Sandra doesn’t understand why she doesn’t understand. While she is often heard saying, “I don’t get it,” she doesn’t know what she can do to “get it.” Sandra received A’s and B’s in elementary and middle school but things started falling apart in high school. Now that she is a sophomore and her grades are dropping each semester, she’s afraid she won’t be accepted to any colleges. 

Sandra does well in English class when they have vocabulary tests and when she is asked to answer direct questions about a book they have read such as recalling where a character lived or describing a series of events. What Sandra struggles with in English class are any questions or discussions reliant on the understanding of metaphors, symbolism, or types of abstract language (e.g., irony, corruption, altruism).

Sandra had always loved math class until she started algebra. She can spout out the different formulas and equations, but Sandra doesn’t always understand when or why to use them. Word problems are difficult for her if they do not follow the same pattern throughout an assignment. A recent homework problem stated that if a woman invested “some money” at 7% interest compounded annually, how long would it take her to double her money. Sandra couldn’t understand why it didn’t matter how much money the woman had invested, that it was the 7% interest that determined how long it would take to double any amount of money. She didn’t understand the concept of the problem. 

Sandra is taking physics and it is a disaster. She keeps telling her father that her teacher can’t explain anything and she failed a recent open book test because “the answers weren’t there.” Because Sandra didn’t understand the concepts of what she had been taught in class, she couldn’t use the book to help her answer the questions that required making inferences or using formulas in new ways.

Sandra relies on her memory to get through her classes and her teachers report that she has very little grasp of the important ideas in her classes. She does well on tests that only rely on rote memorization, but doesn’t seem to understand things such as the difference between governments in her history class or the relationship between acceleration and velocity in physics. Instead of writing persuasive essays or having a discussion, Sandra would rather read a book and memorize the facts.

The one class Sandra is enjoying is her housing design class. For the end of semester project everyone is designing his or her “dream house” and Sandra has spent hours working on her design on the computer. Sandra also loves to chat with her friends on the Internet. She has a number of close friends and if her father would let her, she would spend all night talking to her friends either online or on the phone.

Sandra most recent progress report revealed that she had not handed in most of her homework assignments. When asked why she hadn’t done the assignments, Sandra replied, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do, and when I think I do, I don’t do it the right way, so why bother.” 

Sandra’s teachers and father are worried. Sandra used to talk about going to college to become a teacher, but now she doesn’t think she’ll ever get in. When asked why she thinks she doesn’t understand ideas and information in her classes, Sandra replied, “I guess I’m just dumber than everyone else.”


  • Memory for facts
  • Gets along well with peers
  • Computer skills


  • Teaching
  • Computers
  • Design

Areas in Need of Improvement:

  • Understanding figurative language, metaphors, analogies, and symbolic words
  • Understanding concepts
  • Completing homework assignments

Possible Management Plan:

It helps that Sandra understands that she doesn’t understand. Thinking about her own thinking will help Sandra come up with strategies to improve her understanding. Stress that Sandra is not “dumb” and that a lot of very successful people struggled in school. Sandra should be taught what the concept of a concept is and that concepts allow people to organize ideas or issues. Sandra should be told that she has a great memory and that can help her as she works to not just remember new ideas and information, but to understand it as well.

The first step in management is a discussion with Sandra about the reasons behind some of her difficulties in understanding, and the resulting academic struggles. It is important to make Sandra aware of her strengths and areas in need of improvement, as well as to instill a sense of optimism for improvement. Development of a management plan may include a balance of accommodations and interventions, as well as an integration of Sandra’s strengths and affinities.

Leveraging Strengths and Affinities:

  • Have Sandra work as a tutor or mentor with a younger student where she must explain information to them, such as how to solve a fraction.
  • Sandra could design her own concept maps using the computer. She could use a software program to produces a graphic representation of an outline.

Accommodations and Interventions:

  • Help Sandra understand the concept of a concept. Have Sandra practice organizing words and concepts based on similarities and differences. Provide Sandra and her classmates with a general concept and have her list examples and non-examples under that concept, working from the abstract and general to more concrete and specific.
  • Introduce Sandra to each new concept at the start of each lesson, chapter, and unit. Outlines, semantic maps, tables, and visual images will help her to organize information. 
  • Have Sandra use multiple mental representations of information. For example, she could use her strengths of memorizing the information, but also visualize and verbalize the information as well. Other forms of representation might include using hands-on experiences and developing metaphors or analogies of her own.
  • Try to find out what helps Sandra best understand a concept. She may benefit from using language and visual representations. She may need practice paraphrasing information and explaining it to others. Have Sandra review with a peer or parent including discussing whatever key concepts her class is currently learning. Sandra should be encouraged to talk about these concepts in her own words. 
  • Sandra should practice identifying patterns in math problems. For example, in the interest rate question where the woman invested “some money,” Sandra could solve the problem with the woman investing $1000, $1500, and other amounts until she begins to see the pattern that the investment will double no matter what amount is put into the equation.
  • To understand concepts in physics class, Sandra could be given a sheet of paper with the word problems on the left side and formulas written on the right side of the page. Sandra could underline and identify which pieces of information are in the word problems (i.e., underlining and writing “Vo” next to the information about velocity in the problem). As she finds all of the pieces of information that she needs to insert into the formula, she can begin to understand how the formula can be used with different information. Sandra could also be graded on different stages of this type of assignment, giving her credit for knowing the formulas, identifying the information to insert in the formula, as well as for applying the formulas.