in next year’s classes, and in critical thinking for jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities in the future. As a math teacher, I can give at least one example of how the types of problem-solving skills we learned today are used in the real world, and then challenge students to find more examples. Every application or, word problem presented in my class requires students to read and comprehend what information is given and what information is still needed. Students then need to decide how to get the needed information, and after that, they figure out how to use the newly found information to find a solution to the original problem. This type of problem solving has the potential to impact their future professional endeavors.

Make Connections Across Content Areas

We have to be diligent and deliberate in showing students how the combined body of knowledge works together. As students move to higher-level courses, the subject experts become more disconnected in our bodies of knowledge. Therefore, students who are excellent writers feel like they will never use math again. Students who are exceptional in math class feel like the lessons learned in history don’t apply to their lives as future engineers. As a society, we become people who only worry about how new policies, regulations, and discussions affect us personally, without thinking of others with different backgrounds and socioeconomic statuses. Educators can change the dialogue to help our students understand that even if they are stronger in band than science, their understanding of science can help them in life—even as musicians.

Help Students Become Thoughtful Adults

My last bit of advice is to keep the end in mind. Although I teach topics which span the realms of geometry, trigonometry, algebra, and precalculus, my end goal is not to make the students better mathematicians. Ultimately, I hope to help my students become better people. I want them to learn to persevere through life’s tough problems and think outside the box to find solutions to new issues.

My ultimate goal is not for my students to simply pass my class or the standardized exam. My goal is for them to leave me and make the world a little better. If I teach beyond the goal of just passing the course, each of my steps will help my students overcome the checklist mentality. Each day will be filled with the “aha moments” and teacher catnip that support future possibilities.


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