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Accelerating Learning Guide: 5 Strategies for Moving Students Forward

Matthew Woods headshot

Matthew Woods, Contributing Collaborator
Matthew Woods currently serves as the Director of Student Support Services for Henry County Public Schools, Virginia. He previously held positions as a principal and as a teacher in the district, as well as an administrator and professor in Georgia and Roanoke City Public Schools.

Whether a student, teacher, principal, or superintendent, being in education right now is tough. Over the past year, educators have been focused on their students’ overall well-being and striving to evolve their practices to support students while challenges like engagement and remediation loom overhead. But as these issues have become more prevalent, so too have strategies and innovative approaches to accelerating learning.

“Acceleration, Not Remediation”

Accelerating learning is not a new concept, but it is facing a new urgency in the realm of K-12 education. Rapid changes in and out of school and increased complexity in instruction and its delivery have demanded that many reevaluate their tried-and-true methods to ensure every student has an uninterrupted learning experience.

Several of my colleagues around the country have been discussing what it means to have a student who’s actually engaged and what it means to have a student who’s compliant and coming to school. We may have a student who’s showing up to Zoom classes and nodding their head, but they’re not showing up academically. But then we have other kids who aren’t showing up for us on camera but they’re excelling. It’s making us rethink what are we really doing and what can we do better? Are we holding kids hostage with Zoom calls or are we trying to promote learning in a way that’s best for the student?

Matthew Woods, Director of Student Support Services for Henry County, VA

This is where we need “acceleration, not remediation.”1 Rather than trying to remediate students who are falling behind by reteaching or lowering expectations, students are immersed in concepts through strategies and supports that help them catch up to their peers, develop a deeper understanding of academic subjects, and still meet rigorous, required learning standards.

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5 Key Pillars of Accelerating Learning

Many studies and practices around accelerating learning revolve around steps outlined in a 2014 ASCD publication, Learning in the Fast Lane by Suzy Pepper Rollins. In it, Rollins explains that acceleration provides a fresh academic start for students every week and creates opportunities for struggling students to learn alongside their peers. By selecting the right content and focusing on the right goals, it’s possible to prepare all students for the future while “plugging a few critical holes from the past.”

We’ve evaluated these steps from ASCD, weighed them against the current needs and challenges, and talked to school and district leaders to deliver an updated list of five key pillars:

1.
Prime Emotion & Spark Student Curiosity

2.
Establish Clear Learning Goals & Continually Check for Understanding

3.
Scaffold to Build Background Knowledge While Focusing on Grade-Level Content

4.
Make Learning Accessible for All Students

5.
Foster a Culture of Collaborative Learning

Prime Emotion & Spark Student Curiosity

“Now is the perfect time to center on why schools are important,” says Woods. “We know what we are trying to do, and we know how to do it, but why should students and families care?”

That is the main question behind this first step in accelerating learning. If we don’t spark students’ interest or properly set the stage for new material, then what’s going to motivate them? Especially in remote environments where that motivation is essential. Woods continues, “Many of our students (and families) do not feel engaged, nor see the priority to participate. There are many reasons why that is the case, but it still begs the burning question: How long have they truly felt this way? While it is easy for us to defer under the mindset that the displacement and uncertainty of events has led to students being disengaged, there are small pockets where some educators and schools are finding success.”

Many of these educators and schools are finding that success with students who are positioned to become self-learners with teacher facilitation. Accordingly, a crucial aspect of the acceleration model is putting key prior knowledge into place so that students have something to connect new information to.1 We need to promote learning based on student needs, on their preferences and interests whenever possible, to encourage a student-centered mindset where they have the ability and the urge to guide themselves through new concepts. Rather than focusing on everything students don’t know or relying on traditional lecture-based methods, educators must thoughtfully select specific prior knowledge that will best help students grasp the upcoming standard as they investigate new concepts more independently. Whether that’s introducing students to a Virtual Field Trip, aligning lessons to news and current events, or using targeted strategies and real-world connections like those in the Keeping You Connected to Curiosity series.

Establish Clear Learning Goals & Continually Check for Understanding

Explicit, student-friendly learning expectations are essential. Without specific goals, students can lose sight of the purpose of learning and class can become a blur of rote questions and exercises rather than a logical progression of learning that leads to an important goal.1 By providing specific learning expectations and multiple ways for students to demonstrate their understanding, learners can explore a concept creatively while working toward a clearly defined goal on track with standards. Options like online assessments, collaborative online boards, dynamic presentations, or even self-made videos can better engage students in ways that fit their skills or strengths.

