Summer Series – Understanding Common Learning Challenges

Kim CarterDifferentiated Learning, Learning, Learning Challenges, Teacher Effectiveness, Uncategorized

Welcome to our new summer blog series! Each week we’ll bring you insights into various learning challenges students may face. We’ll start with some of the skills that students must master to be successful in school, discuss the neurodevelopmental factors involved, and look at common obstacles that students may encounter on the road to mastery. We’ll also offer practical strategies that you can use to help students who may be struggling, and hope that you will join colleagues in a dialog about these posts.

Remember: You can also sign up to receive an e-mail each time our blog is updated so the summer series is delivered right to your inbox (look for the Email Subscription box to the right).

We hope you enjoy our summer blog series.

Series Post #1: Attention and Determining What’s Relevant

Students are required to absorb and process a great deal of information in school every day. During any given class, students must attend to information that ranges from detailed facts to complex concepts, to people such as teachers and peers, to instructions and assignments, and to managing the materials necessary in the class.

Neurodevelopmental factors:

A student’s processing controls direct how s/he “takes in” of all of this information. The processing controls of attention specifically help students select which information is most important and then use that information as needed. These controls act as a kind of gatekeeper, facilitating the initial understanding of information before storing it in memory.

The processing controls have five roles:

  1. Determining what information is relevant
  2. Determining how deeply to process information
  3. Figuring out the span of attention required for a particular task
  4. Controlling the extent to which incoming information triggers connections to other information
  5. Ensuring that all information, even that which is only minimally interesting, is processed

Let’s take a look at #1 today – determining what information is relevant.

Here are some signs that a student is competent in determining what’s relevant:

The student …

  • focuses well in class without looking around and/or being distracted by background noises
  • determines what information is needed to solve word problems or study for tests
  • detects the significance of information when summarizing, paraphrasing, and underlining

Here are some signs that a student is struggling with determining what’s relevant:

The student …

  • feels overwhelmed in school due to distraction by sights, sounds, smells, or other stimuli
  • is distracted from what is going on in the present while showing a preoccupation with the past or future
  • is socially distracted, focusing too much on peers

For those of you who like to attach terms to concepts, the process of selecting and thinking about which information stands out or is most important is called saliency determination.

Strategies to help students struggling in this area:

  • Help students use color coding as an effective organizing strategy themselves. For example, a routine can be established in class (e.g., green for main idea, red for details in reading; blue for essential information in math word problems, etc.) that students can integrate into their own note-taking.
  • Have students practice deleting unimportant information in written materials, math and science word problems, etc. Allow students to create their own math and science word problems, in which they insert and delete information, examining the difference between necessary and unnecessary information.
  • Stage tasks (break them into smaller steps) to help students focus on the most salient features (e.g., highlight the symbol [+,-] for a particular math calculation before calculating the answer, highlight the most important information in a math story problem).

We’d love to hear what strategies you’ve used to help students learn how to determine what’s relevant. Leave a comment below with your ideas!

Related Links:

More information and strategies about attending to important information

Research on the processing controls

More information about attention