One the most common challenges in teaching classes of any kind is being faced with a group of students who can differ greatly in their background knowledge and ability level. The natural tendency when this happens is to teach to the middle of the class – which can leave your more advanced students feeling bored and your struggling students feeling overwhelmed on occasion.
If you build scaffolding and extension activities into your lesson plan you can keep your higher level students engaged and prevent your lower level students from becoming overwhelmed. It’s a lot more prep work when planning a class or workshop but it’s worth it to take the extra time going in.
SCAFFOLDING - BRINGING THE LOWER LEVEL STUDENT HIGHER
If you think of all the scaffolding setup around buildings as they are under construction, the name for this technique makes sense. What you are doing is building a platform to raise up your lower level students to a level comparable to your middle or higher level students. There are some basic ways to provide this additional support to your lower level students. The most common are:
We learn better and understand faster if we have some background knowledge about what is being taught or talked about. With advanced prep, you are aiding learning by pre-exposing students to any ideas that may be difficult to initially understand or that they may have never heard of before. You are providing a base-level of knowledge in the area so that students will have something to build upon in class rather than having the class be the first time they are exposed to the content or ideas.
To do this, many people will assign reading or videos ahead of the class that will pre-expose students to the ideas or topics. Some teachers will even give their lower level students a copy of the questions they will be asking at the next session so the students can begin thinking about what their answers should be. If you think, “How can I pre-expose my students to what we will be covering?” you will be on the track for this type of advanced preparation.
Do some prep by using a neon highlighter on your lower level students’ copies of any handouts to show the main points or topic sentences they most need to absorb for comprehension. By highlighting key sentences in the text, you are providing a way for students to quickly scan the text before reading so they know what is most important. You can also prep a copy of the text you will be reading by highlighting any words that are key terms or are needed vocabulary that might cause your lower level student to stumble in some way. You wouldn’t do this for higher level students and you wouldn’t keep doing this even for your lower level students. It’s just an initial way to train them to be able to see what is most important in the text.
If any preparatory text is lengthy or would be difficult to understand, provide a brief summary paragraph in addition to the complete text to your lower level students. This summary allows students to make sure they understood what was read. If they read it in advance of the article or chapter they have been asked to read, it can also aid in their comprehension by giving them some pre-exposure to what they are about to read.
Note Taking Outlines
During class, you can distribute main points note-taking sheets to help your lower level students identify the most important items that you will be covering in the lesson. This can be as simple as making sure your lesson plan is printed and distributed so that students can easily follow along or write their notes under the appropriate topic. You can do this by just listing the heading names for each main point you will be talking about with space for notes underneath. Some teachers provide a more detailed outline so that even the subtopics will be more evident to the students.
These note taking outlines can be as detailed as you feel your students need. Teachers will often turn these into sheets that almost look like tests with blanks and missing words for the students to fill in as they hear them during the lecture.
Hand out a simple true or false pre-test for the key points or facts you most want students to retain from your class. Having the students complete a brief non-graded quiz about what they already know prior to going into the lecture or activities about the topic will put the key points in the back of their mind as they engage with the topic. As you cover items, students will be listening to hear the correct answers to their pre-test questions. Once the lecture or activity is over, review the pre-test and give the correct answer to cement what was learned.
EXTENSION ACTIVITIES - KEEPING THE HIGHER LEVEL STUDENT ENGAGED
In cases where you have students at different levels working at the same time to complete a project or assignment, you should provide some extension activities for your higher level student. Extension activities give your higher level student something to continue to do while the rest of the class is finishing up. Think of the bonus questions some teachers provided at the end of tests when you were in school. These bonus questions were really extension activities. They were a way to keep the higher level students in class occupied while the majority of the class completed the main part of the test.
Adding Additional Activities
You can provide your higher level students with additional questions by attaching bonus questions to an assignment or activity beyond what is required. This is very common to do during discussion activities. Each small group may be expected to talk about and answer 10 questions in the time limit but the handout may also contain two or three additional questions to be discussed if time allows. These additional questions keep your higher level students engaged since they will frequently work through problems faster than the rest of the class.
Using the same distributed questions example, you can leave the number of questions distributed the same but make those questions more complex or have them require a deeper knowledge or skill set than what is in the standard question set. This means that when you hand out work or divide students into groups that you keep the more advanced students together since they will be receiving a different handout than the rest of the class.
As your classroom experience grows, you will find more ways to keep your higher level students challenged and engaged while providing the additional support needed to bring up your lower level students. Of course, you may want to include some of these techniques even if your class doesn’t have a broad range of levels. They are, at their core, just additional ways to plan a class or workshop to ensure the knowledge is retained and the people can get the most out of it.
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