Similarly, clear and consistent feedback is necessary to support and monitor student progress while helping them reflect on their learning. “With the old school method,” says Woods, “students would hand in a paper or quiz and then the teacher returns it in a few days. Now, with platforms like Discovery Education, feedback is almost simultaneous because it’s built in. Students are thinking through their work, reflecting on their learning more, and getting responses to their answers almost right away.”

Scaffold to Build Background Knowledge While Focusing on Grade-Level Content

After this second step, ASCD emphasizes the need to briefly move backward to address deficits that present a barrier to learning the new standard. Still not remediation, but more so evaluating what’s missing for them to master the concept and then providing scaffolded support to make it happen. It could be as simple as strategic “cheat sheets” or a visualization of important concepts.

However, it’s critical for instructors to keep students immersed in grade-level content when providing this extra practice. According to a 2020 McKinsey report, rather than meeting students where they are, recent research from the New Teacher Project suggests that well-intentioned approaches that pull students out of grade-level instruction to “reteach” earlier content can reinforce low expectations and create vicious cycles of underachievement. The better approach is for educators to provide exposure to grade-level content while scaffolding students with “just-in-time support” and contextualization.2

Make Learning Accessible for All Students

Accessibility and creating equitable learning experiences are gaining more attention because they present challenges that have been exacerbated by the pandemic as well as recent events and civil unrest. They’re also intrinsically linked to accelerating learning—how can we reach and support vulnerable and underrepresented students?

Teachers know their students. They know what each student needs to be successful, and we are try our best to meet those needs. When teachers dive deep into content and planning, they find meaningful content in ways to create engaging learning experiences. Teachers try their best to provide equitable experiences to students whether it is one-on-one instruction, small group instruction, extra resources to help at home, and more.

Denise Henry-Orndoff, Instructional Technology Coach for Frederick County Public Schools, VA

Additionally, tools like those available within Discovery Education can also prove helpful, including:

  • Immersive Reader functions within Studio, our collaborative authoring tool.
  • Transcripts and closed captions for audio or video content.
  • Enhanced text features like read-aloud, page ruler, and masking functions.
  • Multimodal content options, such as audio, text, video, images and interactive tools.
  • Language and translation options for digital resources.

While more complex conversations are still needed around flexible/extended class times or physical device or internet access for remote learners, this starts us on the right path to designing more equitable experiences for all.

Foster a Culture of Collaborative Learning

Fostering a culture of collaborative learning can ensure educators succeed in serving their students and communities. Teachers need to be a trusted confidant for students, whether they’re interacting in class or at a distance. Educators need to have opportunities to interact with other educators to find actionable strategies and expand their professional learning. Leaders need to open lines of communication with families and teachers and keep them open.

“One of the things that’s working well is treating students with respect, creating that safe space—virtual or in class—and focusing on social and emotional learning (SEL)”, says Woods. “How we honor kids is more important than anything else. I’ve always believed that, but COVID has shown us that our relationships with our kids and their families is invaluable to our success and the success of our students.

“If we all pause and think about our favorite teacher in school, the next question we ask ourselves is how did they make us feel? We go back to that emotional connection. Black or white, male or female, whatever grade content, they were able to tap into our potential and spark our interest, respect us, and make us feel empowered. And COVID is really bringing that to light. This is one of the reasons some kids and teachers are actually thriving right now.”

Students desperately need community, connection, and opportunities to make up what they have lost. Using strategies and content that focus on accelerating learning help ensure that all our students continue to grow and develop, no matter the circumstance.

Woods leaves us with this, “Sometimes we have to take alternative routes to get to the same destination. Focus your school’s purpose on those immediate wins and the buy-in and support will come. This is not to say there won’t be bumps and bruises along the way, it just reinforces the trust all parties have in one another to do the right thing and work together towards the same pre-established goal—the well-being of our kids.”

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1From “Acceleration: Jump-Starting Students Who Are Behind,” by Suzy Pepper Rollins, 2014, Learning in the Fast Lane. ASCD.

2From “COVID-19 and learning loss–disparities grow and students need help,” by Emma Dorn, Bryan Hancock, Jimmy Sarakatstannis, and Ellen Viruleg, 2020. McKinsey & Company.